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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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.

 

 

Over the Hills and Far Away…

_RCCThe RCC Run the Woods is an annual four-mile cross country race near Earlham that has been held since 2003. The words “cross country” only begin to define it. The race leads through thick woods, cow pastures (yes, avoid the flat, brown patches at all costs!), an insidious rocky terrain, and muddy creeks with slick, steep banks. The path is winding and twisted; so much that I’ve gotten momentarily lost on two occasions. But the most daunting feature of the course is the hills.  There is one long steady ascent of almost two miles that includes three inclines that are so precipitous that you expect to find a herd of mountain goats at the top.

I have been participating the last 10 years or so, most of the time with one or more of my kids also running. Kyle was probably 11 or 12 when he first ran. It’s a difficult enough race for full-grown adults, so a kid that age giving it a shot is impressive. I’m sure when I first talked him into signing up, I didn’t fully explain all the hazards. But he did fine, as did Kristen when she ran her first RCC race a few years later at about the same age, and Quinn when he joined the fun after that. I’m not sure all of us ever participated at the same time, but the race became a fun annual event for us, whoever was running.

A very cool coffee mug is awarded for first through third place in each age group in the race. Every time they ran, the kids claimed one of the coveted mugs. Each of them. Every year.  Me; not so much. After a few years we had almost an entire shelf of these trophies in our cabinet and I had not contributed one. About three years ago, we were standing around after the awards ceremony – the kids with their well-earned awards – and Kristen, dripping with sarcasm and holding up her prize so I could get a good look, said, “Dad – you know; we really need to make this a family tradition.” I knew she was referring to my failure to ever win a mug, but I said anyway, “Well, yeah, this is a tradition.” She just held up the mug again and gave me a disgusted look.

She was right. From that day forward I changed how I looked at that race and running in general, and how I prepared. I didn’t run track or cross country in high school and had never been a “serious runner” – I just did it to stay in shape. And even when I was in decent running shape, I still wasn’t very fast and I never worried about how I finished any race. That was okay; until Kristen waved that mug at me. Being average wasn’t good enough; keep improving – all the time. That’s what Jennifer and I had always taught our kids about athletics, the classroom, and life in general, after all.

So I gave it a shot. Every mile I ran the next year, I had the RCC race in my mind. As it got closer, I worked harder. I ran hills; I ran in the rain and in the heat; and I ran more hills. The work paid off. That year I claimed my first mug; and the year after that I got another.

For this year’s race, I decided I needed to work on lowering my best time. Who knows how many fast, 50-year-old whippersnappers new to my age group are out there taking aim at my mug? So I started working, picking up the pace after the summer heat dissipated. But that’s when I noticed a conflict. The RCC race fell on the same date – this Saturday – when Kristen would be running in the NCAA Division II Regional Championships in Joplin, MO. A big deal; but the RCC race is a big deal, too.

I really didn’t give it much thought. In my mind, I would be copping out if I didn’t run just to watch some other race – even if it was one of my kids. And I figured that Kristen would probably be disgusted with me if I didn’t run. Since the boys had all but retired from running anything longer than 90 feet in the past couple of years, the RCC had become “our” race. She understands it.

So Kristen and I have separate races this year. When we’re toeing our respective start lines at about the same time Saturday morning, a piece of my heart will be in Joplin; and I’m sure a piece of hers will be in Goeldner Woods.

St. Olaf, St. Cloud, and Other Cool-Sounding Places I’ve Never Been To

krisonmap With two kids in college now, our household population is down to three. And with Quinn not participating in a fall sport, this was looking like the lightest season we’ve had as sport parents in a long time.

Before Kristen picked her college, we knew she would probably be participating in cross country and would have a few meets somewhere this fall, and I figured we would be able to attend ‘some’ of those. Then she picked Southwest Minnesota State – a terrific school with a good athletic program – but not exactly in our back yard. Indeed, when she selected a college that was 300 miles away, the decision was not met with wild applause by many in her ‘fan club.’ But that’s a different story for a different day.

When the SMSU cross country schedule came out, Jennifer and I looked it over and I remarked that we should decide which meets we should attend. “I’m going to all of them,” she said. “All of them?” That didn’t seem practical. I’ve never been one to shy away from a good road trip, but some of these looked to be long hauls. The first meet was scheduled in Fargo – on a Friday. I’m a ‘map guy,’ but I wasn’t really sure how far away that was. When I looked it up, my back was still stiff from the drives up and back to Marshall to move Kristen – and Fargo is almost twice that far. Still, it was going to be her first college race ever, so I booked a room, reserved a vacation day at work, and made an appointment for the chiropractor.

One similarity of college and high school cross country schedules, it seems, is that they change a lot. Not long after we’d made the plans to go to Fargo, another meet was added in Sioux Falls, SD, a week before the Fargo race. Kristen had a new ‘first college meet’ and I made reservations right away. Then I called Jennifer and suggested that we didn’t need to go to Fargo anymore. “It’s so far away and it’s not her first meet anymore and…” She gasped and then I thought I heard the phone drop. I was worried that she had fainted. She recovered and said, “I don’t think I can miss it.”

I thought maybe I’d try to talk her out of it later, but I didn’t have to. Another schedule change. Thankfully, they dropped the Fargo meet and added one at St. Olaf College. I wasn’t sure where St. Olaf was, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t as close to Canada as Fargo is. When I saw that it was south of Minneapolis, that didn’t sound too bad, so I booked a hotel.

There are two meets in Minneapolis on the schedule. One is a well-known, traditional race that is one of the biggest meets in the country. The other is the conference championship meet. We couldn’t miss either one of those. Booked.

Then there is the NCAA D-II regional meet. “Good. That one’s in Missouri,” I thought. “Oh, wait, it’s in Joplin” – which is about as close to ‘not Missouri’ as you can get. But, we certainly can’t miss that. Booked.

That only left one more meet on the schedule to resolve – in St. Cloud. Again, I had to look it up. Northwest of Minneapolis – no problem. Vacation day and hotel – booked.

So my plan to go to ‘some’ of the meets evolved into Jennifer’s plan to go to ‘all’ of them. (Funny how that works.) If nothing changes and we do attend all the meets, it will add up to almost 3,500 miles of driving. And I used to think that drive to Bedford was bad.

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.