Brad hates playing center field. On his Little League team, the Nationals, all the action happens in the infield. There is very little ball-hitting, on any of the teams. The kids strike out swinging, sometimes, or get walked. Once on base, the runs are all scored by taking advantage of errors. For a game that requires so much catching, there is precious little catching going on. It’s mostly picking the ball up off the ground, after chasing it across the infield. So a typical play goes like this: pitcher pitches, batter swings and misses, catcher misses also. While the catcher is scrabbling on his hand and knees to get the ball, the player on first steals second. The catcher finally gets the ball, throws it towards second to get the runner out, but the ball goes through the second baseman’s legs, and the runner steals third. This can be repeated as many times as necessary until the runner, who probably got walked on base in the first place, steals home. Ryan calls this “slop ball.” It is exceedingly painful to watch, especially if you like baseball.
Since the ball reaches the outfield approximately once per game, Brad considers playing centerfield a punishment. First base is his preferred position – but I bet it is for most of the boys. Being relegated to center makes him reluctant to go to his games.
Tonight the Nationals were playing the Rays. Brad was playing deep center, and by “playing” I mean crouching down, shifting his weight from foot to foot while the other team’s score inches up. The third inning is a bloodbath – the score is one to five, then one to six, then one to seven. The ball wasn’t hit a single time. It’s one to eight, two outs, runners on all the bases, the pitcher seems to have completely forgotten where home plate is, and I’m just dying, waiting for it to end. Out of nowhere, the batter hits a pop fly – a gorgeous, perfect arc, straight to center field. I don’t even have time to pray as Brad runs for the ball. I can’t see him through the infield players, but he’s on the ground. His hand shoots straight into the air – he’s holding the ball.
The entire field erupts. Both teams - players, parents, and coaches - are cheering. The other coach tells our coach how beautiful that play was. A parent loves how he thrust the ball in the air, as if even Brad was surprised that he caught it. It was perfection, that play. It looked like real baseball.
As the team came into the dugout, Brad is smiling, but he’s trying to play it modest – everyone is congratulating him. I’m trying not to cry. Is there anything more wonderful than seeing your child succeed? This person that I created, I love him so much that I feel as happy as if I caught the winning ball myself.
Well, it wasn’t the winning ball. The Rays ratcheted the score upward – it was two to thirteen when we go up for our last time at bat. The coach says, “Eleven to tie, twelve to win. We’ve got them right where we want them.” The Nationals did their best – Brad scored a run (on a walk and three steals) but the final score was still eight to thirteen. Someone from the League was at the game, and he presented Brad with the game ball. Brad practically floated to the car - parents high-fived Brad and kids called out “good job” to him. The only thing missing was the team hoisting him on their shoulders or dousing him with a cooler of Gatorade.
“I can’t wait till Tuesday!” Brad sings. “It’s my next game! And I can’t wait to play center field!”