MAYBE IT WAS the boy who steamed into second with a stand-up double, called for time, un-Velcroed his Kevlar elbow shield, summoned the first base coach to retrieve it, then waited for play to resume ... after hitting off a tee.
Perhaps it was the hoops coach who told the girls to dribble out the last two minutes of the game, four-corners-style, the better to preserve a ... 4--2 win. (Sure, 10 bewildered second-graders stood around doing nothing, but the coach was now one win closer to Mike Krzyzewski's record.)
Or did the epiphany arrive at another game, in another sport, when the spectator next to me, at noon on a Saturday, idly cracked open a cold Bud Light, on the grounds that "It's five o'clock somewhere," and also, "It's not a sixth-grade softball tournament somewhere."
In the end, who can say exactly when I stopped letting youth sports give me an ulcer and learned instead to love everything about them, to see the beauty in all its purple mouth guard majesties, above the fruited plain?
Most likely, it was when the child umpire, dropped off by his mom, watched a ball slowly roll four feet foul to the left of third base before nervously blurting—inexplicably but irreversibly—"Fair ball!" The conspiracy of silence that followed among spectators, coaches and players was inspiring, as everyone pretended the young ump had nailed it. This is the definition of a civil society.
And so I've come to embrace the grown-up basketball refs who make cellphone calls during fast breaks. I've grown to admire the sporting goods--industrial complex that keeps our kids forever in need of new bats, sticks and helmets, to say nothing of the sunflower seed, bubblegum and Airhead industry that makes one wonder if every dugout in America, every league in the nation is deep in the pocket of Big Saliva.
As a parent, I love all the other parents, in their folding chairs, on their accordion bleachers—the knitters, the iPhone gazers, the crossword puzzlers and novel readers, the silent-stewers, the shouters, the pacers, the too-nervous-to-look types. After a weekend of 11 AAU girls' basketball games, we stagger out of the gym and go blinking, astonished, into a sunlit world, as if stumbling from a casino, no clocks in evidence, save the one on the scoreboard.
At a nephew's football game replete with cheerleaders, halftime show, PA music, pink socks for breast-cancer awareness and souvenir sweatshirts in the merchandise tent, the obvious question is why these seven-year-olds are trying to emulate professionals when we'd all be better served by the pros emulating seven-year-olds.
There is still much to chap the bleacher-ravaged ass of the Little League parent, not least the isolated applause I heard this spring at the missed free throw of a 10-year-old. But youth sports have given us many more things that are easy to love. Consider the astonishment yielding to joy when a girl scored her first ever basket and leaped, Yogi Berra--style, into the arms of her nearest teammate, her opponents' ensuing 5-on-3 fast break be damned.
Or the horrified pitcher who accidentally hit a batter then sprinted to his aid as the first responder, in a reverse of the usual baseball scenario: Call it charging the plate.
So here's to the baseball and softball players, toiling in cages like factory-farmed chickens; the etiolated hockey players, raised without sunlight; the soccer and tennis players, literally in their separate bubbles all winter. Whatever lessons they're learning probably aren't the ones we've imagined.
The other day my eight-year-old son returned from a baseball game in which he pitched and, without warning, vomited volcanically. He'd only recently learned that pitchers were sometimes called hurlers. "We had one game," he said, suddenly brightening, "but I hurled twice."
In the last minutes of every basketball game, the clock stops two dozen times when you wish it would just run. But soon enough these games will be over. Life, it turns out, is running time. If only a whistle could stop the clock.
Who can say exactly when I stopped letting youth sports give me an ulcer and learned instead to see the beauty in all its purple mouth guard majesties?
What do you love about youth sports?
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