Friday, June 5, 2009

My Cheating Heart

I cheated at baseball when I was a kid. I often played my neighbor, Bill Sarinsky, who is a year younger than I am, in one-on-one games in my backyard, which was at least 50 yards or so long. And I would do whatever it took to win the game. If I got a couple of hits and put a ghost runner on third or had to stay there myself and try to race home, I always found a way to manipulate the rules in my favor. Bill and I would argue, but I almost always prevailed. At least that’s how I remember it now nearly 40 years later.

This win-at-all-costs side to my personality competed against my somewhat nonchalant attitude toward sports, borne in part because of my mediocre, at best, athletic abilities. Sometimes I just didn’t let sports or games faze me; other times, I was rampaging monster who destroyed everything in its path on the way to victory.

Fortunately as a parent, I have embraced the nonchalant side much more fully. I never want Miguel or Maya to feel any pressure from me when it comes to sports. But because I tend to relax about competition involving myself and others, I probably overcompensate by being overly charitable at the expense of my own son.

Last Saturday night, our neighbor Max, who is 13, and his friend, Daniel, also 13, came over and challenged Miguel and me to a game of two-on-two baseball. We’ve played basketball, football, and baseball with them and others before, and often I have let them dictate the rules and sometimes the outcome of the matches.

We started the game after 7 pm. The rules were simple: one out per inning; any ball hit onto the sidewalk path, about 250 feet away, was an automatic homerun; and the runner was out if the pitcher fielded the ball before the runner made it to first (which is called Pitcher’s Poison).

We played until dark, and there was no score. In the bottom of what turned out to be the final inning, we scored a run. Miguel was pitching quite well, so when Max and Daniel came up in the final half of the game, Miguel and I were feeling pretty good.

Daniel is a free-swinger, so he is often an automatic out. I was shading toward leftfield when he slapped a clean shot up the middle into centerfield of the park. Max then lofted a ball, which I heard ping against the bat but couldn’t see until it was well over my head. I raced over and threw to Miguel as Max was rounding third. My throw was off, so Max scored rather easily. He and Daniel collapsed into each other’s arms and danced and hooted as if they’d won the World Series.

Miguel later said, “If you’d made a better throw, I could’ve tagged Max easily.”


Max and Daniel came over for a rematch the next night, which was also a school night. We started around seven and I announced, “We have to stop at 7:45.” I was thinking about Miguel’s shower and getting him into bed by 8:30.

I don’t remember all the details now, even though it was only five days ago, but I think we scored two runs, then Max and Daniel plated 3 to go ahead 3-2. I pitched the first few innings and struck out Max once or twice and Daniel three times. At one point, Max popped up and the ball landed on the fair side of third base for a cheap single.

“Foul,” he yelled.

“Foul?” I asked. “That was fair.”

Max is a sweet kid, good natured and also an umpire for Miguel’s Little League. “No,” he said, “it was foul.”

It was fair, but I am sure Max was upset he hadn’t smoked the shot for extra bases. So I relented. “OK, foul ball,” I said, with a slight nod to Solomonic temperance.

Miguel and I came up and the floodgates opened. We were roping the ball all over the field, spraying shots to left, right, center with virtual impunity. We added three runs, which really isn’t enough with someone as offensively talented as Max batting against us. As I batted again, I dinked a ball that plopped very close to the first base line. Max ran over and was ready to declare me out.

“Foul ball,” I said.

“That was fair,” both Max and Daniel said.

Old Steve, the father who wanted to sooth things over for the neighborhood kids and not make a big fuss because his son would understand, wanted to say, “OK, I’m out,” and then the inning and our chances for victory could’ve been over.

But New Steve, the one not afraid to stand up for his son and self every now and then pleaded, “C’mon, I gave you that one earlier. The fair ball near third?”

I am an adult (most of the time), so Max and Daniel stopped protesting and agreed to let me bat again. I stroked a hard liner into deep right field, and the onslaught continued. We ended up winning 11-3 or 11-4. But I will proudly admit that there were no raucous postgame celebrations or even a fist or chest bump. I simply told Miguel he’d hit and pitched well.

Hitting and pitching well was a good catharsis for both of us because at last Saturday’s Little League playoff game, Miguel’s team, the Yankees, was shellacked by the Blue Jays, 18-1. The Jays hit five homeruns, three of them were grand slams, and we only had two or three real scoring opportunities.

Amazingly, though, the team played pretty well, with very few mental mistakes or errors in the field. I can’t recall any right now, in fact. Outside of ransacked pitching, the guys did just fine. In fact, and even more amazingly, their spirits never waned even as it became apparent they were going to lose big time.

When the game mercifully ended, the boys raced across the field for the postgame chat with almost as much vigor as if they’d been victorious. They’ve been slapped around a few times during the season, but lately they don’t seem to hang their heads or wallow too much in defeat.

After the game, I took Miguel and Maya to Subway for lunch and we ran into one of the Blue Jay players, Matthew Carvallo, a nice kid who homered in the game. He greeted Miguel (they met at the weeklong outdoor education program in March) and I chatted with his mother. Maya simply wanted chips with her Subway sandwich.

Miguel’s team has played two more games since last Saturday, and won both in very convincing fashion. Their slumbering bats have awakened with a vengeance. Now they face the Blue Jays tomorrow morning, and the loser’s season ends. The Blue Jays lost for only the third time in two years on Wednesday, so they are on the brink, with the Yankees, of double elimination.

I have a feeling, though, that win or lose (and I feel magic in the air) the Yankees will hold their heads high after having a great season of fun, some frustration and heavy doses of male bonding.

And when the umpires yells, “Fair” or “Foul,” I doubt any one of them will even bother to argue.

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