Will K, eleven years old and young for his grade with an August birthday, stands at five feet tall, weighs seventy-five pounds, and is on the pitcher's mound. His right hand clutches two seams of the dirt dusty baseball, his right hand meets his left hand that's buried in an over-sized glove, he raises his bony right knee, widens his cornflower blue eyes (I'm sorry, but they truly are cornflower blue), pulls his mitt and throwing hand into the center of his narrow chest, and goes into one of the most baffling graceful dances I've ever watched, a move they call the wind up.
"'Atta boy Scottie, swing at the good ones, really let it rip, keep your eye on the ball," – rattled Will K releases the ball and the voice continues to boom, "NICE PITCH KID! HOLY COW! Did you see that pitch Scottie, that kid has an arm! Now let one rip! Keep your eye on the ball! Easy swing! Easy! Atta boy."
In the three seconds it has taken Will K to release the ball from the wind up (only to have it bounce in the dirt in front of home plate), the first base coach has scream-shouted at least seven sentences at a volume that doesn't suit the situation. It's the first pitch of the game.
For a few seconds, between the umpire's calls of a strike or a ball, the voice is quiet. At the precise second that Will K has the courage to cock himself into the coil required for that spring-loaded wind up of his, the voice continues his monologue, throat fully opened, volume menacing, "Run! Run! You've gotta run, man! Don't look back! Just run, run, run! Atta boy! Atta boy! Now go! Do it again! Go for three! Don't look back!" He's sending his man Scottie to second base long before the pitch has left Will K's increasingly deflated right hand.
We, the parents on the first base sideline whisper amongst ourselves, "They're not supposed to steal before the ball leaves the pitcher's hand." "Didn't we get called "out" last week for sending a guy too early?"
The vociferous parent/first base coach is wearing white linen shorts, a polo shirt, and – sorry, I can't leave it out – hirachis. His build is sinewy, his height is average, a little on the short side, and he has a Matt Lauer haircut. His voice is thunderous. He also happens to be standing next to my son, who at the moment is the first baseman with his knees hyper-extended backward and his eyes diverted away in hopes of avoiding any sort of contact with the wailing coach blasting hot air onto his personal space.
It's six-thirty on an almost-uncomfortably warm evening in a public park in southwest Minneapolis; we're watching twelve-year-olds play six innings of baseball in a low-pressure park league game. The third base coach is ripping it up too, but I'm not keying in on him; it's the dude a foot away from my son that is screaming and yelling like it's Game 7 of the World Series that makes me uncomfortable.
The first inning springs eternal as the opposing team makes it through their batting order and then some, mostly on walks and steals, the first and third base coaches have not let up, not for a second, always timing their bellows with the pitcher's wind up. Maybe it's a coincidence.
From the second inning on it is if we are all character actors in an old episode of Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone":
"Hey coach, we got called an "out" for sending a guy before the ball left the pitcher's hand," I offer in hopes of calming the overly intense first base coach.
"Un-uh lady, high school rules, high school rules," he shouts dismissively. This brings his constant chatter upon the wind up a decibel higher. I actually enjoyed high school, so maybe he's reiterating that high school rules? "Run baby! You got it! You gotta run every time! Steal home! Hey ump, the catcher's blocking the plate!"
"This guy needs to calm down," we whisper amongst ourselves with equal amounts of smugness and concern; we would never debase ourselves with such attention seeking behavior, no one has ever been this whacked in front of our kids who play on a park league teams versus travelling or club teams. Inspired, Will K's dad hollers over to the first base screamer, "Hey, let's mellow out and let the kids play ball!"
"YOU WANNA GO?"
"Are you challenging me to a fight?" Will K's dad says, giggling while rising from his portable lawn chair. Will K's dad is tall and muscular and could easily take his challenger, but who the heck challenges someone to a fight while coaching first base? Who the heck challenges someone to a fight period? I find this scene so weird that I feel like I'm in a dream because reality has just left the field.
"YA, MAN, I'LL TAKE YOU ON ANY TIME! I'M JUST SUPPORTING MY TEAM AND YOUR PLAYERS! HEY KID! NICE PITCH!" he yells with increased anger and downright hatred to both father on the sidelines and son on the pitcher's mound.
Our boys are eyeballing us, their parents, from the field, our coaches stand up from the bench where they've been taking in the inning, spitting sunflower seeds, looking to the ump, who is all of maybe twenty years old, wondering if he's going to take control of the game and settle these guys down with a warning. We have never experienced anything quite like this in the many years since our sons started playing t-ball eight years ago.
Meanwhile, behind the backstop, a heavy-set mother from the other team is trying to mix-it up on the sidelines.
"Did someone in your crowd just yell something at our catcher? Did someone just yell at a child? What the hell's wrong with you people?"
