T‑ball and Mac

August 72014.
W/​S, NC

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It is Oct 262013.
It is a crisp, clear Sat­ur­day morn­ing. I am at the Clem­mons YMCA, lean­ing against the chain-link fence, look­ing at the t‑ball field and watch­ing the kids take their posi­tions to play. The pitch, and the ball is hit hard. It’s a fast grounder, a real daisy-cut­ter, and nor­mal­ly it will shoot pass two or three kids, but instead there is an audi­ble gasp from the crowd. What’s hap­pened is that the ball has smacked straight into the glove of the pitch­er and everyone—parents, team­mates and the pitcher—is momen­tar­i­ly stunned. The pitch­er has got­ten down hard to trap the ball, shut­ting it down and after tak­ing a sec­ond to real­ize he’s caught the ball, smooth­ly turns to throw the ball to the 1st base­man, who is still look­ing to the out­field to see where the ball went but turns around in time to catch the ball. An out at first. It’s such a clean­ly field­ed ball that anoth­er dad grins and says to me, “Was that your kid?” and I smile back, sur­prised, “Yeah. It is.”

I’m proud which sur­pris­es me because I’ve nev­er had much inter­est in sports and nev­er under­stood the fanati­cism. It’s nev­er made sense to me because there are more impor­tant things, and yet I can feel the sur­prise on my face and my wide smile spread­ing fur­ther and I think, “My kid did this?”

It is April 212012.
I am watch­ing Mac who is lit­er­al­ly lost on the soc­cer field. The scrum of kids chase the ball, mov­ing up and down the soc­cer field, except for Mac who is root­ed to the ground, faced screwed up in a gri­mace, eyes squeezed shut at the chaos sur­round­ing him. Jenn and I exhort him to just chase the ball like the oth­er kids at which point he wan­ders off the field, inter­mit­tent­ly try­ing to snag pass­ing but­ter­flies or kneel­ing down to pick up clumps of grass and dirt. When this hap­pens, I feel he’s in a glass-bowl, com­plete­ly cut off, inca­pable of com­mu­ni­cat­ing to oth­ers kids or to us. There is only so much yelling you can do before the oth­er par­ents start star­ing and none of the yelling ever helps. Ever.

Because I am co-coach­ing, I focus on the rest of the kids play­ing, try­ing to keep Mac in my periph­ery, mak­ing sure he does not wan­der com­plete­ly out of sight. After the game, I look for Mac and see him stand­ing under a tree hold­ing some­thing out to me. It is a four-leaf clover and he tells me he picked it just for me. That day, April 21,2012, I remem­ber clear­ly think­ing how the hell did he find a four-leaf clover on the field with the game going on all around him?

It is Sept 142013.
It’s Sat­ur­day, mid-morning.
I am with Jack and Scar­lett who have just fin­ished tak­ing their team pho­tos and we are now walk­ing back to the t‑ball field. As we approach the field, I notice that Jenn is hold­ing her­self too still. I get clos­er and I hear anoth­er mom say,“Just look away,” to Jenn. “Just look away and stay calm,” she repeats.

Oh-oh.

Mac is hav­ing a titan­i­cal­ly bad day. Mac has been told he can’t play with his toy, because it is his turn to bat. At home plate, he is not look­ing at the pitch­er but instead is look­ing back at the dugout, straight at Jenn. He has a tremen­dous scowl on his face that would be com­ic but here it’s trag­ic because his whole team is cheer­ing him to hit the ball. He “swings” at the ball and miss­es. How to describe his swings: They con­vey mul­ti­ple atti­tudes most of which I can’t put in print. They don’t belong on a sev­en-year old, let alone a sev­en­teen-year old. If there is a way to swing a bat in the most I’m‑not-going-to-even-attempt-to-hit-the-ball-despite-the-entire-team-rooting-me-on way, he does it, four times in a row before they bring up the tee.

He con­tin­ues to look at Jenn and then bash­es the tee, knock­ing it down. He does this at least five to sev­en times and just keeps star­ing at Jenn. There is noth­ing that we can do to change his mood or make him play like the oth­er kids. Jenn is so mor­ti­fied that Mac has ground the game to a halt she is ready to com­mit fil­i­cide. She is seething. As soon as she sees me she tells me, “You need to take over. I need to walk away.”

I go up to try to calm him, but Mac acci­den­tal­ly hits the ball and pro­ceeds to run, so slow it feels like he is going back­wards. You can lit­er­al­ly read this para­graph faster than Macon­nell can run to first base. And so with every­one, his team­mates, coach­es, and par­ents encour­ag­ing him on to first base, he quits mid­way and schlumps to the dugout. He has not heard any­thing any­one has said to him, nor appears to care, and noth­ing can be done. Mer­ci­ful­ly, he is the last bat­ter and so the team takes to the field.

