Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Tapping into the healing powers of Little League

From the Los Angeles Times

A team takes a leap of faith in letting a boy ill with Crohn's disease join without a tryout, and his mom becomes a fan of the game, and its lessons.

By Randye Hoder, Special to The Times
July 8, 2008

Little League Baseball has come to an end, and I'm not sure who's sadder about that, my baseball-crazed 10-year-old son, Nathaniel, or me, who just a few months ago thought "around the horn" referred to a trip along the northeast edge of Africa.

Actually, I'm pretty sure it's me.

Nathaniel had himself a good cry after his team, the Red Sox, was bumped off in June by the Indians, 17-10, in what had been a close game until the last inning. The loss knocked us out of the championship in the Wilshire Sports Assn. Minor A division for fourth- and fifth-graders. By the next day, he seemed to have moved on. Summer had just arrived, and there was suddenly so much fun to be had: skateboarding, bike riding, swimming, hanging out with friends, staying up late and, of course, playing catch.

I, on the other hand, still feel kind of empty inside. And that's just nuts. I'm the mom who supposedly doesn't give a hoot about sports. I've never played anything, and have only rarely watched a professional team either on TV or live. And that's been under protest.

At Nathaniel's games -- soccer, basketball and his favorite, baseball -- I've perfected the art of appearing to pay attention from the sidelines while in fact doing all sorts of other things: chatting, reading the newspaper or sneaking in a work call.

"Did you see that, Mom?" Nathaniel has been known to call out from the field or court.

"Absolutely, honey," I've invariably replied. "Great play."

Never mind that I'd missed the entire thing and, even if I hadn't, wouldn't have known the difference between a great play and a lousy one.

But something changed this baseball season. I found myself paying attention and learning the rules of the game. Even some of its nuances. And unexpectedly, I started to care.

Last winter, Nathaniel fell ill with Crohn's disease -- a chronic disorder that causes inflammation of the digestive tract -- and he was too sick in February to attend tryouts. His dad and I wanted him to have something to look forward to, to get better for, so the league's commissioner took a leap of faith and put him on his team. Then we all hoped for the best.

When the season began, we weren't sure Nathaniel would get off the bench. But week by week, he got stronger, and he became the team's starting catcher.

Before long, I was schlepping Nathaniel to the local batting cages for extra practice. At first, I'd take a novel with me. But soon, I put it aside and began eavesdropping when his batting coach, Alex, passed on some choice tip or another. Often, it was to improve Nathaniel's batting stance or his skills behind the plate. But other times, Alex would make an analogy about how something Nathaniel was doing, or not doing, in baseball applied to his everyday life.

Lots of other lessons -- about baseball, about life -- came courtesy of the Red Sox's coach, Jeff. As the days grew longer, Wednesday practices stretched until the last ray of light was gone from the sky. On Friday evenings, Jeff would stuff a bunch of boys into his Suburban and run them up to the cages -- smack in the middle of rush hour -- for a little more batting practice. Then he'd stop on the way home at the park for a casual game of catch. On any number of other days, he could be found in his backyard with aspiring pitchers, working on their fastballs and teaching them to appreciate diligence, perseverance and teamwork.

As far as I was concerned, dinner, homework and an early bedtime suddenly seemed overrated.

On game days, I learned to pay close attention to every pitch. "Good eye, Nathaniel," I'd yell, when he'd take one high and outside. The first time I did that, it felt like an out-of-body experience.

I knew I'd really crossed the line when, after dinner one night, I drove to the ball field with Nathaniel to find out who won the playoff game between the Angels and Indians; we were equally desperate to learn which team we'd be playing next.

I suspect that some of my newfound affection for baseball is related to Jeff's infectious love of the game. But mostly, it was born of watching Nathaniel flourish, after being so sick just a few months earlier. Baseball became a way not only for him to recover. It was a way for me to recover too, with every crack of his bat and every toss of the ball.

Randye Hoder is a writer living in Los Angeles.

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