Abel

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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

He nodded.

“What are you going to do, Abel?”

“Hit.”

“That’s right. Then what?”

“Run.”

“Don’t stop.”

“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.

Ummm … 

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.

A.J. 

Baseball and Life

I went for a walk by myself this morning. The sky was overcast and there was a breeze blowing in. It was nice enough out that the chill from the breeze didn’t make it too cool to where shorts and a t-shirt. The birds chirped madly and flew about from tree to tree and power line to power line.

A storm was coming. Or so it seemed.

This much is almost certain. When the birds act as they do right then, a storm is coming. My grandfather taught me that one day while standing on his back porch when I was a teenager and he was still around and life had yet to slap me in the face a few times.

Back to this morning. As I always do when I am by myself and want to walk, I drove the two miles to the middle school my daughter went to and my son now attends. Behind it is a baseball park. A walking path circles the park. This is where where I walk.

When I go on these walks I tend to pray for the first half of it. I don’t look at it as prayer though. I look at it as a conversation, though one sided, with God. It’s not a ‘hey I need something’ type of thing, or a ‘hey I screwed up type’ of thing. For me, these mornings are a ‘hey, I just want to talk,’ type of thing. They are good for me, good for my soul.

The second half of these walks is when I think about writing, but mostly, I just think about baseball. Seriously. At the end of these walks and before I go to my car, I walk to the baseball complex. There are four fields in the main section and a fifth field off to the side (this is where the younger kids play tee ball). In the center of the main section is the concessions and bathrooms. There are metal bleachers on each side of each field.

Today I walked to one of the fields and stared through the fencing surrounding it. The grass was freshly cut, the field newly raked. There were perfect chalk lines marking the first and third base lines, the batters boxes and the on deck circles. The pitcher’s mound had been recently formed, with the rubber in the center of it.

12734126_10208347032850778_986475889973690833_nThis is going to sound crazy, but for the first time since I was a kid, I didn’t miss playing the game. What I did miss—do miss—is coaching. I miss watching the lights turn on for a kid once he or she ‘got it’. I miss cheering the kids on or throwing batting practice. I miss those tougher teaching moments that is difficult for the kid, but what they don’t realize is it is difficult for the coaches as well. We want to make them better, teach them the game, but a good coach teaches them not only the game, but to have fun and to carry that over into life.

That brings me to my point today. Baseball is a unifying sport. You may not like the game and that is okay. But for those who do play it and for their families, it is unifying.

One season I was fortunate enough to coach a special needs child. It was one of the most rewarding things I have ever been a part of. Another season, our head coach had heart issues and ended up missing most of the season because of heart surgery. I met kids and parents and grandparents. I saw kids with two parents in the household and kids with just the one. I also met kids whose parents were absent and grandparents had taken them in. Baseball, for these kids, meant a couple of hours away from the reality of no mom and no dad.

Baseball is life. No, I don’t mean that baseball should be lived and breathed like oxygen. I mean baseball is life.

In a typical game there are nine innings with a break between each half inning as the teams switch sides. Batters go into the field and fielders come up to bat. Each team gets three outs an inning to score as many times as they can. There are hits and walks and strikeouts and pop outs and ground outs and long fly ball outs. This is much like life.

Let’s just say each inning is equivalent to ten years of life. That would make the first inning the growing years of childhood. The second inning, the learning who you are years. The third inning would be the years of establishing who you are as an adult. And the next three innings would be the working years. I know, that sounds absurd, but it’s not. Not really. The last three innings are the golden years, and if you are fortunate enough to make it further than the age of ninety then you go into extra innings.

There are times we do things well and get hits. Sometimes we do great things and those amount to doubles and triples. Then we do a couple of things that are fantastic or amazing or awesome or whatever you wish to call it. Those are home runs. There are times we succeed in a venture. Each one of those is a run scored. Sometimes we help someone succeed. Those are runs batted in. And yes, just like in baseball, those folks with the many runs, rbi’s and home runs are generally the stars.

Then there are the outs. Sometimes we strike out. These are the times when we just don’t try all that hard at something. Then you have pop outs and fly outs and ground outs. Those are the efforts we put in, but we still don’t succeed at something. The average batting average in major league baseball is between .260 and .275. That means the average player gets a hit only 26% to 27.5% of the time. That equals one out of every four plate appearances. This means failures are easier to achieve than successes.

Occasionally, we get a walk in life, a gift that we don’t have to earn. Those moments don’t come around all that often, so best to relish them while we can.

Sometimes in baseball, as in life, we get a lucky bounce. Sometimes, that bounce isn’t so lucky after all. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. Hits, outs, walks, runs … it is all life.

Baseball takes effort. You learn how to hit by practicing. You learn how to throw by practicing. Life is the same. You learn how to write by practicing. You learn how to drive by practicing. You learn how to do various things in life by working at it. So many similarities.

In my life I have hit four home runs. Being saved. Marrying my wife and being a father to my two kids. In my life I’ve had quite a few good hits, a couple of walks and a lot of outs. But here is the thing: I’ve worked really hard at life. I’ve lived life and played baseball. I’ve taken my outs in stride with my hits and runs and I will continue to do so as the innings of my life play out. I encourage you to do the same.

As I stood at the baseball field this morning, I listened to the world around me. The wind was blowing and the flag flapped with it. The chord and metal hooks that hold the flag in place clanked against the flag pole. There were crows cawing and other birds chirping and flying about. Somewhere a dog barked. It was a moment to sit in the dugout and reflect on the game of my life so far. Are there things I would like to change? Sure. Are there things I would have liked to succeed at? Absolutely. Would I change anything. No.

Then I walked away, not missing the game I loved, but knowing that I gave both the game and my life to this date all I have. I’m good with that. The bat’s on my shoulder, a glove dangling from it as I leave the dugout and head back into the game. How’s your game coming along? Are you swinging for the fences, or riding the bench? Don’t ride the bench. Get in there and play ball.

As always, until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.