Last of the Last

baseball on pitchers mound

There haven’t been many of my three kids’ high school games over the years when I haven’t felt a little nervous as they got started. This has always seemed normal—I’m thinking about what they and their teams are about to do and I get a little tense. No big deal. The minor butterflies always dissipate fairly soon after the game begins.

But I was uncharacteristically anxious before Quinn’s baseball game in Madrid last week. I had almost a sick feeling gnawing away at me that wasn’t going away. The game got off to a bad start for our team, it was really hot and humid, I had eaten dinner at a concession stand for the 21st time this month—but none of those things was the problem.

Then I had a bit of a déjà vu—this wasn’t the first time for this phenomenon. Flashback to this time of year in 2015; Kristen’s senior softball season. Then all the way back to 2012; Kyle’s last baseball campaign. This pit-of-my-stomach, dry-mouth anxiety was just the realization that Quinn’s season—as well as his high school athletic career—were almost over.

Too soon, by the way this game was going. I was hoping for a least a couple post-season games this year; and maybe, if things fell into place, even a longer run. Six years ago, I didn’t expect Kyle’s last game to be at Principal Park—and that happened.

But Quinn and his teammates were behind 3-0 early and not mustering much offense. They scratched out a couple of runs to get close, but then gave up three runs and were down 6-2. There was one more chance for a rally and they got one going in the seventh inning. I stood up and moved toward the dugout to soak up as much as I could. The last thing players want is parents hanging outside the dugout, but since I’m the sports guy for the Earlham Echo now and I was trying to look as official as I could, I thought I could get a ‘media pass’ for this one.

The rally came up short and, after the handshakes, the other team celebrated while the Cards grabbed their stuff, got out of the dugout, and shuffled to an out-of-the-way area outside the fence. I had an official duty as well an unofficial one. I officially needed to interview the coach for a story for the paper and unofficially needed to give Quinn a hug and say something to him. I wasn’t sure in what order to go. Considering past last games my kids played, I knew I was going to get a little choked up. The last thing I wanted to do was have an emotional moment with Quinn and then sniffle and whimper through an interview with Coach Winter. But if I interviewed the coach first, Quinn might get on the bus before I got done.

After Coach Winter spoke to his team many of the guys started hugging each other and some tears were flowing. I was around a few of these final game scenes this year because of my job with the Echo and several years ago when I wrote my book about high school football and it’s hard not to get a little swept up in the emotion. These aren’t wimpy guys crying because they lost; they’re seasoned athletes realizing that the years of athletic camaraderie and dedication to a shared cause are over. They won’t ever suit up and play for their teams together again. Anyone not getting a little teary eyed over that probably didn’t care enough.

I found Quinn, gave him a quick hug, and my voice cracked as I told him how proud of him I was. That’s it. I got out. I knew he didn’t want a lengthy emotional scene any more than I did. Then I found the coach and asked he if he had time for an interview. I was thankful that my voice didn’t crack then. The interview was fine. I was feeling sentimental so I probably rambled even more than I usually do during these things, but Coach finally got some words in edgewise and gave me some good quotes.

Quinn’s introduction to baseball was when I first rolled a squishy ball with a bell in it at him before he could even crawl—and now he had played his final game for the Earlham Cardinals. Everything between those two events flooded through my mind on the way home. Q-ball, our own two-person version of wiffle ball we invented when he was five; the time I beaned him (with a real baseball) when I was trying to teach him to bunt; all the fun and laughs when I coached his little league teams. I love most sports, but baseball has always been particularly special to me and I have been blessed to have shared so many baseball moments with Quinn.

And this wasn’t just the end of Quinn’s athletic career; this baseball game was the final high school game for all of our kids. Three up, three down for the Webers. That’s a tough realization. So much of our lives has revolved around the kids’ athletic contests, celebrating their triumphs and consoling them in defeat, it already feels like there is a void. When Jennifer and I sit in the stands for Cardinal games from now on, it will never be the same. But on the bright side, there won’t be any more pre-game intestinal distress.