Someone, a parent of one of our players, did indeed mutter "rookie mistake" as he watched a play at the plate. He may have said it with a little too much mustard on the remark because everyone's on edge by now.
"What the hell is wrong with you people?" Re-states confrontational mom to anyone who will engage in her vitriol.
"I don't know who you are, but I don't want to talk to you," Noah's mom Josie says walking away from this woman who seems to be bucking for a fight. In a lather, she moves onto the next parent of one of our players who's milling about behind the backstop, "Did someone over here just talk trash to one of our kids? Did one of you actually threaten a child?"
"Ya know, this is getting weird," says the unsuspecting parent milling about behind the backstop. "No one is threatening the kids. No one has any ill intent toward your players. Really," he continues with a look of exasperation
From that moment on, a flood of obscenities, hollered taunts and accusations are unleashed. A kid on the other team throws an elbow into my son as he crosses the bag on first base, "You are out of the game," the ump calls walking toward first base. "You know what you did."
"What did he do? What the @#$% did he do, ump? Let my team play ball!" roars the first base coach.
"This is f-ing insane!" hollers my husband the assistant coach from the bench.
"YOU ARE OUT OF THE GAME!" the ump screams to my husband who then proceeds to amble toward the sidewalk and walk away. I think maybe the ump knew that my husband wasn't going to pitch a fit over an ejection. I think he was trying to take the safest route in an attempt to exert his authority and take some semblance of control of the game. My husband enjoys swearing; oftentimes it doesn't mix well with coaching kids. It's the fourth inning.
"There is way too much yelling going on. Everyone settle down!" Broadcasts coach Karl who must now defend his team without his salty assistant coach.
"Hey buddy, we're rooting for BOTH teams! We're just really into it man. Get a grip, pal!" Roars the menacing presence at first base still within punching distance of my son.
Coach Karl calls "Time out!" to the ump while summonsing his team in from the field to meet him on the pitchers mound.
We didn't know it at the time for they were huddled, but Coach Karl asked the boys, a team calling themselves the Yankees, if they would like to walk off the field and go home because the situation was out of control and because this wasn't baseball. All of the boys said that they wanted to play on.
I wish this story ended here. I wish this scene didn't mimic the anger I watch every day on the news whether it comes from tea partiers, Arizonans, extremists in any form, or lovers of the Gulf coast (and really, for any one who's ever visited there, who isn't?). I don't know why people in general seem angrier, more on edge than they used to be, though there are several indicators as seen on the daily news, on reality TV, in the stands of any concert or sporting event. Bad behavior gets ink and screen time and their own shows; I'm feeding the monster right now.
At games end, the yelling coaches and yelling mom cross the field, one wielding a bat, and descend upon our fans like a goon squad in an action adventure movie while parents are instructing their children to get in the car, now. This is some of what I heard though my ears were ringing in that way they do when one is anxious and hyper-aware: "Hey rummy, I've been seeing you around for years. There's booze on your breath. You're always hammered, aren't you? Are you drunk right now, loser?" (In front of the children, in front the accused's son.) "You know what's wrong with you people? You're all old. Look at you, what a bunch of old !@@## parents!"
At this point a quiet mother from the other team approaches us and pulls Josie aside and says, "I'm so sorry. This happens every game. I don't know if they're drunk or on drugs or what, but we're taking our son off of their team." Chafing from the "old parent" comment and overhearing the previous exchange, I have my own immature "oh ya; prove it kid" moment and say to one of the opposing yellers, "I don't know what your problem is or why you think it's okay to carry on like this, but we hear you guys are out of control every game."
The confrontational mother is yelling at the back of Elizabeth of the white blouse, tasteful scarf, and espadrilles, Elizabeth of the quiet, thoughtful demeanor who asks often about the rules because she signs her son up for sports because of the community and team work aspect of it all. "What a bunch of *crude colloquialism for male sex organ* suckers!" Screamy mom unleashes onto Elizabeth's back.
At that moment soft-spoken, demure Elizabeth transforms into Wonder Woman, turning around in a flash, eyes ablaze, fists clenched, "THERE ARE CHILDREN HERE!" Reflexively I flip open my cell phone and dial 911 to call the police because I'm pretty sure someone is on the verge of getting hit. The sadness setting in is a sense of regret that our children were watching this whole thing, a tale that no one believes when I re-tell it, a tale with no explanation or moral. The next pang has to do with the wondering about what these people are like in their private lives if they were perfectly comfortable with such horrid behavior in a public place.
In the words of coach Karl, "There is way too much yelling going on. Everyone settle down!" In the words of Robert Plant on the live version of "Stairway to Heaven," "Doesn't anyone remember laughter?" Guess I am an old parent.