The Encouragers

"I remember being a lot more engaged at his age," he thought. "I loved baseball from the first day Dad bought me a whiffle ball, plastic bat, and red glove. How can I get Jake to love ball?"
The Encouragers
In: Encouragement, Passion, Short Story

Bob shielded his eyes from the glare--the setting sun was just above the trees--and glanced around the bases. Little Jay on first, having walked with four straight balls thrown over his head, was distracted by the goings-on behind him where the right fielder was digging up a wildflower with a rock he found in the patchy grass. Moosey, the best player on the team, with a huge lead off second, was standing by the opposing shortstop, who was admiring the inside of his glove, wondering how much sand it would hold. Ruthie, standing in the middle of the third bag and planted as if she was claiming it for the mother country, was rubbing her left elbow, the one she presented to the second wild pitch which had got her on base and had shut her ears to the third base coach's pleadings to take a lead. Ruthie had never made it to third base before and wasn't about to put her gains at risk. Coach Karen lifted her arms to the heavens and finally relinquished. "Okay, Ruthie. Hug that bag, but please run home when I tell you, okay?" Ruthie, small for her age, showed Karen the red blotch on her elbow and remained noncommittal about the whole leaving third business.

Bob, tall and still lanky, with the hint of the dad-bod to come hidden beneath the X-L jersey that yelled E A G L E S across the back and sprouted colorful sponsor patches on the sleeves, was a former Division II first baseman who volunteered to coach the peewees because his son, Jake, was on the team. Jake, 9, had yet to catch his Dad's fervor for America's favorite pastime, but he put on the uniform because his Mom promised DQ afterward. In the dugout, Jake was more interested in fishing in his backpack for some Cheez-its than grabbing his bat and heading for the imaginary on-deck circle.

"Jakey, Jakey," called Bob. "You're on deck, bud. Grab your bat and go stand by Coach Karen. Jacob Lance Martin. Put the Cheez-its down and get your bat! Coach Lewis, can you help Jake, please?"

Bob groaned inwardly as he watched Jake run in front of the catcher, pause to wipe his hands on his pants, leaving orange contrails, and amble to take his position. "I remember being a lot more engaged at his age," he thought. "I loved baseball from the first day Dad bought me a whiffle ball, plastic bat, and red glove. How can I get Jake to love ball?" Bob, like all ex-athletes, also felt sure that back in the day, he and his friends were head and shoulders above this current crop.

Time was called as the opposing coach ran to help his catcher refasten his shinguards that were flopping around like loose shutters in a gale. With play paused, Bob daydreamed about when he and his family would watch his athletic Dad play summer ball in city leagues. Momentarily, Bob had an epiphany - as he chanced upon a feeling long forgotten. "It wasn't the new gear," he remembered, "It was a feeling of absolute joy watching Dad and his friends play. I felt thrilled. I imagined I could be like Dad. I dreamed of having a uniform like his and diving after balls, coming up to make a play, getting high fives from everyone, and brushing the red stains off my knees. I used to throw a tennis ball off the garage door and make myself dive to snag it and then jump and twirl - just like Dad."

"Coach. Coach. Let's play ball. I need a batter," yelled the ump.

Bob, jerked out of his reverie, continued to coach his young team to an 18-17 walk-fest win, but his brain was on fire.

Later, Bob and his pretty wife, Carolyn, talked seriously after the DQ chocolate had been scrubbed from faces and their three kids were asleep.

"Car, little Jake has never seen me play ball. He's only seen pictures and heard me brag about how good I was. He's only playing because we bribe him. I want him to love the game like I do, and you know I get frustrated with his lackadaisical attitude."

"I know. You try to be patient, but your displeasure bleeds through. I know Jake senses it."

"I hate that. I love him so much and want the world for him."

"I know, Honey. It's just that you can be so intense."

"Well, not intense enough. I had a serious brain flash today. I love baseball because I watched my Dad play baseball at an early age. Bottom line. 100% love affair - I couldn't help it. It was like it was injected into my soul."

"We've talked about this. We're both so busy working and raising the kids and doing church stuff. We just don't have the time or energy to do one more thing. Plus, there's the money: fees and uniforms and lost overtime; gas money, meals out."

"I know. Everything you say is right and makes perfect sense - except for one thing. Just struggling to keep our head above water while having nice things has made us lose what is most important - providing our kids with a rush of life-changing experiences. There is something about real life that you can't get from TV or a video game. It is impossible to place a value on the spark that ignited in me that eventually led to college scholarships, not to mention that character developed from the struggles along the way. And Jake's the oldest. What about Liz and little Bobby?"

"What are you saying?" asked Carolyn, "that we turn our lives upside down so you can play ball again?"

"No, not at all. I want us to rethink our priorities. If what I remember is true, it didn't take much. I think my Dad's games were, like, once a week on Sunday afternoon., Then he just started playing occasionally in a church softball league, but I still loved watching, even as a rebellious teen. We could figure out how to work in what we are good at so the kids can catch the emotional charge. What about you? You were a great volleyball player in high school."

It took some time. It took learning to say no to good things to make place for better things. It took discipline and budgeting. But before you know it, the family was bundled up and carted around to Bob's baseball games and Carolyn's volleyball games. Then came every imaginable activity for the kids, from basketball to jazz dance to art contests to anything and everything to find that spark of interest that would make a preteen and teen want to sacrifice to pursue the excellence they had seen in their parents. Life was a hectic, joyous blur.

Fast forward: Jake is entertaining baseball scholarship offers from several nice colleges. Liz is lettering in three sports, but her passion is design. Bobby is still figuring it out but loves basketball and soccer and excels at math.

The moral of this story: Kids model their parents' actions and attitudes.

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