I was excited. That excitement and joy was short-lived when we found out that most of his friends were in another league and he ended up on a team where he knew exactly none of the kids.
We were an hour into our first practice of our first t-ball season. My son wanted to give baseball a go. After all, his friends were playing, and he was five and what kid at that age didn’t want to do the same thing as all of his buddies. We signed him up in a league close to home—one with a pretty good reputation for grooming young boys into good ball players.
The coach was a big man with a mainstay five o’clock shadow along his chin. He had two assistant coaches I would later find out worked with him. One of those coaches was the son of the man who built the ballpark. I sat on the hill watching as the three men tried to corral the group of young boys, Cate beside me, my daughter playing on the play set across from the field. Then the behemoth of a coach walked up the hill.
“We’re a coach short and could use the help.”
“Me?” I asked. I looked around, thinking he really was talking to someone else.
“You played baseball, right?”
“Then we could use your help.”
That was the beginning of my days as a coach in little league baseball. It was also the day I noticed Able, a shy boy with brown hair, and almond shaped eyes that didn’t seem to focus on any one thing. He looked at the ground, his shoes, his momma’s leg, back at the ground, his eyes and head never staying still too long. He looked as if he wanted to crawl inside himself and never come out. I could see him physically trying to blend in with the air around him, his elbows hugging his sides, his knees slightly bent in. He leaned into his mother’s legs. If he couldn’t disappear into the air, why not vanish into the black denim of her jeans?
I didn’t say anything at first, but I would later, at the season’s Opening Ceremonies, which other than having all the teams on the field at the same time and announcing the coaches, it was pretty much a waste of time. I hate to say that, but it is what it is.
During those ceremonies, the team mom, a lady named Patricia, held Abel’s hand as we walked onto the field to join the other teams, our hats in our hands. We waved at the crowd of onlookers when our team was announced. Like with his mother, Abel tried to fade into Patricia’s leg, the cheering and clapping from the crowd making him shake as if tiny earthquakes rumbled within his seemingly frail body.
Before the end of the ceremony his mom was on the field with him, and he clutched her leg and cried. I shook my head. I’m not going to lie when I say I thought the mother was being cruel for making him do something he clearly did not wish to do. I’m also not going to lie and say I didn’t think he was a bit on the spoiled side. I would soon learn I was wrong on both accounts, but not on that day. No, on that day, I looked down at my son, the eagerness on his youthful face, the dazzle in his blue eyes—there was excitement there, just like in the rest of the faces of the boys on our team. All except Abel’s.
The following Tuesday we had practice—the first of three that week before the season opener on Saturday. The coaches broke the team up into two groups, one dedicated to fielding and learning the bases, the other dedicated to learning the nuances of holding a bat and hitting, as well as learning how to stand in the batter’s box and keeping their eyes on the ball.
I didn’t see Abel at the beginning of practice, and I let out a sigh of relief. Maybe his mother had come to her senses and decided not to force him to play. That relief fled as I saw her coming down the sidewalk, Abel melded to her leg. She stopped near Coach Jim, spoke a few words.
“Abel,” he said loud enough for all of us to hear. “Let’s get your helmet on and take a few cuts.”
From where I stood between Jeromy and Jamille, a troubled child with divorced parents, I could hear Abel crying and mumbling words I couldn’t understand. He finally let go of his mother. While Coach Jim slipped a helmet over his head, she ran to her car. Yes, she ran. A minute later, Abel held a bat in front of the tee, his shoulders hunched, legs bent in. He was still trying to disappear. The bat seemed too heavy for him and he held it near his stomach, the barrel pointing down. Coach helped him, putting his arms around his shoulders and easing him to the tee. He showed him the sweet spot of the bat, pointed to it and told him to swing.
It was agonizing watching him barely get the bat to the ball, striking the tee or whiffing altogether. Then, he did it—he swung hard, struck the ball with good force. He jumped up and down, excitement ringing from his voice in unintelligible words. He swung several more times, hit the ball and squealed happily.