It gets no bet­ter. He is placed between 1st and 2nd base and of course all the balls seem to be hit right at him. He is cov­er­ing his face with his glove, stand­ing back­wards most of the time. If he is fac­ing the bat­ter, he will just stare ahead as balls roll right by his foot; a few times adults have to retrieve the balls that pass him. Clin­i­cal­ly he looks retard­ed and spas­tic on the field, refus­ing to do any­thing on the field, appear­ing to have seri­ous, psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems. The behav­ior is dis­tress­ing­ly odd, unex­plained and inex­plic­a­ble to me. He looks men­tal­ly ill. It’s the worst thing to see. Jenn want­ed to pull him out of the game and take him home and right now so do I. But again the mom says, “keep calm.”

I go through sev­er­al philoso­phies of child-rear­ing in those few min­utes watch­ing Mac. Mac’s behav­ior is the rea­son cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment was invent­ed and it is the rea­son it is banned. To his cred­it, when Mac real­izes Jenn has walked away furi­ous, he slow­ly gets his head on straight and fin­ish­es the rest of the game, some field­ing, some bat­ting with­out theater.

I think back to soc­cer episodes, the cata­to­nia on the fields, his per­plex­i­ty on the play­ground with oth­er kids and I have to remind myself we did decide soc­cer just was­n’t his thing and that we had picked t‑ball because he seemed to enjoy it. At least with t‑ball, the dif­fer­ence was notice­able. Although com­plete­ly befud­dled and con­fused by the rules and still wan­der­ing around the field, pick­ing up and/​or kick­ing dirt, he did not stand out to be any worse or ini­tial­ly more dis­con­nect­ed than any of the oth­er kids. Oh sure there were a cou­ple kids who had watched their old­er sib­lings play and knew how to throw a ball and where to stand, but he was, sad to say, not the worst kid out there. I noticed one or two oth­er kids who—inconceivably—were actu­al­ly worse than Mac on the field. I can not stress to you how bad I feel to say that this fact gave me hope.

It is Sept 28,2013.
Out of the blue, an hon­est-to-good­ness play occurs when Mac fields the ball. And then with every­one cheer­ing, he throws the ball which is caught by the base­man and the bat­ter is thrown out at first. I’m sure it’s hap­pened before but this is the first time I’ve real­ly seen it.

Think­ing back, it must have hap­pened slow­ly over the t‑ball sea­sons. At first, lit­tle kids walk­ing onto the field, like chicks new­ly-born to the world, uncer­tain and unsteady, not under­stand­ing what they were sup­posed to Be/​Do. Some­times not even leav­ing the dugout, not leav­ing mom. I remem­ber watch­ing the kids step­ping out on the field for the first time, plac­ing them­selves in no rela­tion to the lines or bases of the dia­mond, and the coach­es pick­ing them up and set­ting them down in posi­tion like bowl­ing pins.

With more prac­tice, more time, the kids grav­i­tate to posi­tions that give an open view of the bat­ter and the oncom­ing ball. Dur­ing that time, if there was any con­scious action, it is group think, every­one swarm­ing every hit ball, a massed heap of cleats, gloves and hats. Most of the time, the balls scoot past them as they look for mom or dad in the bleachers.

They grow a lit­tle. They get out on the field faster, but still with no direc­tion, like dan­de­lion flo­rets blown across the field. They learn more. Begin to under­stand that the ball is going to be hit to them and they are to fetch it. They now occa­sion­al­ly stay at their assigned posi­tions. As the ball gets hit again and again, you start see­ing pat­terns of famil­iar­i­ty of what base­ball is sup­posed to look like: kids no longer col­lid­ing and smash­ing in a free-for-all to get the ball, instead you see kids back­ing each oth­er up, balls being thrown in the direc­tion of the basemen.

As the weeks and months (years?!?) go by, I see more glimpses and sug­ges­tions of cohe­sion, of orga­ni­za­tion as the team resem­bles a team. Kids man­i­fest them­selves in small and dis­tinct ways: this one always tak­ing an extra two steps to throw a ball, anoth­er always wig­gling their wrist before the windup, lit­tle tics already dis­tin­guish­ing them­selves, nigh clones in their hats and uni­forms, only the names and num­bers dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing them at this age, height and build not near­ly so dis­parate as it will lat­er become.

And like the team, Mac is trans­form­ing in front of me. His ran­dom­ness of Thought&Action now less so and more direct­ed to the ball’s motion, the posi­tions of the oth­er play­ers and the run­ner. For a few sec­onds, you see all of them mov­ing in con­cert, syn­chronic­i­ty of thought then action. All these mar­velous­ly com­plex sys­tems, align­ing just so, requir­ing tol­er­ances of a few mil­lime­ters at best to allow actions in the right order with the right tim­ing. Until one day (Sept 28,2013) the ball is hit and Mac crouch­es and the ball runs true into his glove and he throws it to first while the base­man is not look­ing away. Because the ball is thrown in the more-than-gen­er­al vicin­i­ty of the 1st base­man’s glove, and because among oth­er things, the wind has died down and the Cori­o­lis effect is mild, the ball is caught and then not dropped and the bag is tagged, and because all this occurs before the bat­ter can run to first, the bat­ter is thrown out at first. QED

