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At t-ball, as tender as we can be

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I had a first last Friday night. When I pulled into Gaunt Park around 6:25 p.m. for our 6:30–8 p.m. evening of Perry League t-ball, there was not a soul in sight. Not a child on the diamond. Not a parent in the bleachers. Not a car in the parking lot.

It had rained off and on all day, at times quite hard, reminding me of “the old days” of t-ball, before they dug up the diamond to sink 3-foot diameter pipes that ran from the infield of the small diamond to South College Street. They were installed to drain the water off the diamonds when it poured like this. Before the pipes, every decent rainstorm left us with some absolutely wonderful, often giant-sized, mud puddles in the infield. Little lakes around second base. A small basin running from first to second base. Magic eight-foot-diameter puddles next to third. Which we Perry Leaguers reveled in, many of us, kids and adults alike, marching right into and through those babies, many of us stopping halfway across to simply plop right down in ‘em.

As I pined away, yearning for a good mud puddle, my co-coordinator Jason Newsome showed up. And then the children came soon afterward. By the time we ran to the outfield for our warm up exercises, there were 14 or 15 kids. When we wrapped up and ran back to the diamonds, we were 25 or 26 strong.

The great coach and loving dad, Jeff Jones, is back. He works with Jason Newsome coaching the bigger kids on the bigger diamond. His daughter Mya, 6, is one of those bigger kids. She leans forward, looks you dead in the eye and it’s Hollywood time again; as fair and lovely as a summer rose and a whale of a baseball player to boot.

Jen Bryant, with her two little ones, Elliot Priest, 4, and Miles Bryant, 9, has become one of our champion first-class ace-volunteer bench coaches, working with me on the smaller diamond with the smaller kids. She keeps track of who’s been to bat, gets every kid’s name, sends them to our on-deck coach (or doubles as the on-deck coach as she did Friday night), and then feeds the little darlings to me at the plate, making sure I have their names. She also makes a valiant effort to ensure that the kids in the field get to come in to bat, that we switch often enough so every kid gets a chance to bat and run as well as catch and throw. (We miss you, Pat Partee — you were so good at this.)

Charlie Bunton is back, too, this summer with his grandson, three-year-old Elijah Yelton, who is a definite boy. Definite as in resolute. As in bound and determined. As in earnest, single-minded, unflappable. And quite wonderfully mysterious.

“Want to hit the ball?” I say.

“Yes,” he answers and does nothing. He says, “Yes,” and then simply stares at me, his bright, sky blue eyes sparkling.

He does not swing. He doesn’t even look at the ball. It is a mystery. This beautiful boy, he just stands at the plate, the tee about as tall as he is, doing nothing. His eyes flash and sparkle. He is jubilant, fairly bursting with happiness. But he does nothing. He just waits. Silently. He is not unhappy or impatient. He simply is.

Charlie, the grandfather, steps in behind him, surrounding the boy with his arms and body the way a cowl surrounds a monk’s head. He means to help the boy lift his bat, hit the ball. Elijah, however, does not want this assistance. He tries to shake his granddad off, clearly preferring to do it, whatever “it” is, by himself.

And you see this over and over again, this tremendous, spontaneous, seemingly natural desire in each child to do it himself, to do it herself. The assertion of self. Its power and purity; it is not mean or vindictive, it is not against anyone or anything. It is just for itself.

Yes, I can. Yes, I will. Just let me. In my own way, on my own time. Okay?

Nevaeh Smith, 5, says, after I raved about how fast she is, “I am faster than my sister.” Shaylee, who is 8, who plays both t-ball and little league.

Faster than Shaylee? I don’t know, but Neveah is fast. It takes your average 3–5 year old a minute, a minute-and-a-half, 60–90 seconds, to traverse all four bases. With a distraction — which is a toddler’s middle name — that minute, minute-and-a-half jog can become five minutes, ten minutes, or even an hour: in fact, we have some kids who head for first and never come back (we find them later, of course). But with Nevaeh, a speed demon and great beauty, she makes it around those bases, she covers that 160 feet, in less than 30 seconds! Now that’s fast.

Evan Sluss, 3, is a vibrant, high-energy fielder and a terrific hitter. Evan hit a couple home runs, scooped up 4,444,444 ground balls, throwing, or just as often, carrying that ball back to me at home plate — being kind and considerate, thank you.

Lily Knopp, 3, does this, too, coming at you with a ball gripped in each fist. There’s a graciousness in her giving, those balls precious objects — she’s like a princess offering you a magic apple, or two, on an embroidered, silk pillow, and when I take them from her, I feel honored, like a prince myself. And if you doubt me, just take a gander at her face as she brings those balls forward: her pleasure is so potent, you might call her enraptured. And that sort of thing, being fully and thoroughly satisfied, is contagious, it rubs off, and is good for the soul. Thank you, Lily.

And that’s our Perry League, the village’s beginner’s baseball program for girls and boys 2–9 years of age. We’ll be out there on the Gaunt Park baseball diamonds for six more Friday nights, from 6:30–8 p.m. We welcome all the community’s children regardless of race, color, creed, ability or disability. We’re assiduously non-competitive, striving always to be as loving and tender as we can. And if you’ve not been out there yet, it’s okay. You and your kid can begin playing at any time, and there is no requirement to play every week. So, come when you can, come when you like. We’d love to see you.



One Response to “At t-ball, as tender as we can be”

  1. Erika Tallet says:

    Jimmy, thank you so much for your comments about my son, Evan Sluss. We were so excited to see his name in the paper for the first time ever in his life! It means so much to our family. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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