When it was time for him to come into the field with me, he closed up again, his excitement having faded.
“Come with me, Abel,” I said and knelt beside him, trying the teacher approach of welcoming a new kid to class. “I’m going to be right beside you the whole time, okay?”
He looked up at me, his brown eyes slightly rolled up, his lips a twisted frown. My heart sunk. Not because of the realization that Abel was a child with special needs, but because of how I had felt about his mother, angered by her forcing him to play baseball. She wasn’t forcing him, but helping him, a mother hoping her son can adjust in some way or other into a world where he didn’t seem to fit in.
It was the single most eye-opening moment of my life.
Having friends with autistic children, I realized right then I needed something to relate to with Abel. I needed something he related to, something that could get his interest. That’s when I noticed he wore an Atlanta Braves jersey. Number 10. Chipper Jones.
“Abel, do you like Chipper Jones?” I asked.
His head jerked up; his eyes brightened. He smiled his crooked smile. “Chipper Jones? Chipper Jones? Chipper Jones?”
“Yeah, Chipper Jones,” I said. I glanced up at his mother. His grip had loosened, and I had a feeling I found the relatable content I needed. “Abel, do you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones?”
“Chipper Jones? Hit? Chipper Jones?”
“Yeah. Do you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones?”
He repeated his questions of Chipper Jones and hit. Yeah, that was the ticket I needed to get him to pick up what I was putting down.
“If you want me to teach you how to hit like Chipper Jones, you need to let me teach you hot to field like Chipper Jones, and how to catch the ball like Chipper Jones. Can you do that?”
Again, he said Chipper Jones several times.
I stuck out my hand, “Come on, Abel, let’s go learn how to catch the ball like Chipper Jones.”
As Lady Luck would smile on a gambler from time to time, she smiled on me and Abel that day. He took my hand and walked with me out onto the field at some little elementary school I had never been to until we started having practices there. I helped him with his glove. I showed him how to stand and how to cup the ball in the glove using the alligator method. Chomp your bare hand down onto your glove hand when the ball gets to it. I pointed to the batter.
“If the ball comes your way, you run and get it. Okay?”
He cringed a little but nodded. He could hear me; he could understand me. Then Coach D stepped up to pitch. He tossed the first ball, which was hit sharply by Cole, the boy at bat. The ball rolled toward Abel.
“Abel,” I yelled, my heart lifting, “Get the ball!”
Without hesitation, he ran. The ball hit his foot, bounced off his shin. He picked it up and cheered himself for his efforts. I cheered, as well. Abel danced as the coaches clapped and yelled their “way to be’s.”
His mother stood from her car, clapping. Later, I saw her crying as she hugged him tight to her chest. I went up to her, tussled Abel’s hair and knelt beside him. “Abel, will I see you at the next practice?”
He smiled, gave a hearty nod.
“Give me five, buddy,” I said and stuck out my open hand. He slapped it hard and laughed. To his mother, I said, “Thank you for being a good mother.”
She smiled as another trail of tears slid down her face.
After practice, I went to my son and hugged him tight.
“Did I do good, Daddy?” he asked.
“Yes, buddy. You did great.”
That’s not where this story ends. Where would the lesson be if I ended it here? I would love to say that Abel was the easiest kid to coach. He wasn’t. He tried, but his mind wandered a lot and so did he. But he stuck with it. His mother stuck with it. I stuck with it.
Coach Jim had a way about him that both scared the kids and enthralled them, so they listened, and our kids advanced far further than the tee ball level. By midseason our kids were hitting live pitching, whereas a lot of the kids on other teams were still hitting directly off the tee. Well, I need to correct that last statement. Except for Abel, the rest of the kids on our team were hitting live pitching. Don’t get me wrong, we pitched to Abel. He just couldn’t hit the ball. His hand/eye coordination and timing never seemed to flow together.
