Sunday, June 03, 2012

The End of an Era

The year was 2004. Austin was 7, almost 8 years old. And Austin wanted to play baseball. We didn't want him playing at the local park where they are known for yelling and screaming at the kids, so we signed him up for baseball through the megachurch in our area. And thus we became a baseball family. He looked so little out on the field! But he liked it and wanted to keep going.
Austin didn't play especially well at first, be he has a daddy who really loves baseball - and loves his son - and they would go to the ball fields and practice every spare minute they had. Sometimes, Austin would come home from these sessions in tears, and I have to admit I was mad. But we didn't know what we were dealing with at the time, and Russ did what he thought was best, just like I did. So we both made mistakes. Luckily, Austin has forgiven us for those mistakes. Surprisingly enough, Austin continued to want to play ball anyway. LOL Russ would be "Dugout Dad" whenever he could.
The age cutoff was really weird back then. You had to play in the spring (March-May) on a team based on the age you would be on August 15th (2 months after the season ended). And the fall league (August-October) played on a team based on how old you would be in August of the following year. So that meant that in Austin's second season, when he had turned 8 only 2 months before, he had to play on a team with 9-10 year olds. That's a huge difference. And it was a pitching league, and quite honestly, 9 year old boys don't have a lot of control. So Austin got hit - a lot. He still didn't want to quit.

After a season or two more (my husband can tell you not only precisely how many seasons it was, but which particular team it was and every team in between), Russ came to me to propose something very serious. He wanted to coach Austin's team. He believed that Austin was really developing well as a player, but that his strange behavior (which we still didn't know was Aspergers) was making the coaches not take him seriously. So he was at the end of the batting order and he was out in right field (baseball no-mans'-land for little boys) if he played at all. Russ wanted to coach JUST ONE SEASON so he could play Austin in the proper places and see if he could shine. The reason this was so serious was because we had a 3 year old Reece and a 6 year old Riley at the time - and Reece did not do well at the ball field. She still doesn't. My husband and I used to take turns watching the girls at the games. With Russ coaching, I would no longer be able to watch any of the games. But it was JUST ONE SEASON, and then he promised me he would take care of Reece for every single game the following season so I could watch. I agreed.

That season was so different for Austin. He started hitting the ball. He started pitching, and was really good, though he would get easily stressed out on the mound. Russ could calm him down with some words or motions, or even a look. It worked out so great and Austin's self-esteem grew. The new season rolled around and Austin said, "Dad, will you be my coach again??" What's a mom to do? It would be 2011 before I got to sit down and watch a game in peace and quiet! LOL Oh well, I have to say it was worth it.

Austin's development as a baseball player was amazing. He isn't a big guy but he has some power behind his bat and he can read the ball very well. When he is 'on' he is really on. He has hit several home runs in his career and has been selected for the All-Star Team many times. He even tried a season of "travel ball" but it was too stressful for any of us to want to continue.

A few years ago, the age cutoff changed in Austin's favor. Now you played on a team with the age you were on April 30th. That means that Austin got to be the oldest, even in the first year in a new league. If the league was 11-12 year olds, he was almost 12 by the time the season started, and the next spring, he would be almost 13 but would still be in that league. It was absolutely PERFECT for a smaller kid who is a little developmentally behind the other guys.

But all good things must come to an end.

Austin has been playing in the 13-15 year old league now for several years, and he just turned 16. Sometimes the church fields a 16-18 year old league, but Austin decided that he is going to hang up his cleats. He is still such a small guy and he doesn't have as much velocity on his pitches as he would like to be successful. And he wants to focus on his drumming and his music now.

I attended as many games as I was able to this year, with Riley at home babysitting Reece. The girls each came to see Austin play one last time this season. But mostly I was selfish and left them home so I could enjoy watching having the most fun of his life. That's not to say that this season was easy, either. The team started out 0-5. One of the boys lost his father to cancer, and the day after the funeral, this amazing young man pitched a complete game and won for his dad - and let me assure you there was not a dry eye anywhere at the ball fields that day! Austin told me it was his honor to be a part of that day and he would remember it forever. I know I won't soon forget.

The boys came back at the end of the season and finished with a .500 record. But mostly, they had a blast. One of the young men who Russ coached 2 years ago came back and coached with Russ this year! (You see, my husband is one HECK of an amazing coach and he touches so many lives - as evidenced by how many of his former players are his friends on FB and send him messages keeping him updated on their baseball careers playing high school ball).

Here is a picture of Coach Dad and Coop (Austin's nickname on the ball field) from right before the last game:
Austin pitched his last game in his second-to-last game. They were playing a double-header so here is Austin saying goodbye to the pitching mound.
Here is a picture of Austin's last at-bat. The reason it is so fuzzy is that I saw this pitch coming and I knew he was going to crush it, so I was already jumping up and down. I had promised Coop $100 if he hit a home run, and I really thought I'd be paying out. Alas, it was "only" a triple. Many folks suggested that I should pay out $75, but I do not prorate! ;)
The last game was incredible. So much fun for everyone involved, and it was hard to be sad. I was expecting to be bawling like a baby, but it had just been so wonderful. I couldn't have asked for a better time for my boys!

The team ended their season with a party at the Gwinnett Braves minor league game. The boys really enjoyed some fun time together, and it was the perfect end to a season to remember.
If I could have asked for a way for baseball to end for Austin, I could not have written the script so perfectly. Austin has been such a blessing for Austin, as well as a gift. It gave him something that he could feel good about. It gave him a social outlet, too. And when you're a good ball player on your team, the kids like you and they will forgive some of your social faux pas! LOL He also learned a lot about losing with a good attitude, winning with grace and compassion, and how to persevere on the pitcher's mound when you want to give up. It gave Russ a way to initiate an "apprentice" relationship with Austin so we could work on some RDI goals without it seeming like therapy (which Austin has never been keen on). It has given Austin a full arsenal of "epsodic memories" to refer to when he needs to encourage himself to press on.

I sure will miss the baseball field each spring and fall (well, maybe after a year or two... I have to admit to being a little excited about not losing my boys for 6 months each year as they headed to the field and I managed getting the girls to their activities! LOL). Austin has indicated that he would enjoy coaching some younger boys, with his Dad, of course. I think that would be a wonderful way for them to give back to the sport that has given our family so much! So I don't think our family will be gone from baseball for long anyway... Coach Russ and Coach Coop are as inevitable on a ball field as "hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet"! And Double Bubble bubble gum.


bookworm said...

What a wonderful review of the wonderful memories you have of the ball field! I love the one of Coop hitting the ball when he was a little guy.

Lisa said...

I loved reading this - to see the successes even through the trials, to see father and son bonding, to see the progress Austin has made. What a great story, Jen!