Advertisements

Quinn Weber versus Dale Watson

Quinn Weber versus Dale WatsonDale Watson is a Texas honky tonk legend; a favorite musician of mine who I have never seen live. Quinn Weber is one of my favorite kids; a fine young gentleman and athlete. Both were set to perform in Central Iowa on Tuesday. No problem. Quinn was starting in the JV baseball game in Earlham at 5:00 p.m. and the venue in Des Moines hosting Watson was advertising a show time of 9:00 p.m. In theory, Jennifer and I could go to both.

During Quinn’s game, Jennifer made repeated calls to the venue to find out if Watson was coming on at 9 or if there was a band playing before him. We were hoping for the former. An opening act would have meant the main attraction would not start until 10:30 or so. Back in the day, 10:30 was early. But for old timers like us who work day jobs and then go to baseball games almost every night, getting home past midnight didn’t sound like something we wanted to do on a week day;  Dale Watson or not.

After Quinn’s team wrapped up a nice win, we weighed our options. We decided to stay and watch the varsity for a while – still trying to get a hold of the venue. (They weren’t answering their phone, which seems like bad business to me.) The first inning dragged a bit and when lightning flashed, the umpires put a halt to the game. It would be a least a half hour before they could resume, and the bad weather looked like it might settle in for a while, so Jennifer and I packed up our chairs and went home. Quinn had only one inning of varsity action so far this season, so we didn’t think we’d miss anything historic, even if the game did resume.

We were tired, but the Watson show was still an option. As I sat watching the Cardinals on TV, I was starting to get my second wind. I had cursed myself for missing him the last time he came to Des Moines and swore it would never happen again. If you don’t know what Watson is all about, his song titles like Honkiest Tonkiest Beer Joint, My Baby Makes Me Gravy, and Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to Be Babies should give you a good idea. As he describes himself in another song, “I’m too country now for country.” His Texas drawl, twangy guitars and shuffling beats are way too genuine to get him any mainstream radio play, but he’s still garnered loads of loyal fans over his 25 years of performing.

“Yes. Yes.” I thought. “We need to go.”

Moments after I had this revelation, I heard Jennifer from upstairs. “No! Oh, no!” By her tone, I thought maybe part of the ceiling had fallen in; or maybe she had spilled a Coke on her I-Pad—nothing too terrible. She had gotten a text from a friend that gave her some news. She yelled, “We have to go back! Quinn is going into the game. He’s pitching!”

Which meant Dale Watson wasn’t going to happen. We’ve missed some of the kids’ sporting events for other entertainment-related reasons before—but not very often. And this was fairly momentous. Quinn pitched one varsity inning in a blowout win earlier in the year against a team that wasn’t very good, but Earlham was playing a pretty good team Tuesday, so we definitely needed to see this. We jumped back in the car and raced up to the field, just in time to see Quinn in the on deck circle. Bonus—a varsity at bat. That didn’t go too well, but a good experience anyway.

It turns out we missed Quinn get the last out of the previous inning, but we were firmly in our seats when he went back to the mound in the next frame. He did great. Three outs and no runs. He also pitched the next inning and gave up a couple of hits and a couple of runs, but looked pretty good and ended up retiring the side.

Earlham ended up on the wrong side of a lopsided score, but Quinn and I still had a spirited discussion when he got home. We broke down his specific pitches to various batters and discussed strategy and general pitching theory. And that was the highlight of my night. Not exactly a honky tonk, beer drinking swingfest, but a great time nonetheless. As for Dale Watson – next time!

Diary of a First-Time Golf Dad

golfMy kids have played almost every sport known to humankind over the years, but they have generally stayed away from signing up for the sports I don’t know much about. There has been no wrestling or volleyball, and, thankfully, only brief soccer periods early in their athletic lives.

But now Quinn has decided to go out for the high school golf team. I’m happy for him. He really enjoys the game and I think he has potential. But as a guy with only limited practical golf experience, I have no idea what is expected of me.

