I am a failed sports fan. I do not know the names and functions of football or basketball positions nor “talk the talk” at the barber shop. I don’t tune in to our local pro teams until the playoffs. Nonetheless, I attempt enthusiasm for the opening day ritual of Major League Baseball, as much for the return of spring as rooting for the home team.

When my son reached Little League age, I felt obliged to act like a fan. Is it not a parent’s duty to induct a child into the levels of the game – what sports model about individual and team effort? So I signed him up for the town baseball clinic. “It’s low key,” said the organizer, a Little League coach. “We teach the rudiments – batting, fielding and throwing – and have a good time. The parents just come and watch.”

Spencer, however, was perfectly content with Whiffle balls in the backyard – the rudiments and advanced skills, as far as he was concerned, and not intrigued with playing Little League. We would rise at 6:30 a.m., do a little bonding over a diner breakfast, and go to the clinic and become enamored of the game. The hot chocolate at the diner that clinched it for him – an omen.

I had been coached as a White Sox in sixth grade. I hoped to give Spencer the coaching experience without blowing it by being the overinvested father. Fathers are supposed to play catch with their children. Playing catch is preparatory for the great American Little League ritual, I kept telling myself.

At the clinic, I was reacquainted with two distinct voices of coaching from my own childhood: “Hey! What’s the matter with you?” and “Atta boy!”

“What’s the matter with you?” is why I was content with the torpor of playing right field; why playing catch with my brother was all the organized baseball I really wanted.


From the start, Spencer stood out. He wasn’t wearing a T-shirt with a pro team insignia, nor baseball hat. Every other kid was there to try out for Little League. And none of the other fathers joined me on the sidelines to read the Sunday paper. They were focused on Chip fielding hot grounders, making throws to first, running the bases, taking a tough stance at the plate,  “Atta boy!” or “What’s the matter with you?”

Base running was a fun enough, Spencer thought, until it clicked that the point was to avoid being tagged out. Fielding flies was fun – until he realized that three other fielders wanted the same ball coming to him. And they wanted it more.

Spencer yielded. He would just as soon have been reading the comics with me. Clearly, I liked the idea of Little League more than actual Little League. And I didn’t care if my son ever graduated from Whiffle ball.

To my wife, a star three-sport varsity player in high school and college, competitive sports were the acme of social relations. Team sports, she believed, would expand Spencer’s friendships. He felt that a baseball game interrupts a friendly game of catch.

We were starting to understand the difference between the stereotype of what boys need from sports, and what it means to our noncompetitive son to play. He was intrigued by the arc of the ball off the field house netting more than the interplay of individual and team effort. He needed sports for the activity, not the belonging.

We lasted three weeks at Sunday baseball. If it wasn’t helping Spencer to realize any of his talents or desires, it wasn’t useful. I could only say “Atta boy” to his discovery that the play he loved could be disengaged from the competition he neither understood nor enjoyed.


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