Graduation, rhythm and anxiety

I didn’t expect to experience anxiety over somebody else’s graduation. Granted, it’s my two sons who are graduating this year—one from college and one from high school. Same day, actually. Nine hours apart.

But why am I feeling anxious? My boys have made excellent plans. Both will stay in Kentucky: Steele at law school in Louisville and Clay at Centre College. And look, Kentucky isRouseBros2015Cropped familiar territory. My wife and I raised our sons in the town where I grew up, and both boys went to my high school.

Where we took different paths was athletics. They both played baseball; I played trombone. And I think it’s the damn baseball thing that’s eating at me.

I did play baseball, you know—Little League in fifth and sixth grade. How I spawned two varsity players, I don’t know. (And I’ve been asked—seriously.)

My boys never showed major-league potential, but both played high school ball each spring, plus summer ball and fall ball. Over the past 15 or 16 years, we just fell into the rhythm of the sport.

I took them to practice. I threw with them in the back yard. Mary Beth and I went to their games. We drove to towns and cities and dusty fields throughout Kentucky and surrounding states. And we did all this with other baseball families—players and parents—for hours and seasons and years.

I can write a book about baseball; I really can. I’ve actually outlined its chapters. It won’t be about the actual sport. It’ll focus on the lessons I’ve learned from being in the rhythm of baseball: the games and the players, the hopes and frustrations, the wins and the disappointments.

Staying flexible is the most important lesson I’ve learned. The game itself is traditional and often plodding, but living it day-to-day is a daggone crapshoot. Coaches seek greener fields, better results and more promising players. Schedules, rosters, lineups and locations change at the drop of a mitt. Each season brings a different cast of characters to the stage.

And rain threatens, as do cold April nights and easy-bake July days.

But I settled into an unsettled rhythm. Baseball was always predictably unpredictable. Reliably fickle.

During Steele’s high school days, we plugged along as a so-so team for years—until the week we won the state title. In baseball terms, that’s like bunt, walk, bloop … GRAND SLAM! I know about baseball terms, see. I told you about that book.

But baseball isn’t only about the bloops or the weather or even the games. It’s about the people. They provide harmony to the rhythm. Not always in tune, of course. They were often loud. But funny. Or obnoxious. Yet enjoyable. Mostly. But sometimes irrational. Occasionally ugly. But mostly caring.

It’s a full damn orchestra, for sure.

And with Clay leaving high school, there’s no more high school baseball. The orchestra is disbanding. The rhythm of baseball will halt.

Life will go on, of course. I just don’t know where I’ll pick up the beat. Thus my anxiety about somebody else’s graduation.

But hey, I’m flexible. Right?









Play Ball! (… any day now)

Baseball can teach a kid the value of dedication, when hard work and regular practice boost performance. It can teach a kid the value of discipline, where controlling your emotions results in cool, steady decision-making. And baseball can teach a kid the value of teamwork, where sacrificing personal glory results in greater team success.

The sport saves its biggest lesson for parents, though, because over and over, baseball teaches us the value of flexibility. As in don’t-make-any-plans-for-eating-or-sleeping flexibility.

I suppose the parents of kids who play indoor sports—basketball, swimming, volleyball, bowling, etc.—can arrange their lives with confidence, knowing that only the most catastrophic weather events will cause the game to move to a different day or time. You can nicely wedge a game into a well-planned schedule of work, meals, Netflix and sleep.

But baseball can string you along for days. On call. On edge. And this weekend, while the rest of America is celebrating Independence Day, we’re chained to our cell phones. We’re imprisoned by rain clouds.

It’s raining outside this weekend, and dang it, that’s where baseball is played. Football and soccer are also played outdoors, along with, say, pole-vaulting, but with those sports, you can muddle on during a rainstorm, pausing only for lightning, and continue play on a soggy field (or foam pad). But baseball, for all its eye-black bravado, wimps out after only a quarter-inch of rain lands on its manicured infield. (Note: Outfielders are on their own. For all baseball cares, outfielders can use swamp buggies and airboats to retrieve balls and return them to the infield.)

My son’s summer travel team, the Kentucky Rockers, is entered in the Supreme National 16U Ultimate Baseball Championship of All Times. (You pay extra for each word in the tournament title.) The 96 teams from at least that many states (right?) were scheduled to play on 15 ball fields in and around Louisville. Each team would get five games of pool play, which means playing all the teams in your pool, and the results would determine which teams advance to the elite eight* championship bracket, with tournament play determining the Supreme National Champion (etc.).

Unfortunately, we’re having a little trouble getting the tournament off the ground—or more accurately, keeping water off the ground so we can play the tournament.

Our first game was on Wednesday, when the mighty Rockers defeated a team from Ontario 2 to 1. I missed that game, electing to go to work and earn money for new baseball pants, which routinely get torn and stained with embarrassing brown skid marks. Had I known the Canadian showdown would be the only sure thing during the five-day extravaganza, I might have skipped work.

