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.


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.

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!

Interesting takes on sports parenting…

Here’s an article I found – thought I’d share.

vicarious title2A recently completed national study showed that kids around the country are showing less enthusiasm for organized youth sports and even quitting altogether, causing a ripple effect on many levels. The most dramatic consequence was found to be the tragic toll it is taking on parents – there is a marked decline in the adult experience with youth sports.

“Nobody seems the have the parents’ feelings foremost in mind anymore,” says researcher Jan Handler, a professor of sports science from the University of the Pacific. “When kids give up sports, or don’t play up to expectations, this can be an incredible blow to their parents. A lot of moms and dads are counting on their children to earn college athletic scholarships or get drafted into professional sports. When that doesn’t happen, the effects can be traumatic.”

bagheadfanMany parents are noticing disturbing signs in their kids’ behavior at an early age. Disgruntled dad Leonard Hartung of Skokie, Illinois, became aware his of son’s poor attitude during his second year in t-ball. “He said he wasn’t having any fun,” said Hartung. “I told him, ‘Hey, fun is for losers!’ Now he’s ten and he isn’t going to sign up this summer. He’s joining the Boy Scouts instead. I mean, what am I supposed to do now? I don’t like hiking.”

In a response to kids who are less aggressive, less talented, or both, there has been a recent movement toward leagues that focus more on involvement than competition in many cities. Many sports parents are observing a major shift in how practices are conducted and games are played; and they don’t like what they see. In a soccer league in Chappaqua, New York, called Soccer Working for Inclusion, Motivation and Participation (S-WIMP), practices include lessons on “niceness” and “compassion” instead of skill-building drills or scrimmages.  They don’t keep score during games; instead, teams are awarded “points” for showing a good attitude or displaying sportsmanship. Kids can redeem their points for orange slices and juice boxes after the game – but everyone gets the same amount of snacks no matter how many points they accumulate anyway.

“It’s pretty sad,” said Barbara Thurston, a disheartened mother of a 12-year-old girl in the league. “My kid scored a goal once and I was going nuts, but everybody else just frowned at her. And she didn’t get a snack after the game. So she doesn’t even try to score anymore. The girl that got the MVP award last season—she didn’t score a single goal all year. She was just really good and helping pick up after games.”

Parents of older failing athletes are suffering as well. Many of those that invested heavily in time and money for their kids’ athletic careers at an early age only to have them turn out to be average athletes, at best, are losing hope. Phillip Rosales of Grand Forks, North Dakota, even moved his family into a smaller school district to give his oldest son a better chance of making the high school basketball team.

“Yeah, he plays, but man; he’s just not very good,” Rosales explained. “Never has been. I don’t understand it – I was awesome back in the day. At first I blamed all his coaches, of course. But that’s not it, I guess. All the money I spent on private coaches and expensive camps; down the tubes. I always figured I’d get that back when he got his rookie contract.”

“There just doesn’t seem to be a place for pushy, over-the-top parents anymore,” said Frank Lee of Franklin, Tennessee, who has started a support group for disenfranchised sports parents called Moms and Dads Sick of Kids’ Sports (MADSOKS). Lee had three children that competed in youth sports, but never in high school.

“Yeah, I was hard on my kids to perform, and they didn’t like it,” he explained. “Is that why they quit? Well, that’s what they said, but they just never got good at anything. I really should have been harder on them. Hey, life in the real world sucks. The sooner kids learn that, the better off they will be.”

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.