If baseball is America's pastime, then I guess America's occupation must be raising kids to play baseball. I say this as a parent who has spent the last two months shuttling between practices and games, and watching my truck's odometer spin around in concert with the gas needle. And although I guess it's good to see the little rugrats retreat from the sofa and smack around a few balls, I had no idea to what depth this would impact my "me" time.
As a student of history, I fully blame a cat named Abner Doubleday for all this. He is often credited with inventing this game, which requires fans to attend daytime games and miss work to drink beer and eat questionable meat products. Baseball is an institution in America, even though half the professional players are Japanese, Dominican or Mexican in origin. As such, to disparage the grand institution of baseball is akin to questioning the motives of our Department of Homeland Security; while not exactly treasonous, it will get you on the "No-Fly" list. And while I'm rather patriotic in general, I find baseball to be about as interesting to watch as rusting bumpers.
My wife told me my daughter needs to get involved in sports, though, so I have been forced to reassess my opinions. While I agreed to her extracurricular activity in principle, I was hoping more for bow hunting or racecar driving. Instead, she opted for softball, which I have learned you should never call "baseball," as the two are as different as soccer and what the rest of the world calls, um, "football." To be fair, the differences between softball and baseball are the size of the actual balls and the size of the actual players. Baseball players are much larger than nine-year-old girls. So we began attending softball practice, which happens every single weekday at dinnertime.
This has affected the schedule of the entire family. We now eat like homeless people, gobbling food whenever it's available, from leftovers to canned pasta (Wolfgang Puck ain't got nothin' on Chef Boyardee). Practice starts right after work and lasts for an hour-and-a-half. We usually get home with barely enough time for homework and showers. My wife drops her off at practice, I pick her up, and my son stays home and plays with matches. My homeowner's insurance is paid up.
Finally, after weeks of practice and trips to the sporting-goods store that left my credit card a smoking, warped mass, the girls finally got to play their first game. For those not familiar with the modern, state-of-the-art softball facility in Las Cruces, it is a true marvel of sports architecture. Screens and fences protect you from wayward fly balls, but not from sheer boredom. I don't mean to sound insensitive, but watching children play organized sports that require coordination and skill is sort of like watching cattle try out for the Bolshoi. It's like watching a slow-motion train wreck without all the sparks and drama.
My wife calls me insensitive, and compels me to express only positive observations under threat of conjugal embargo. So I clap at the right times, shoot my daughter a well-placed "thumbs-up" and yell in support at the appropriate moments, between not checking out all the hot softball mommies or thinking about buying a plate of orange-plastique nacho-type snacks. Actually watching the game is one of the last resorts for distraction, right after sampling all the ringer options on my cell phone and cleaning out my wallet.
If you're a fan of baseball—excuse me, "softball"—allow me to apologize, as my fascination with the sport ends after the 12th batter is walked, or the 73rd homerun crosses the plate in the top half of the first inning. The batter is never in danger of being hit by a softball, as the pitcher's abilities rarely extend all the way to the plate. Pigeons are in mortal danger at every pitch. The batter remains cooled by the breeze of the errant balls. The only time one hears the crack of the bat is when it's dropped to the ground after ball four is called.
When, against all odds, a batter somehow manages to connect, the ball invariably drifts toward a player who is totally engrossed by a ladybug found half an hour ago. If the ball is even noticed as it rolls by unmolested in the grass, the fielder will have just enough time to pick it up and throw it 10 feet before the batter crosses home plate.
I am not making this up: They have some sort of "mercy" rule in little league softball. If a team achieves something like 42 unopposed home runs, the inning is stopped so the teams can switch positions and give the other side a chance to subvert the game. There are no close games because of the "mercy" rule; scores are either wildly disproportionate (2 to 185) or even (185 to 185). If they want a real "mercy" rule, they would let the parents go home to eat dinner after the second home run, or at least purchase beer.
Luckily, I am an enlightened softball parent. Ever since some whack-job youth-hockey parent snuffed another player's dad, there seems to be an edgy sensitivity to parents who get a little too excited by their child's sporting events. So every player's parents are required to take a class that explains in very simple words that it is not okay to be antisocial at the games and do something undesirable such as, say, set fire to an umpire. If the parents don't prove they took the class, the child can't participate, which I guess was my last "out." I took the class, and was taught not to act out my aggressions, no matter how desperately I think the kid playing first base needs a boot factory built up his or her posterior. I thought I was a pretty mellow character about competition before; now, I'm positively lizard-like on the bleachers.
The important thing is, my daughter is having fun. She is learning great lessons about teamwork, how to work together, and why allowances must always be made for at least one slack-ass do-nothing. This is what they call a "life lesson." She is also getting exercise, and exploring her boundaries. Far be it from me to harsh her groove. So I will be dwelling on the aluminum Barcalounger for a good part of the summer, changing my ring tones and eating concession cuisine, while stoking my burning hatred for America's pastime.
Softball fans may address their hate mail to Henry Lightcap in Las Cruces.