We were scheduled to play our next two games Thursday morning, then one Friday, and another on Saturday to set the stage for tournament seeding. Since that victory over Team Canada, though—and I write this on Friday afternoon—Louisville ball fields have received anywhere from a half-inch to 2.5 inches of rain.

Remember what I said about a quarter-inch ruining a field. The rain has made a mockery of the schedule. “Haha,” the rain said, using the text lingo of today’s youth.

Even on a good day, baseball has lots of standing around.

Even on a good day, baseball has lots of standing around.

The Rockers have been re-scheduled no fewer than 17 times—on an ever-changing series of fields—but we have yet to leave the house. You have to stay close to your car and baseball equipment, see, because makeup games are being scheduled every few minutes. With 96 teams, that means 1,318 players are on hold, as are 4,310 immediate family members—not counting 1,809 grandparents—and untold numbers of umpires, scoring officials and hotdog cookers.

I signed up for tournament text messages, so with each cancellation, rescheduled game, subsequent cancellation and further rescheduling, I get a text. In just the past hour, I got 43 dings. The tournament director has two bloody stumps where his texting thumbs used to be.

His latest message: “Saturday schedule being built as we speak. DO NOT go home.” I assume he is speaking to the parents from Canada. Those of us who live close to Louisville haven’t left home since Wednesday night, as I said.

Without baseball, there are other activities we might have enjoyed this Fourth of July weekend. There’s a patriotic concert in Lexington, fireworks in Midway, a street party in Versailles and a 5K run in Frankfort tomorrow morning. Heck, I might even have purchased hot dogs of my own and conducted a “weekend grill-out,” something I did before summer baseball took over our lives.

We set all of these things aside years ago, though, knowing that as a baseball family, we are subject to the whims of weather and the artful assignment—and reassignment—of game times and sites by a beleaguered tournament maestro. And that’s OK. That’s what we signed up for.

Because for all the inconsistencies that baseball delivers—from rain delays to wrecked weekends—it’s an experience that consistently delivers enrichment to our lives. For every minute that we juggle schedules and checkbooks to meet the demands of baseball, we spend an hour watching our sons ply the tools of baseball: dedication, discipline and teamwork.

So yeah, we’ve got to stay flexible, but our reward is just around the corner. It’s only Friday, and there are still two days of baseball awaiting us this weekend.

Oh wait—a new text just arrived. The tournament will be extended to Monday.

(*I use “elite eight” only conversationally here, as that term is copyrighted by the NCAA for use in its basketball tournament, AKA the road to the “final four,” which is also copyrighted. It’s sort of the “super bowl” of basketball. “Just do it.” “Coca-cola.” Any other copyrights I can infringe upon? “This sick beat,” anybody?)

A Title that Will Never Grow Old

First published: June 21, 2012

Say it with me: “State Champions.” As a baseball dad, I can’t hear it enough. It just doesn’t get old.

Now, those of you who aren’t attuned to high school athletics might view the celebration surrounding Woodford County High School’s improbable run to the state title as a misguided emphasis on sports. I hear you. And (I think) most of us in the victory parade agree there are more important concerns than winning a few ball games.

But this championship means more than a few games.

For the players, the season that ended with an unforgettable 4-0 win in the 2012 state finals on June 9 began in August 2011 with a series of entirely forgettable “fall ball” games. Then during the winter, the players endured excruciating sessions of conditioning. Practice started when the ground was still frozen, and the first scrimmage was March 13.

Long before last week’s parade came a procession of practices and games, cold nights and long bus rides, then hot nights—and more long bus rides. And when they finally got home each night, the players tended to their schoolwork, or else they couldn’t play.

These boys didn’t become state champions simply by showing up for the final game. They worked their way to the top, showing more discipline, determination and dedication than most adults are ever called on to display.

A friend of mine suggested I write a story about the Yellow Jackets’ sensational season. And while there’s a magical quality about their historic title run, the backstory is downright undramatic—a long season of grit and gradual improvement. But know this: When you look at a team photo or at images of smiling, celebratory players, there is indeed a story behind each face. Every player faced his own challenges, his unique self-doubts.

At some point, perhaps while languishing on the bench or failing on the field, each player must have asked himself the same question: “Is this really worth it?”

I daresay each player now has the same jubilant answer. Because not only did the team win the school’s first baseball state title, they did it in front of thousands of Woodford County fans—grateful, astonished and raucous fans.

And the hits keep coming for the players. The community has wrapped them in supportive arms and showered them with praise and genuine affection. Just a month ago, these boys were finishing the last game of the regular season—better than most, but still a “regular” season. Their record stood at 27 wins, 6 losses. And they never lost again. While ever-growing crowds of hometown fans watched, our boys—our sons, friends, students and neighbors—found a way to win every game in the district, region and state tournaments.

It’s been a wonderful ride, even from my seat in the stands. Eventually, of course, the brilliant glow will soften, the streak of wins will end and the attention will fade. And although the boys will soon leave their teenage years behind, the title of State Champions—and all the discipline, determination and dedication behind it—will never grow old.