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.

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No Cheering in the Press Box

megaphone2Almost a year ago I volunteered to help out with a new newspaper that was starting in our town. I was glad to contribute, but was reluctant to commit to providing too much content due to my day job and evenings filled with my son’s games, household chores, occasional social outings, etc. Plus, it was hockey season and my team was on a roll—so there was a lot of TV that I needed to watch. But, I jumped on board as ‘part-time sportswriter.’

One thing led to another and I went from occasional contributor to part-owner in the venture, The Earlham Echo, in the blink of an eye. Instead of a story every once in a while, I was writing multiple articles—mostly on local high school sports—every week. A whole page worth.

But doing a lot of work for little or no monetary gain has always been one of my specialties, so I adjusted quickly and began to enjoy the effort.  I had no trouble writing about my ‘core sports’ (football, baseball/softball, basketball, track), but quickly realized I would have to learn more about others (soccer, volleyball, and wrestling) if I wanted to write intelligently about them. Through my limited experience with these sports, I thought that orange slices and juice boxes were the most critical aspects to soccer and volleyball was played on sand by families during picnics. And the only wrestling matches I had ever seen had involved pile drivers, cool masks, and flying folding chairs. With plenty of help from good people, though, I am getting things figured out as I go.

The biggest challenge I have had is making the transition from fan to sportswriter during games. There is no real harm in being both, but there’s an old axiom in the world of sports writing that says ‘no cheering in the press box,’ and I’ve been trying to adhere to that as best as I can. This has been difficult for a couple of reasons: (1) most Central Iowa high schools that I visit don’t have press boxes, so I just sit in the stands; and (2) my son has been participating in many of the games I’ve been covering. He isn’t on all the teams of course, but many of his friends and classmates—kids I’ve known since they were in kindergarten—are usually playing. Not cheering every once in a while just feels weird.

I’ve been writing for the paper for almost 12 months now, so I’ve made the rounds through all the sports. Here in the middle of winter, I’ve determined that basketball is the biggest ‘no-cheer’ challenge. With the speed of the game, the intensity of the action, and the physical proximity to the game itself, it’s almost impossible to not get emotionally involved—especially given the passionate play of our hard-working Earlham teams this season. During a recent road game when the Cardinal boys rallied from ten points down in the fourth quarter for a win, not only did I ‘cheer in the press box,’ I abandoned virtually all journalistic principles, disregarded accepted safety guidelines, and ignored social decorum in general during the comeback. The game was too much fun to merely be an observer.

But my work suffered. When I should have been taking notes about the action, I was standing up and yelling and high fiving. My first question to Coach Williamson when I talked to him after the game was, “What the hell just happened?” I wasn’t being funny. I really didn’t remember a few of the key details.

Not very professional, I guess, but I’m working on it.