Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Good School On The Softball Field

My daughter and I made a good school last night. We took softballs, gloves, and bat to the field to take some swings. She was nervous and reluctant. She hates batting because she doesn’t know how to swing and has been hit twice. She went to the field believing that learning to bat was as likely as her learning to fly. I had my own misgivings.
As with so much in parenting, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing but she needed help so I got to work without a plan or goals other than to have her swing at the ball some. I had no rubric to evaluate our performance. I just wanted us to have fun and see what happened. I’m no great batter, but figured I could help. Just taking swings would help. Mostly, I wanted time with my girl.
At the school we said hello to Whitman, a deliriously happy dog running full speed around the fenced in field. When a friendly dog comes our way, we drop everything and get to petting it. Priorities. After Whitman went off, we walked to home plate discussing how much we need a  fourth pet (her) and why that isn’t going to happen (me). We took bat and balls into the batter’s box. She got into a weak, confused stance with stiff legs, crooked arms, and her back pulling away from the plate. She swung a rigid downward chop with no speed or confidence. Her body showed her thinking, I can’t. I don’t want to. I hate this. I’m no good.
My girl and I worry too much about failure and embarrassment. She’d rather quit than face not knowing how to hit the ball. She fears failing to learn from my teaching and would rather get hit in the head with a hard pitch than disappoint me. Her swing showed all this trepidation.
I had her swing some more, then asked to borrow the bat. She handed it over looking worried. I stood in my stance, bent knees, leaning forward, feet at shoulder width, weight on my back foot. I took a slow motion swing. She said I was doing it wrong.  
“You stopped halfway. You have to go through.”
I meant to stop halfway, breaking things down, but got into my stance and did another slow swing, this time going all the way through. It didn’t feel right. “Feels like my wrists are locked and I can’t finish the swing. You know?” I gave it another swing that felt better. I ask, “was my swing level?” She said it was. I handed the bat back.
Her stance was still rigid and tentative. She took a swing at regular speed. She had wrists of steel, no bend at all. “Try a slow motion swing,” I said. She did and kicked her back leg up at the finish. “What the hell was that?” I asked, smiling. “That’s how I do it,” she said. “Well, stop that, you big goof. There’s no ballet in baseball.” We both smiled. She gave it another swing. Her foot stayed on the ground, but she wasn’t stepping. I asked for the bat and showed her to put the weight on her back foot then step into the swing. She took the bat back and didn’t quite step into the swing, but things were improving.
She was still nervous, but I didn’t care. She was swinging a bat. No goal, no plan, just swinging, talking, and listening. We’d each swing some and talk it through. She’s a south paw while I’m right handed so we mirror one another (in all too many ways). I was a talking, smiling, sarcastic mirror for her as we went through the basics. I’m sure we got some of it wrong—my swing ain’t perfect—but we weren’t there to get everything right.
At a little league clinic once I watched a coach squat down next to a batter, toss a ball up, and let the kid tee off. I figured we would try that. She faced the backstop so we wouldn’t have to shag all the hits. I squatted, tossed a ball, she swang and missed. I tossed again. Same thing. We tried twelve to fifteen times and got nowhere. The ball remained a mystery to her bat. Her swing was that rigid chop. She may have been kicking her back leg up again. It was no good.
Plan B. You know those videos of a kid ripping a hit into their dad’s nuts? I set up for that. I stood at the backstop and lobbed one in. She swung and missed, but her swing was better. Crazy better. Fluid and level. I lobbed in a second pitch and she clocked a line drive into the backstop.
“Hey!” I shouted. “That’s it!”
I smiled and lobbed another, jumping out of the way as she ripped it back at me. I tossed a dozen more. She drilled ten into the fence.  
We turned around. I pitched from two-thirds of the way to the mound giving me enough time to avoid her hits but letting her get used to hitting it into play. One hit made it to center field.
“Are you kidding me?” I shouted.
She laughed and clocked the next one at me. I jumped and she laughed some more. Twenty minutes earlier, she expected to miss everything. Then she hit one and another and another. By the time her sister and mother joined us (having walked the dog to the field), she was surprised when she didn’t hit them. I kept lobbing and she kept hitting. It was time to raise our game.
“Be fierce in your stance. Bend your legs. Bat up straight and strong. Butt out.” She toughened herself up and hit one down the first base line.
After that I called, “stance!” when she wasn’t looking fierce. She gave me her exasperated face but got into it. She decided to be fierce by screaming as she swung. The neighbors must have loved it. She hit more than she missed and showed no signs of tiring. Her mother, sister, and I shagged the balls as she served up base hits.
She’s no Bronx Bomber. Not by a long shot. She’s not that comfortable in the box, but she knows she can hit now. She won’t hit a homer in Tuesday’s game. Maybe not even a base hit. Or maybe she will. I won’t be surprised either way.
On the field, I stopped teaching and let her learn. She did some things right, some things wrong. One pitch she’d swing perfectly, smacking it to third. The next she’d kick her back foot up like a dancer and whiff. Who knows how much she will remember next time she goes bats?
We got tired and the sun sank low. I lobbed a last one in and she drove it hard to where a shortstop would have stood. “Ready to go?” I asked. “Sure,” she said. She followed her mother, sister, and the dog toward the gate. I followed behind her. She had the bat on her shoulder like I used to. She looked like a ballplayer.
That was a good school.