I penned this essay for the Modern Love column in the New York Times, which is more difficult to get into than Harvard. I didn’t get into Harvard and I’m not getting into the New York Times, either! So I’m posting it here in the hopes that someone will enjoy it.
In the fall of 2002, my husband Tom took our son “Bear” and me to the baseball diamond behind the local middle school. Bear was eight and in the third grade; he was starting kid-pitch in a few weeks. Tom gave me a bat and crouched down behind the plate, with Bear on the flat pitching rubber. “Whatever you do,” Tom warned me as I squatted in the batter’s box, “don’t swing. You could foul one off on my head and kill me.” Never an athlete, I wanted to close my eyes as the baseball whizzed by, close and fast. I prayed that it would be over soon.
Fifteen years later, it finally was.
On May 20th, my son walked off a competitive field for the final time. His baseball future, once so promising he was written about in Baseball America, is over. It feels like watching the person you love marry someone else. The dreams I had for him over the past few years—of awards, of hearing his name called in the MLB draft—they won’t come true. An ordinary life awaits him, as I look back and wonder what might have been.
I never wanted him to be an athlete. Tom enjoyed baseball and tennis, but I loved stories, and I signed up Bear for acting lessons when he was four. They never took. Soon our lives revolved around soccer, tae kwon do, tennis, swimming, and baseball. Like most helicopter parents in Montgomery County, Maryland, we tried to get him on a travel team. The first two times Bear tried out, he didn’t make the cut. Finally, when he was 10, we put him on a “pay-to-play” squad with other kids who weren’t good enough to make better teams, just so he could play during the summer. That first summer, dominated by the Bush-Kerry election, his team only won one game. Still, rather than being discouraged, Bear just wanted to get better. I took him to pitching and hitting lessons. He was inconsistent, but when he connected, he hit and threw with power. Tom hoped he’d be good enough to make his high school team. Being on a team in high school, he told me, would give him a place to belong.
Bear got better. His teams got better. I found him a pitching coach who tweaked his mechanics and told me he was Division I college or even draft material. He was eleven. But he was also taller than my five-feet six inches, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, and threw a fastball a good five-to-ten miles an hour harder than his teammates. And he was a lefty.
By the time they reach middle school, most kids are told to put aside their dreams of being a ballerina, an athlete, an actress, and focus on more practical pursuits. For Bear, the childhood dream burned even brighter as he got better and better on the mound. And his success validated my choice, to give up my career so that he’d have one parent fully available to him. I had lost my identity… but Bear gave me one back. I was a Baseball Mom… and he was one of the most well-known travel ball players in the county. In the eighth grade, he was recruited to play baseball for a private high-school powerhouse program. We gave up one of the best public high schools in the country to pursue his dreams. Bear had far exceeded his father’s goal to “be good enough to make the high school team.” The hope and anxiety I had over his future kept me from sleeping.
Even though the coach immediately designated him a “pitcher-only,” it looked like the right choice. He gave up hitting and playing first base in order to become one of the team’s—and the region’s—most dominant pitchers. He gave up friends, parties, and vacations to concentrate on classes, conditioning, and playing. Schools starting calling. The summer after his junior year, as his classmates sweated out college essays and SAT prep, Bear applied to college on the baseball field, pitching in tournaments in front of college coaches from all over the country. Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” blared on the overhead speakers, a warning that life could peak at 17 for those who didn’t get chosen.
Watching him stopped being fun. Every pitch determined his future. A poor outing would mean a small college in a minor college. Strike-outs meant the SEC or ACC; a life on the field rather than in an office. I’d crouch near first base, nauseated as he threw, my hands shaking so hard I could barely take a clear picture of him. No matter – I was too superstitious to take photographs during the actual game, so I only shot his warm-up pitches. I made deals with the universe – if Bear’s baseball dreams came true, I’d happily sacrifice my writing ones.
The first whiff of trouble happened the fall of his senior year. For the first time since we’d starting gunning him, he hadn’t gained five miles an hour in velocity over the year. The top schools he was interested in didn’t offer him scholarships, and he ended up accepting a walk-on offer from an SEC school. He hit the weight room, but rather than helping his velocity, his numbers went down, and he struggled with control in the spring. After a disappointing summer in a wooden bat collegiate league, his freshman fall performance was equally underwhelming. Redshirted, he hit the books and transferred to a junior college for his sophomore year, planning to use baseball to get into the best school possible.
But the junior college had a unique conditioning program, and in five weeks, Bear gained five miles an hour in velocity. Once again, he dominated, winning awards and regional recognition. We crossed our fingers for the draft, but his name went uncalled.
Then, finally, the big schools started calling. I warned Bear that he should go to a school that had the same type of conditioning program, but he brushed off my concerns and accepted a scholarship with a winning ACC program that relied on weights. After a terrific fall, it caught up with him in the spring. He lost his velocity and his place in the bullpen, only pitching when team was losing by double digits. Tom and I found ourselves in the horrible emotional position of silently rooting against our son’s team so Bear would get playing time. Still, he finished that year with 15 innings and an ERA under four. Then a slight injury over the summer took months to heal and rehabilitate, and he only threw three innings his senior year. With a year of athletic eligibility left, Bear signed up to pursue his master’s at a high-profile academic school with a losing baseball program. He thought he’d help the team while strengthening his own profile, maybe play independent ball after the season ended. Instead, he and every other bullpen pitcher threw inconsistently. With his velocity in the basement, it was obvious during his last outing—a scoreless inning in a dismal game—that baseball was finished with him.
It’s hard not to look back at the past several years and wonder how things would have turned out had he made different decisions after his sophomore year. Two schools he’d turned down as not good enough made the top twenty this year. What if he’d remained a starting pitcher rather than going to the bull pen? What if he’d followed the pitching coach who’d had the same conditioning program? What if we’d told him not to go to the big powerhouse school—that he might not be able to compete at that level? But how can you tell your kid that he might not be good enough?
I know he’s lucky just to have played at the Division I level. But several of the kids he played with over the years have been drafted—some in the first round. Hearing about them is so painful, I had to unfollow their parents on Facebook. I couldn’t bear to see their pictures and read their excited status updates. And oh, those Facebook memories. Every day there’s something else. Seven years ago he threw a complete game, two-hit shut-out in the high school championship series. Three years ago he was named relief pitcher of the year by the Florida junior college sports association. Two years ago he got national attention for leading his ACC-team to a come-from-behind win. I used to think my divorced friends were too sensitive when Facebook reminded them of the happier days in their relationships. Now I understand them completely. Baseball broke my heart more than any boy ever did.
On May 21, I took off the baseball schedule from my refrigerator for the final time. Bear came home and watched former teammates on TV, playing in their respective conference tournaments. A few weeks later, his old ACC team made the College World Series, and many kids he played with got drafted.
This will be the first summer since that year of Kerry-Bush that hasn’t revolved around baseball, and I wonder if eventually he’ll resent sacrificing his childhood to a dream that didn’t come true. Right now he’s handling it better than I am, excited about a paying internship and LSAT prep, excited about what the future might hold. It won’t include playing baseball, but perhaps there’s a job he could love just as much. Maybe marriage. Maybe children. Maybe a son he’ll one day take to a baseball field and set up on a pitcher rubber as his wife leans over the plate, a bat in her hands.