It was a little Texas Leaguer over the third baseman’s head.
It was perfect.
My younger son doesn’t quite have the brawn of my big boy. Okay, that’s an understatement.
You remember what Steve Rogers looked like with his shirt off before he became Captain America? That guy looks like a body-builder compared to my twiggy little fella.
But like that pre-serum Steve, Gunnar has a competitive fire that outstrips his two-dimensional frame. He’s become an accomplished bunter, and we’ve worked together to compliment his blips with bloops; drawing the 3rd baseman in with the bunt attempt and then slapping one by him.
I was watching from my perch as 3rd base coach, already thinking that with a good bounce he might get a double out of the dunk. And, out of nowhere, the shortstop hurtled in the air and made a spectacular catch; his little body sprawled right on the cutout between the infield dirt and outfield grass.
Shortly thereafter, a single word hurtled in the air from down the first base line:
Only he didn’t say “Fudge.” He said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word.
It was the 3rd out of the inning, which was about the only thing that saved Gunnar’s bacon. For the mix of players changing sides allowed a bit of distraction from his latest episode.
“Did you hear what he said?” The young base umpire, a college kid collecting a summer paycheck, seemed a bit bewildered by the language he likely heard about every 0.25 seconds in his dorm. But timing is, of course, everything, be it comedy, tragedy, or in this case, an inextricably intertwined combination.
“Yep. Hard to miss,” chuckled Dave, the burly veteran I’ve had behind the plate since my older one was hitting off a tee.
Dave flashed me a look as I jogged toward my flailing first-baseman, now flinging his helmet to the ground.
“Do what you need to do, Dave,” I replied.
“I think you’ve got this, Coach,” Dave said with a bemused grin.
He knew that this was my kid in full meltdown. And he thought that it was a kindness that he pulled back on what should have been done—namely throwing my son out of the game.
It was not. Because now we had to do the dance.
Over the past few seasons, I’ve needed to cha-cha between gentle support and tough love as Gunnar battled his competitive demons. I myself toggled between an empathy borne from my own boyhood tennis temper tantrums and full-body rage over stolen home runs, to a frustration bred from repetition and the aforementioned familiarity with my own failings.
Of course, Gunnar was benched for the rest of the game. Of course, he eventually felt terribly about what he did. He told Coach Steve that he felt that there was a monster inside him that he couldn’t control. He tearfully apologized to the entire team during our postgame talk.
It was heartbreaking.
As we prepared for the next day’s games, I knew that this time, he had crossed a line that needed to be addressed. For the moment, I needed to put Dad aside, and put my coach’s hat on. And so I consulted with Coaches Steve, Bill, Kevin, and of course Coach Nolet’s Dry Gin on the matter. All were supportive and understanding (or at least helped calm me down a bit with intensely floral drinkability). And everyone agreed—this time there needed to be consequences.
We settled on a one game suspension. My first instinct was to bar him from the rest of the tournament, but my coaches talked me down off that ledge, reminding me how hard it’s been on Gunnar to be the “Coaches Kid.” For while being in that role can lead to preening primadonnas when the kid is the best on the team, the role can also create intense pressure on the player who has had to work his tail off just to be middle-of-the-pack.
Gunnar had gotten that most reviled of sports taunts – “You’re only on the team because your Dad is the coach!” – on several occasions at school. In his earnest desire to prove himself, he made each pitch, each swing, and each play in every single game into an unending death-spiral of a tryout. Every failure reinforced the bullies’ jab, and, because this is baseball, by its very nature he failed more often than he succeeded. The Monster, a creature he came by honestly (indeed, genetically) grew into something he could no longer control.
This Monster, however, had to be put in a cage. And so my son…my player…my son…and I talked. I let him know I was proud of the fact the apologized to the team after the game, and I understood this was a part of him he didn’t like. But he had crossed a line, and both he and the team needed to know there were consequences to these actions.
And so father-and-son, player-and-coach stared at each other—eyes welling and voices cracking with guilt, love, and remorse—embraced, and accepted each other for who we were.
I then loaded the trunk and headed down to the field.
Only now do I realize that that was the beginning of the end.