The little crew of 5- and 6-year-olds gathered at the field like a swarm of bees descending upon a field of ready flowers. They shared the same uniform colors, having arrived from different directions and means of transport. Several of the children hopped out of a family minivan, a few from a pick-up truck. The coach and his children sprung from their open-air Jeep Wrangler, hauling buckets of balls and bats and other such equipment that seemingly poured out of the vehicle. Then the little gaggle of players and coaches assembled around the field. Bright anticipation for the game ahead illumined the field with just as much intensity as the late afternoon sun shining above.
T-ball, in many ways, is the portal into proverbial joy or into a life of overbearing demand.Before the game, the two teams lined up outside their respective dugouts and began to prepare themselves. Unlike more mature players, these kids came for the conversation, antics, and fun. The t-ball game is the social marketplace of the kindergartner. Each week is an opportunity to see your friends, update them on the current happenings of life, and pass on some strange, newly acquired dance, song, clap, or jump (as well as funny sounding potty words). Quite simply, the dugout at the Plymouth Co-Ed 5-6 Years Instruction League was the age-specific equivalent to Facebook, complete with live-action memes occurring at various times throughout the game. From their cobbled conversation you learn much of what is important and exciting to this subculture:
“Coach, I got unlocked Wolverine on Avengers today!”
“That’s great, Peter—are you ready to play baseball?”
“Sure, I just wanted to see my friend Joey today. Hey, Joey, I found a skeleton that I killed in Minecraft today. It was awesome. Do you want to come over after the game? I think Ninjago is the coolest, don’t you think… hey, I heard my dad fart last night…”
Everything for these children is momentary and temporal. Everything is joy. The life of a child is a life of play. Their aim is the pure expression and engagement in the moment. The future is only as far as the ice-cream dessert at the end of the game. For the coaches, there was another aim. The goal of the instructional league wasn’t so much in maintaining a social construct for post-toddler life. Coaches graded themselves on the instruction aspect of the league. For children to grow into professional, moneymaking, crowd-adoring, stadium-filling athletes required a specific discipline and seriousness about the game at the very first steps of their journey. Teach a kid the wrong way to swing the bat at this level, and he will never move beyond that swing, and therefore never hit better than .206 at the Little League level. That child would then never be good enough to make the cut for varsity baseball in high school and never garner the attention of a traveling scout from the Majors who is ready to doll out a nice $5,000 signing bonus to enlist your son into at least five years of barely minimum wage traveling the country living the American Dream of death-by-performance. At least, this is what some coaches told themselves. Others championed the clichéd mantra that has to be said—but never believed—in the American Industrial Athletic Complex: “It’s a game! We’re here to have fun!”
Yet on that warm, sunny summer evening, as the dugout swarmed with the camaraderie of uniformed chaos buzzing to its own energy, the thoughts of future glory and professional trajectories only rested in the minds of those who sired the budding athletes on the field. As the players took the field, the often repeated and necessary instruction began.
“Erik, you’re playing first base this inning.”
“Where is that?”
“Oh. Will anyone hit ball to me?”
“Should I catch it?”
T-ball is a game of repetition: doing the same things over and over again to build a collective memory of a skill. Yet t-ball is also a pint-sized version of the more nuanced and strategically oriented game of late adolescence and adulthood. Children have no idea how to play ball. If a t-ball coach wants to believe that he is talking to rational, intelligent, and somewhat sophisticated individuals, he will probably need to begin a regiment of TUMS and NSAIDS to negate the effects of a stress headache. The cackles of players just beyond toddlerhood know nothing of remembering the instructions of the previous week. It is if their minds were completely erased in the intervening days between games. Each game is as if it was their first. Therefore, the instructions are the same, week to week, inning to inning.
“Get in ‘ready position,’ Stephen.”
“Remember last week we showed you?”
“No. Do we get ice cream after the game?”
“Yes, but right now let’s get into ‘ready position.’”
The loop of instruction is infinite. Heaven help the coaches who face not only the selective memory of a small boy but the distracting variations, spectacles, and diversions that face said boy standing in right field. Heaven send an extra measure of help to the coach who must instruct his team at the field that is immediately adjacent to a local car wash and functioning railroad with on-schedule trains blazing by at least twice a game. The only more-cruel curse would be the addition of a well-timed ice-cream vendor, complete with singing truck and rainbow push-pops cold and ready for consumption. (I should know, this is my children’s t-ball environment.) Whenever the ball is hit into the field of play—which is guaranteed with each and every batter—the crowd of ready-positioned (yet highly distracted) children becomes more marauding-horde, all chasing after the ball. Despite the best of instructions.