To see ran­dom­ness become ordered, chaos trans­formed into a play at first, to see Mac play in and with a team—and to remem­ber what was the case before—is as close to see­ing a mir­a­cle as I will get. It is rev­e­la­to­ry only to me. These tiny mir­a­cles of t‑ball occur hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands of times on beatif­ic Sat­ur­day morn­ings. They go unre­marked on except in the minds of par­ents who’ve nev­er seen their kids per­form in ways unex­pect­ed and unan­swered until then. Even the first time I saw Mac run—really run the bases—was a sim­ple joy. Yeah, it’s mun­dane, even maudlin, but these lit­tle mir­a­cles aris­ing out of strewn and scat­tered kids on a base­ball field can be seen only once, before it gets nor­mal­ized and lost. No longer to be looked on in won­der or in awe, they become com­mon­place, neglect­ed mir­a­cles, because you for­get this was­n’t always so.

I am not kid­ding when I tell you it is a rev­e­la­tion to watch Mac play. For a long time I’ve have strug­gled to under­stand Macon­nell. Not just in base­ball, but in most all things. I could not under­stand the what or the why. He was a mess of dots that would not con­nect for me. I’d read my notes and make no sense of them; it’s why I’ve writ­ten very lit­tle about Mac. At some point I made the hard real­iza­tion that he could not be put into a neat­ly labeled box and I would need to stop try­ing to ana­lyze and cat­e­go­rize him, before I drove both of us nuts.

But of course, I could­n’t because of the four-leaf clovers. Mac’s lack of atten­tion to almost every­thing just didn’t jibe with his fan­tas­tic abil­i­ty to find qua­tre­foils, until I read about how some peo­ple have such a facility:
From an August 5th, 2010 NPR segment:

Ms. PRAETORIUS: I think most peo­ple don’t look, thats the inter­est­ing thing. Because if you see some­body who’s lucky or — in some way it seems like luck is just this ran­dom thing thats stream­ing through that some peo­ple inter­cept and, you know, oth­er peo­ple just don’t. But I guess I think its a lit­tle bit more like the peo­ple them­selves are actu­al­ly engag­ing or inter­cept­ing that luck.

SHAPIRO: For Prae­to­rius, the four-leaf clovers of the world are like lit­tle mir­rors, reflect­ing back to her a sense that shes on the right path, that she’s mak­ing her own luck and cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. Just before we part­ed ways, she gave me a four-leaf clover as big as my nose.

So then I got to won­der how exact­ly he is find­ing these four-leaf clovers: of course he is look­ing for them, but I’m look­ing for them too. The dif­fer­ence is he is see­ing them. But, what is it that he sees that I’m not see­ing? The sim­ple answer is he sees the clovers, but the com­pli­cat­ed answer is also that he sees the clovers. He lit­er­al­ly sees the world in a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent way; the world must present to him vast­ly dif­fer­ent than it does to me. And so, some things start to make sense. I’d be star­ing at the grassy fields too, if they were cov­ered in four-leaf clovers, instead of just look­ing like smudged browns and greens. But for him, I sup­pose it’s like see­ing a field full of east­er eggs just for you. If this was case, I’d be dys­func­tion­al­ly dis­tract­ed, unaware of other’s or their cares. Some­thing in me starts to calm and exhale. You see, there’s been a long grow­ing unease and I’ve only recent­ly put my fin­ger on it and that is the worry—that all par­ents have—for and wish that our kids find a place in the world. I know for some of us, it’s been a very tight, ill-fit­ting squeeze and for oth­ers, an accep­tance from the world has yet to arrive.

See­ing him find those clovers and learn­ing that he can not only func­tion but grow in t‑ball makes me relax a lit­tle. I need not try to so hard; let Mac show me who he is. Just like an autos­tero­gram that is just a mess of dots until you learn to quit look­ing and let it snap into focus show­ing you dol­phins leap­ing. Mac is pre­sent­ing him­self to me and the World as best he can. Some­times I’ll be able to see what he is show­ing and then won­der what more is to come and what I’ve already missed. But maybe and prob­a­bly, he’s so com­plex that I’ll nev­er tru­ly under­stand him but now I real­ize that’s ok because Mac’s going to be OK; he is mak­ing his way in the world what­ev­er that may be. My real work is to accept it and him.

It is Oct 26,2013.
It is the last day of the t‑ball season.
Mac is up to bat again, his third time at the plate. He’s two for two with base hits and this is his last at-bat for the sea­son. I am watch­ing him with a ridicu­lous grin on my face as he makes anoth­er base hit. Three-peat! Only your kid can give you this felic­i­ty of spir­it. I hope not to for­get it. What’s even bet­ter is see­ing Mac beam­ing as he runs the bases home.

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