070719 human condition (toned)

With the flag flying high over the neighborhood playground on a warm, breezy evening, there’s nothing like a baseball game for 8- and 9-year-olds to give you that glad-to-be-alive feeling. There’s popcorn, snowballs, bleachers, babies in strollers and cheering. Booing and jeers are rare because you know most of the kids on both teams, and because the ref is the nephew of your next-door neighbor.

As much as the boys on the teams are led to think that they are big, bad baseball players, the truth is that this is “baseball lite.” The only strikes counted are the ones they actually swing at. And the pitcher is the coach of their team, so he’s trying to toss the balls that can be hit to his batters.

Base hits are more frequent this year than last, but fielding abilities still have a long way to go. Most singles morph into doubles or triples courtesy of outfielders who flub an easy pop fly then overthrow the base the runner just left. And somehow many grounders find their way right between the ankles of the surprised players in the infield.

As a result, the games are usually high-scoring. And even slightly mismatched teams could lead to spirit-crushing, run-away, one-sided blow-outs. But not to worry. In “baseball lite,” there is a limit of five runs per team per inning.

The softened rules make for an enjoyable game for us parents and grandparents who soar every time the bat connects with the ball and die with every missed swing or errant grounder. Snagged fly balls and accurate throws to base are rare indeed. And everyone in the bleachers cheers when it does happen — whether it’s their child’s team or the other. After all, a good play is a good play and deserves recognition.

Then, with a lull in the action, my eyes wander across a well-worn pathway in the park to the “other” field, the one for ages 10 and older. It is the big-boy field.

And there is no “lite” in big-boy baseball.

Three strikes and you’re out — whether it's a call or a swing. Runs are unlimited, and lopsided games are frequent — and humiliating. Onlookers are more territorial and more likely to boo the ref or shout criticism at kids who miss a play.

Having raised one generation already, I know my grandson will eventually have to learn that in real baseball — as in real life — that the calls aren’t always fair, that embarrassing losses will happen and that people will criticize him if he makes an error — even when he tried his best.

I sigh and turn my eyes away from the big-boy field and focus on my 8-year-old walking to the batter’s box determined to make a difference in the game. Despite being “baseball lite,” these kids really put their hearts into the game, wanting to make their teammates, coaches and families proud.

He swings at the first pitch and misses. Then a foul tip. Then a perfect pitch goes sailing by. He steps back, taps his bat on the plate, then re-readies himself with the bat high over his shoulder. Another pitch. And a resounding CRACK!

He races to first, then slides to second on an overthrow. “Great hit, Paul!” I shout, and he looks my way in the bleachers. He tries to be 8-year-old cool, but I see the smile on his face.

Nothing lasts forever, including "baseball lite." But then again, nothing will stop me from remembering this season’s triumphs — and that smile — forever.

— Perret lives in Metairie

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