Between hitters, players seem as an unfocused and undisciplined melee of individuals. There’s Johnny staring at butterflies in left field. Sally is dancing to her own music over on third base. Mark is talking to his new best friend, Sam, who happens to be on the other team and is Mark’s new friend simply because he happens to be standing on first base. (Whoever happens to be on first next will inevitably be Mark’s new friend, at least until a new runner appears.) Take this mob of unsuspecting children, each doing their own thing, and hit a ball toward them, and they become a collective whole focused on one pursuit, the obtaining of the baseball. As the ball rings off the aluminum bat, these 10 or 11 children become equally possessed and insatiable until the ball is resting securely in the glove of the shortstop. Never mind the shortstop had to run to the right field fence to collect the ball; possession is the most important skill in fielding.
“Johnny, if the ball is hit to Peter, let him catch it.”
“Johnny, if the ball is hit to Sally, let her catch it.”
“Johnny, if the ball is hit to Peter, let him catch it.”
The refrain of coaching in the field is constant and repetitive. “Ready position!” “Catch the ball!” “Throw the ball!” and “Ready position!”—this is the coach’s chorus to children bent on displaying a force of free will that would make any Calvinist question their system. Alas, these poor coaches are seeking to proverbially herd cats as they get the team into place before the next hit.
Hitting is an entirely different animal. After corralling the players from the field, it’s time to settle them onto benches that simply cannot contain their exuberant distractedness as each one await a turn at the plate. The dugout life of the social network churns on while each player takes a turn swinging at a ball stationed upon the top of a pole. As the coach re-instructs the hitter as to the posture and technique of the proper swing, the mind’s eye of the 6-year-old sees only one thing: a white object flying through the air into the great beyond. As the coach sets the ball on the tee and positions the hitter, every aspect of instruction, direction, and wisdom is ignored. Parents call out to their children, cheering them on, which only distracts them further. Smiles, poses, and the occasional “thumbs up” well wishes are sent into the stands to adoring fans. At the appointed moment for the swing, the player creates a unique haphazard motion, each resembling a swing of sorts, and expects the ball to carry into the outfield. The likelihood is that the ball is kissed on the top as the player over swings, or the tee is mercilessly pounded as the player under swings. Once a solid hit is produced (five swings, on average) the hitter becomes a runner and must go around the preordained base path, one station at a time.
“Run, Billy, Run!”
“Not that way, Billy… to first base!”
“No, first base, Billy, not third.”
After three full innings in which neither team has recorded more than a total of two outs, the post-game antics begin. For myriad t-ball leagues across our nation, the post-game ritual is one of the most important of the whole experience. The post-game snack becomes the status symbol of parental affluence and generosity, something the children begin thinking about—and crying out for—by the end of the first inning. Like the Israelites wailing for manna from heaven and water from the rock, a t-ball player without a Capri Sun is an incessant murmurer. If the coach is in a generous mood, he treats the team for ice cream at the local Dairy King. And as the sun sets in the night sky, the busy bees return to their homes and the hive of distracted activity continues on until they gather together again.
“Great game, guys! Did you have fun?”
“Coach, did we win?”
“Well that’s not what’s most important, Patrick. What is most important?”
“Are we going to get ice cream tonight?”
“Did you have fun team?”
“Yes, but do we get ice cream.”
“Yes. We get ice cream.”
In essence, this midsummer’s eve experience, played out on diminutive baseball fields all over the nation are a cultural rite of passage into childhood. Living the “American experience” whether in rural, urban, or suburban contexts is often incomplete without one season in the t-ball leagues. Each phase of these summer exploits—hitting, fielding, dugout life, team ice cream, and post-season participation trophies—are a substantive expression of a 5-year-old’s life.
This summer ritual of t-ball stands as one of the few pure joys remaining of our society. Innocents are gathered into a veritable comedy of errors as adults watch their developing, awkward, unaware, distracted, goofy children truly play an adult strategy game. As they field, hit, run, throw, and dance around the playing field, the childhood experience is brought to full bear.
And we adults, as onlookers, can either laugh, clap, celebrate, enjoy, and smile at the display of innocent ignorance—or we can scoff, demand, shout, and break the spirits of children who will never be sufficient enough to vicariously carry the load of our misplaced dreams and success stories. T-ball becomes, in many ways, the portal into proverbial joy . . . or the portal into a life of overbearing demand.
Yet, this is the fork in the road between faith that is true and life-giving as compared to a faith suffering under the yoke of broken pursuits and harsh demands. Jesus instructed that unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of God; and I cannot help but wonder if He wasn’t thinking about a child playing games such as t-ball. Children are filled with distraction, mistakes, and errors, yet each child plays with a trust that the coach is there to instruct, advise, and provide a reward at the end just for being there and being part of the team. The joy of the t-ball game—for players and onlookers—isn’t the perfection or skill or even progress of the players. The joy of t-ball is the pleasure of play and the joy of watching children be children, even as they attempt something they haven’t quite gotten a hang of yet. And it’s the joy of seeing a coach reward and celebrate his little flock and seeing the love they have for him, with no grand scheme for what the playing will one day mean. Perhaps t-ball is a parable of the kingdom, if only because it is a parable of joy.