Ford was 9 years old the day I dropped him off for his first Little League practice. He ran from the car with only his glove and a bottle of water, then he turned around and came back.
“I don’t think that’s my team,” he said, pointing with his thumb at the ball field behind him.
I looked out across the playground and beyond the fence with yellow plastic on it. Boys who looked like small men were playing catch.
“They do look older, don’t they?” I said. “But the coach said to meet here, and that’s the field, so —”
Ford headed to the ball field again, a little slower this time. As I watched him go, I noticed his loose baseball pants and how his small, bouncy steps were still those of a little boy.
By the second year of Little League, Ford had grown an inch or two, but he was still the smallest on the team. Our league keeps players together and with the same coach for all four years, so Ford’s teammates — the older ones, especially — were like mentors for him. The experience of Little League was as much about the game as it was time in the dugout.
On the field, what little experience Ford had was starting to show — from the way he handled the ball to his more confident stance at the plate. But he still missed more pitches than he hit, and he usually got on base by way of the other team’s errors.
Ford began his third year of Little League with his younger brother, Owen. It was an exciting season to be on the team. They won all but two games and went on to win the championship. Another highlight for Ford was when the coach asked him to pitch a few games. Physically, his shoulders were getting (just barely) broader, and he had outgrown some of his pants.
Ford began his fourth and final year of Little League with “A Field of Dreams”-style aspirations. He was a team captain, one of the big kids — the ones who hit home runs or stole bases — who he remembered looking up to. But while some of his friends had already had their growth spurts, Ford was still among the shortest.
He had become a great fielder with “a soft glove,” as one of the dads put it, and I no longer held my breath each time the ball came his way. I knew he would make the play. But he wasn’t a big hitter. (A growth spurt probably would have helped with that.) Ever aware that this was his last year, Ford went into each game with a growing sense of bittersweetness. After the last game, the coach called Ford up in front of the team. He choked on his words as he said goodbye to him, and tears made tracks down Ford’s dirty face.
You probably wanted a happy ending for this, but there isn’t one. Ford never hit a home run. He wasn’t the hot-shot pitcher. And he still hasn’t hit his growth spurt. What’s worse: he didn’t make the All Star team. These are moments we can’t make better for our children.
Ford shut himself in his room that night, angry at the world. While I cried myself, I took out his first and last years’ team pictures and looked at them side by side. At 9 years old, his big, eager smile said, “I can’t believe I’m on Little League!” At 12, his tough-guy stare with only a glimmer of a smile revealed just how tumultuous and ambiguous these years must feel. Little League was Ford’s boyhood, and now it’s gone. As the oldest of three brothers, he has no one to show him what’s next.
Yet, even though Ford has not reached his height, and he’s stuck in the difficult place between a boy and a young man, when I looked at those pictures, I knew he had grown in perhaps a more important way. He had just learned that we don’t always get what we want, even when it’s all we’ve ever wanted. He learned that life sometimes feels unfair and not everything comes easily. He learned that wanting something and earning something are two different things. And soon, I hoped, he would also learn that disappointment gets easier over time, and, if we let it, makes us more determined in the future.
Which reminded me of a column titled “Lessons from the Dugout” that I wrote when Ford first started tee-ball. I had wanted to go into the dugout and “save him” from kids who might make fun of him after missing the ball.
But my husband had said, “Do not go in the dugout.” Some things, he told me, Ford had to learn on his own.
So I wrote: “I guess being a mother means allowing you to have experiences that will break my heart, even while they build your character.”
Navy spouse and syndicated columnist Sarah Smiley is the author of “Dinner with the Smileys,” a memoir of a year of dinners and motherhood.