I guess this is more of a Xander story than a holiday story, but it has the benefit of being true and even cheerful.
My son Xander (short for Alexander — calling him Xander makes him unique in a crowd full of Alexanders and Alexandras) enjoys playing baseball, but he never had a chance to play in an organized league until we moved to Marlborough two years ago. When he started, he was a 12 year old in a league that let in 12 to 14 year old boys, most of whom had been playing organized baseball all their lives.
(That, as it turns out, is a New England thing. When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, football was king. Since I was small and made up for it by being slow, I didn’t have much of a career. Around here, everybody plays baseball. Frankly, I think that’s a good thing, as long as they’re not accursed Yankee fans.)
Xander was smaller than most of the other boys at the time, but he always had more confidence than he could handle.
(Winston Churchill once famously said that the Balkans manufacture more history than they can consume locally. I often feel similarly about Xander. If he survives, he’ll be a very impressive adult. Sometimes I think that’s a pretty big “if”.)
Xander therefore played anywhere and any time he got the chance. Still smarting from my own little league baseball experiences (I got to play in a 12 to 14 year old league when I was 15 and nobody minded), I arranged to get the boy some lessons at a local batting cage. That helped, but he was still way behind the other kids in skills development. He had a natural eye, though, and was learning fast.
Anyway, at the end of that first season the league had an all-inclusive playoff. The game was held on a Friday evening in late October (this was a Fall league focused more on instruction than winning) so it was pretty cold out. I was teaching that week but made it back from Boston during the first inning.
The game was a back-and-forth affair, as games with kids that age often are. Pitchers are unhittable for an inning or two, then can’t find the plate at all, then find it again sporadically. Fielders made hard plays and botch easy ones. Throwing to a cut-off man is always an adventure.
Finally we reached the bottom of the last inning (the 7th), with my son’s team down by three runs. A couple of kids get on, a couple of outs happen, and eventually my wife and I realize that a potential nightmare is about to happen. Xander is about to come to the plate with two outs and two men on in the bottom of the last inning of a playoff game.
Now as bad as my baseball career was, I still remember a lot of it. I remember the first time I saw a real curveball and dived out of the way just before the umpire said “strike!” I remember actually hitting the ball over the center fielder’s head and making it all the way to second before the throw came in. I remember fielding a ball cleanly at third (third? what the heck was I doing at third?) and being so surprised I’d snagged it that I airmailed it over the firstbaseman’s head. I remember grounding to the shortstop and being thrown out at first even thought the fielder bobbled the ball three times.
(Another kid, trying to be nice, said to me on the way back to the dugout, “are you faking it, or are you really that slow?”)
So I’m very worried now, because if Xander strikes out to end the game with the tying runs on base, it could scar him forever. I looked over a Ginger and I could tell she was thinking the same thing.
So what happened? My boy fouls of a bunch of pitches, takes two strikes, and hits a grounder up the middle that he beat out for a single. The next kid up flies out to end the game.
I, of course, let out a huge breath that I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. When I met with Xander afterwards, I asked him about it.
“Weren’t you worried about striking out?” I asked.
“Nah,” he replied. “I knew I’d make contact.”
And there you have it. It’s been two years now and I’ll bet he’s even forgotten about it, but that’s Xander in a nutshell. He’s got a lot to learn and the thought of him being a font of wisdom is bizarre, but that’s not a bad life lesson. When it’s your turn at bat, know that you’ll make contact and everything will be okay. I can live with that.
Happy holidays, everybody.