We had played nine games and Abel had not gotten a hit all season. I spent a lot of time with him, teaching him how to swing, teaching him how to hold his bat, teaching him how to stand, and no hits. I had not taught him to hit like Chipper Jones. Still, he tried. He swung as hard as he could, missing and usually hitting me with the follow through. I carried away many bruises that year.
The season came to an end one hot June Saturday. Abel had been up to bat twice and had no luck hitting pitches thrown by Coach D. Then came his last at bat. I’m sure you can figure out where this is going, but I want to tell the story anyway.
Abel came up to the plate, his orange- barreled bat in his hands, his dark blue helmet on his head.
By this point in the season, I played catcher and caught the pitches Coach D threw that the kids didn’t hit. I had caught every one of them thrown to Abel.
“Are you ready, Abel?” I asked as I knelt beside him at home plate.
Abel nodded, but it wasn’t very confident. He looked like he did that first day I saw him, like he wanted to crawl into his own skin and hide away from the world.
“Look at me, Abel,” I said.
He fidgeted but didn’t look up.
“Abel, look at me.”
Finally, he lifted his head and held his gaze on me long enough for me to tell that somewhere in his mind he absolutely knew he couldn’t hit the baseball. I could almost feel his pain. Though he was special needs and I wasn’t, at one time I couldn’t hit a baseball, either. When I played the game, I got lucky to get a couple of hits every ten at bats. I just wasn’t that good of a hitter. I would get frustrated and down about it. I couldn’t imagine how he felt. My heart almost broke right then.
“Abel, you’re going to hit that ball, do you hear me?”
At first, he only stared at me. I repeated my statement, then he nodded. Again, it wasn’t a confident gesture.
I settled him into his stance and did the robotic diatribe I did with all the kids. “Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin, Abel. Watch the ball. Watch it all the way to the plate.”
Coach D tossed the ball. Abel swung, missed and spun like a top trying to dig its way into the ground. I caught the ball, tossed it back and looked at Abel. He shook his head but didn’t look at me.
“Get your bat up, Abel. Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin. Watch the ball, Abel. Watch it all the way until the bat hits it.”
Again, Coach D tossed the ball. It was just an underhanded lob to the plate. Abel swung with the ball still fifteen feet away. We did this two more times. The league had a five-pitch rule. If a kid hasn’t hit the ball after five pitches, then he has to hit it off the tee.
“Settle down, Abel,” I said. At this point I was sitting on my butt, legs criss-cross Indian style, the way they taught us in school when I was a kid. “Abel, listen to me. You’re going to hit this ball, and when you do, I want you to run all the way around the bases. Don’t stop, you hear me?”
“What are you going to do, Abel?”
“That’s right. Then what?”
“Don’t stop,” he repeated.
“Get in the box,” I said.
He stepped into the batter’s box. He was slouched over, the barrel of the bat touching the ground.
“Abel, bat up. Elbow up. Bat back. Tuck your chin. Abel, watch the ball, hit the ball, and then run.” Then I added, “Hit the ball like Chipper Jones.”
I tapped him on the back of his helmet, a gesture I hoped he took as encouragement. I squatted behind the plate, looked at Coach D, then nodded. Coach D tossed the ball. It seemed to float toward home plate. I swear I saw the seams of the baseball.
Abel lifted his front leg and swung the bat as hard as I had ever seen him swing it … and it connected. The ball rolled a few feet in front of the plate. Abel stood looking at it. Well stood is not quite accurate. He appeared to have full body shivers.
“Run!” I yelled. So did half the crowd in the stands watching the game.
Abel took off down the base path, but instead of heading for first base, he headed for third.
“Abel,” I yelled and chased after him. “Wrong way.”
I caught him halfway up the third base line and redirected him.
It was one of those moments I wish I could have caught on video. But, really, I don’t need it—I have it in my memory. Every detail, as if it were yesterday and not ten years ago.
The infield was orange dirt, covered in the footprints of all the kids who played that day. The on-deck circle was still pretty much a circle, but the chalk outline had spread out and had been scuffed up quite a bit. The outfield grass was as green as it would get that summer and the kids in the dugout were all jumping up and down. I don’t know what they were screaming, but I know they were cheering as loud as they could.
