Last Saturday morning James and I went down to Taney Park along the Schuylkill River. He insisted on walking to start but got tired halfway there and hopped aboard his tricycle. When we arrived the playground was nearly empty (I’m always surprised that dog owners are outside on weekend mornings far earlier than toddler owners) and James was bored. He had no interest in going down the slide; there were no kids whose toys he could try to steal; he picked up a pine cone and then dropped it. Then he saw a group of kids running around on a nearby baseball field and he perked up. “Yook kids,” he said, pointing. So we walked over to the chain link fence and watched the early innings of a tee ball game.
The kids were about six years-old though they looked like mini-Major Leaguers. They had on yellow and blue team shirts with the logo of a local business sponsor on the front and a number on the back. There were matching caps; most of the kids had on polyester baseball pants; a few even sported eyeblack.
Whenever I see kids even just a little older than James I can’t imagine how he’ll eventually turn into them. This has been true all along: It seemed impossible that he’d ever walk until one day he did; when he was born some friends gave him a Nike sweatsuit that was so big we stowed it at the bottom of a drawer thinking maybe he’d grow into it before he went to college. This spring I pulled it out, tags still affixed, and was shocked to discover that sometime, probably over the winter, his head had become too big to fit through the top of the shirt.
Kids of any age are a funny combination of skill and incompetence. When the tee ball sluggers stepped up to the tee they looked like pros: Their legs perfectly spaced, the bat cocked and wagging in their hands, their eyes bearing down on the pitcher who wasn’t actually there. Then they’d swing and reality was restored. Most of them hit the tee beneath the ball, which is one of the feeblest feelings in all of youth sports, for players and spectators alike. One of the dad/coaches would run quickly onto the field to replace the ball on the tee before the kid grew too discouraged. Everyone made contact eventually. Once you put the ball in player there was zero chance the fielders were going to get you out.
After a few batters James became more interested in the gravel along the bottom of the fence than the game, but I kept watching. I would have imagined a tee ball game as one big scrum but they actually did a good job holding their positions, just like the Phillies do.
I was curious about how they’d been assigned positions: Why was one kid directed to shortstop and another told to go play right field? On what basis was the kid with the knee-high stirrups made catcher? The assignments were probably fairly random but also consequential. In a couple years they’d be in Little League and the coach would ask them what positions they’d played before and the catcher would say catcher and the shortstop would say shortstop and the right fielder would kind of lie and say he didn’t really have a position. The process by which a child’s future possibilities winnow and branch goes on all the time; it just seemed particularly apparent to me that morning watching the baseball game.
Last fall James and I were in Rittenhouse Square when I started chatting with a dad who was there with his five-year-old son. The son had two baseball mitts and it happened that he wanted me to wear one of them. We played catch for awhile and I remember thinking “This is pretty fun. Won’t it be great when James and I can do this.”
But Saturday morning at the tee ball field I had the opposite feeling. For the kids I’m sure it was thrilling to step up to the tee and know that whether the ball flew or sunk was completely up to them; it seemed thrilling for the dads, too, who cheered and encouraged like it was Game 7 of the World Series. But for my part I was happy—for that day at least—to have James at my feet throwing gravel at the grass, and to know that in a short while he’d mount his tricycle and I’d push him home.