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.
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:
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.
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.