Until someone tells me otherwise, I’m going to assume it’s okay to attend the matches (or, are they called meets?) – but I don’t know what to do when I get there.  I do have experience as a fan at golf courses, but up until now, it has been to watch cross country races. So in one respect I think being a golf dad might actually be easier than being a cross country dad – I won’t have to kill myself sprinting from spot to spot to see Quinn for a few fleeting moments. Walking will be good. But, do I follow him around for the whole match (uh, meet)? Depending on the length of the race, cross country is over in 15 or 20 minutes. Doesn’t it take two or three hours to play a round of golf? Baseball and basketball games can take that long, but there is some actual action involved in those contests.  A few hours just watching a guy swing a club at a little ball? Out in the cold and wind of an Iowa spring? Being at the day job sounds better than that. I suppose cheering is okay, but probably not in the manner I’m used to for the other sports. I suppose I can yell “Get in the hole!” or “You da man!” after every one of Quinn’s swings, but perhaps I’d better wait to see if any other parents are doing it first. And I’ve heard of the golf clap, but never tried it. There is much to learn and not much time.

Basketball and baseball are Quinn’s other sports. I was a decent player in both in my day and have a good working knowledge of skills and strategies, so I have enjoyed being able to coach him up a little and offer advice along the way. But I may be the world’s worst golfer.  Other than, “Keep your eye on the ball,” I can’t offer up much of anything to him. My guess is that he’s seeing that as a definite plus, but it will be a void for me.

There is no good reason that I shouldn’t at least be a decent golfer today.  When I was a kid, my dad had a membership to a course and I could play as much as I wanted for free – but I just didn’t.  He was an avid player and I played with him every once in a while. But he was pretty good – at his peak his handicap was around 8 or 9 – and the last thing good golfers want to do is play with bad golfers. (The last time we played together, I hit a house with an errant shot.) He did his best to help me, but I never got it. One time we were playing through some rain and when we finished, I said, “Well, I must be a real golfer now. I played in the rain.” He answered, “If you were a real golfer, you wouldn’t have even noticed it was raining.”

So maybe I will have a least a few words of wisdom to offer Quinn on the game of golf after all:  “Rain? What rain?” I’m just not sure I want to stand in it when I’m watching him.

 

 

A Case to Abolish Academics from Schools

abolish_academics

I came across a blog a few months ago that suggested that schools should eliminate all sports programs in order to save money and allow the districts to concentrate on academics. This sounded a little extreme, but I thought about it a lot and came to the conclusion that this writer was onto something—she just had things backwards. So I’m proposing a plan that calls for the opposite—getting rid of the academic curriculum entirely and replacing it with sports. Kids, say goodbye to the three Rs and say hello to the three Bs; Basketball, Baseball, and, well…until I come up with something better, Badminton.

Instead of sitting through mind-numbing math, science and English classes, kids will now be required to participate in interscholastic sports. All day. Every day. This isn’t the P.E.-style just-for-fun stuff; I’m talking full-on “let’s crush the other guys” sports. Kids will be graded on how well they perform; there will be none of this, “Well, I tried” stuff. Kids who help their team win will get a good grade. Kids who fumble, hit the ball into the net, or double dribble constantly, will fail. He’s a fictional character, sure, but Yoda said it best:  “Do, or do not. There is no try.” He should know; the guy won a lot of light saber duels.

Those of us with kids in school know what it’s like when they are frustrated with a subject and say something like, “I’m never going need this in the real world.” We said the same thing when we were that age, but have always felt compelled to convince our children that Shakespeare really is going to be vital in their future daily lives. “Learn it anyway,” we say. But the dirty little secret that parents eventually come to know is that we really don’t use anything we learned in our academic classes when we’re all grown up and working for a living. Everything we learned in sports, on the other hand—discipline, teamwork, sock fashion, how to spit seeds, etc.—we use every day.

I’m a writer and editor by trade, but must admit that I couldn’t conjugate a verb if you asked me; and I have no idea what a past participle is. Under my plan, kids can get all the language arts they need by studying rules books—and paying extra attention when cheerleaders do spelling cheers like “S-I-N-K, sink it!” Perhaps they can even alter current cheers to make them more challenging and multi-syllabic, like; “Let’s get a little bit boisterous, B-O-I-S-T-E-R-O-U-S!”

History is…history. This subject has always been warped by the perspective of the historian, anyway. You may have learned that FDR was a hero for pulling the U.S. out of the Depression, but later you were told that he prolonged it with his wacky socialist policies. Your grade school teachers probably taught you that our founding fathers were great, but then you found out in high school that that they were sexist, racist, and just about every other “ist” word. So what’s the point? Under my plan, studying game film will constitute history.