Abel was still holding the bat as he cut across the field from the third base line to the first base side. I remember this because I yelled for him to ‘drop the bat, drop the bat, Abel.’ He did drop it just before stepping on first base and jumping up and down as if he had just won the lottery. In a way, I guess maybe he didn’t win the lottery, but the rest of us had. You see, we were witnessing one of the greatest moments in our own lives. We just didn’t know it right then.
One of the coaches from the other team pointed to second base and yelled, “Run. Run. RUN!” I yelled for him to run. Abel did. Head down, arms flailing and legs pumping in an awkward gallop that was simultaneously one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The kids on the other team didn’t chase after the ball, as were their instincts to do so. They didn’t try to tag him as he rounded second and headed for third, then rounded third and headed home.
I don’t know when I dropped his bat and fell to my knees just on the other side of home plate, but I had. I was yelling for him to ‘run, don’t stop.’ I waved my arms for him to run toward me. I don’t believe he ever saw that. His head was still down, and his arms were still flailing and his legs were still pumping for all he was worth.
Halfway down the line he looked up.
He looked up.
I get a little choked up here, and I’m hoping you will understand why.
You see, there was this … this … broad smile plastered on his face. His eyes dazzled brighter than I had seen on any child’s face before that day. I saw this through the face mask on his helmet, even as the helmet itself bobbed up and down on his head with each awkward step he took.
The little boy with special needs was living his dream, and for a brief moment in time, he was just like any other kid. But he wasn’t. He was flying. Somewhere in his reserved mind he was soaring through the clouds as he ran the bases. Then, just a few feet from home plate he dove, feet first. It was just as awkward as his gait, but just as glorious as well. He landed next to home plate and stamped one cleated foot on it emphatically.
Then he stood and started his lottery dance again. I gave him a hug, just as I would my own son, then we gave each other a high five—him slapping my hand as hard as he could—and he continued to jump up and down, even as his momma stood in the dugout door, her hands over her mouth and nose, tears streaming from her eyes.
That’s when I noticed everyone in the bleachers were not only standing but clapping and whistling and cheering. There were others crying, and there were tears in my own eyes, though I didn’t realize it right then.
Abel’s mom met him at the dugout gate, picked him up and hugged him tight. I don’t know if it was what she envisioned for him—I’m certain it’s not—but I know it was a proud, emotional moment for her.
It was over entirely too quickly. A season full of hours of practices and games. And it was over in less than five minutes. After the game, Abel’s mom came to me as I was getting my son’s gear together.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Thank you,” I responded with a smile.
We talked for a few minutes. The words exchanged really doesn’t matter. What does is for a moment in Abel’s life he was just another little boy on a baseball team, wearing the joy in his heart on his sleeve as he ran the bases and slid into home plate. I bet in his mind it wasn’t just a hit, but a game winning homerun by Chipper Jones in the World Series that played out somewhere in his mind.
As I left the field with my family, holding my son’s hand, I was reflective of the season, of the first day I saw Abel and his mom and how wrong I had been in my assessment of the situation. That wrongful thinking drove me all season to help Abel play the game he loved. I think that was a heaping of guilt I carried on my shoulders until Abel got his hit. Then all that guilt was gone.
“Daddy, we played good today,” my son said as he tugged on my hand.
I took his bag and slung it over one shoulder, then I picked him up. “Yeah, buddy, you guys played great today.”
If you’ve read this far, thank you. This is a true story. I changed the names of most everyone mentioned, including Abel’s. I chose the name Abel because I thought it was important to use something that showed it was possible to do this and what better way to show someone was able to do something than to use a name quite similar to the word ‘able?’
Abel would be around 16 or 17 now. I haven’t seen him since that last game. I wish I knew how he was doing, what he was up to.
This story originally appeared in my short story collection, Ball Four. If you would like a copy of the book, drop me a comment below.
Thanks for reading.
Until we meet again, my friends, be kind to one another.