Math? The only people who have ever used math after high school are math teachers, so this is an easy subject to eliminate. My plan: calculators. And teach kids the formula for earned run average. Once they can figure that out, that’s all the math they’ll ever need.

Science may be the most useless subject of all. I have always been pretty happy that I could name all the planets, I guess, but then the scientists went and ruined that by demoting Pluto. Now they think they found something else out there that may or may not be a planet. So…it’s settled; scientists don’t know what they are doing. Science under my plan; physics=rebounding; biology=stretch before a workout; chemistry=protein builds muscle.

Music and art? They stay, because I like music and art.

There are bound to be some detractors to this plan because it is a little radical, but I’m not worried. Once they find out it won’t raise their taxes, they’ll be fine.

I Got the Music In Me

notes_ballsNo offense to the math, science or English teachers out there, but I think that sports and music are the most important aspects of an education curriculum. They were for me, anyway. Ask me today to draw an electron shell or solve anything but the simplest algebraic equations – forget it. And I’m a writer, but I would still have difficulty conjugating verbs; and I’m not even sure what a past participle is.

But I still use the lessons I learned playing basketball, baseball, and being in the choir – every day. There is the dedication and hard work necessary in honing an individual skill; the sacrifice and collaboration in coming together as a team; then putting all that effort together into the best performance possible when the pressure is greatest. That’s the kind of stuff that pays the bills in the real world.

So for me, sports and music are pretty much the same thing—except that in band and choir, grass stains are quite rare and you’re a lot less likely to pull a hamstring.

So I was only half kidding when I said, “Too bad we’re wasting such a nice day,” as Jennifer, Kristen and I got into the car Saturday to go to the Iowa High School Music Association solo/ensemble contest in Greenfield. (Quinn took the bus.) Sunny and 70 would have been perfect conditions for some yard projects that I punted last fall into this spring, or playing some catch with Quinn or perhaps taking him to the driving range. But the music programs in Earlham are terrific, so everything else could wait.

It wasn’t always this way. Back when our kids were much younger, our school music programs were mostly lackluster. Going to their concerts was a chore and they couldn’t end fast enough. The kids looked as uninspired as the audience. But not anymore. New teachers brought new attitudes and enthusiasm that invigorated kids and parents alike. Participation soared, individual talent emerged, and group success has been extraordinary.

Quinn was up first Saturday as part of the drum ensemble. Our band has more percussionists than many bands have musicians, and the quality matches the quantity. When they are on the field playing and marching during football season, the sound tends to dissipate somewhat before it hits the stands. But in this little library sitting on the front row, the rhythms and beats they banged out steamrolled me like I was at a heavy metal concert. Confidence radiated from the young faces as they performed the difficult piece almost flawlessly, with hardly a stray click or misplaced thump. Afterward, Kristen gave me some good-natured teasing about how I had rocked and bopped through the whole thing, and I told her, “I couldn’t help it!”

Our afternoon was capped when Kristen sang with the chamber choir – a moving a cappella spiritual standard called “Soon Ah Will Be Done.” I was immediately drawn into this song in a way I had never experienced in listening to our choir. I have heard them perform well many times, so I wasn’t surprised that the voices were all hitting the right notes. The difference this time was that they were truly communicating the emotion of the song. That’s the kind of thing that separates the Rolling Stones from the local bar band; Michael Buble from some random guy on American Idol. The list could go on—you get the idea; it’s not easy. This performance by our choir not only sounded good; it felt good. They aimed for the soul – not just the ears – and they hit their mark. And it felt even better because it was “our” kids that had pulled it off.

Good coaches and teachers are quick to deflect this kind of success to the kids, and that’s just what Mrs. Maiers did when I congratulated and thanked her right after the performance. Yes, the kids did it; but this kind of magic doesn’t happen without skilled, patient, and inspired direction. That’s what Earlham’s music programs – band and choir – are lucky enough to have now.

Budget woes have Iowa public schools scrambling these days. Earlham is no different, and now our music program is facing some drastic cuts. Paying the bills for the school district is a tough job, but I’m hoping that the powers that be can find a different solution. Tearing down one of the best things our school has going is a bad plan.