When second place is far more than the “first loser”
"Second place," he snorted. "It says 'second place.' Who cares."
Just an hour earlier, Big Guy had cared deeply. He and his teammates had played double-headers for two straight days to claw out of the loser's bracket and come within two outs of winning the post baseball tournament.
"Mommy, people were crying after the game," he said as we drove home. "I almost did."
The clean streaks on his dirt-covered face told me that was almost true.
"I don't blame them for crying," I told him. "There's nothing wrong with being sad because you lost, but you still can be proud of all you accomplished."
He snorted again. "Second place."
"You should be proud of that trophy," I said. "You had to win that one. No one handed it to you for just showing up. You earned it."
"Yeah," he guffawed. "Second place."
It was attitude masking sorrow. He might have momentarily fooled himself, but he didn't fool me. I'd seen his shell-shocked look after the game. I knew how much he'd wanted this one.
It had been a season of battles for Big Guy. The kid who could fall out of bed in the middle of winter and blast a line drive struggled when he insisted on hitting with too-long bats. The boy who was at the top of the world after winning the Pitch, Hit and Run batting championship in the local competition froze in the sectionals as the expanse of a minor league park and the skill of the other competitors overwhelmed him.
It took him a while to talk about it. I knew he'd shut down if I confronted the subject, so I waited for an opening. It came the next day, when an announcer during a NASCAR race talked about a rookie driver being nervous.
"Why on Earth would he be nervous?" Big Guy asked.
"It happens," I said. "He's in a bigger stadium than he's used to, and he's racing against much better drivers than he's used to going against. Sound like anyone you know?"
He grinned. "Yeah, I guess that's kinda what happened to me."
He's also going through a phase of up-and-down confidence, with the tiniest blip being enough to throw him for days.
"Great hit!" I yelled as he drove a screamer down the third-base line as I pitched to him one afternoon.
"Nope. Luke would have gotten me out."
Another pitch, a fast hopper to short. "Good job!" I said.
"Mac would have got me."
Another pitch, a liner between second and first. "Carlos would have thrown that to Tristan and gotten me out."
I sighed in exasperation. "You are measuring yourself against the best in your division. The Lightning Bolts are bam good defensively. Most of the people on the other teams won't be able to get to those hits."
He lofted the next pitch high in the sky toward center. Fortunately, one of his teammates hadn't made that catch. Yet.
That catch did come in the final inning of the semi-finals. Bases loaded, the other team's big hitter at the plate. I paced and clenched the lining of my pockets so my nails wouldn't impale my palms.
"Why am I this nervous?" I asked a mom standing beside me, her shirt pulled up over half her face lest her expressions give too much away. "He's 7-years-old. It's not like it's the seventh game of the World Series."
"Because you're a competitive mom, and your kid is a good athlete. Because you care," she said. It had been a rhetorical question, but her answer was accurate.
The ping of leather hitting the sweet spot on the aluminum told us that the big hitter had hit big. The ball went up, up, up toward center, and I wanted to throw up.
But there was Tristan, in the exact right spot to snag it with an ice-cream cone catch over his head. The Lightning Bolts stood stock still at their defensive positions for a few seconds before they believed what they'd seen. Tristan had held onto the ball. The team was going to the finals.
Big Guy's antics the next afternoon belied his nerves. At lunch, he opened the wrong side of the parmesan cheese and dumped half the container on his spaghetti. A few hours later, he put on the wrong baseball pants.
"Why do these make my butt look so big?" he asked.
"Because they're Boots' " I replied.
I'd begged him all day to use a smaller bat that evening. He'd struck out four straight times - he'd kept track, I hadn't - due to a love affair with a teammate's longer bat that he'd just happened to have some luck with earlier in the season.
"I like that bat. It has big hits," he said.
"Yes, but it's hotter now, and the heat takes some of your energy. Everyone was using smaller bats yesterday."
He finally agreed to switch bats if he didn't get a hit in the first inning. Somehow, though, that decision was taken out of his hands. I don't know if a coach hid the bigger bat or if he simply couldn't find it. Whatever the reason, Big Guy led off the first inning with a smaller bat and a solid hit.
The Lightning Bolts rolled from there, right up until the final inning when the other team came back and tied the score. Big Guy's team was shut out in the top of the fifth, and the other team quickly loaded the bases with only one out.
"The ball's going to be coming to you if it's hit," the catcher's mom told him from behind the backstop. "Be ready."
That was simply more baseball than these kids - mostly second-graders with a couple of third-grade "veterans" - had learned, though. All season long, they'd concentrated on getting the out at first. That's what they did this time, as the winning run crossed the plate. Game and season over.
Beyond expressing his disdain for the second-place trophy and mentioning that "some people" had cried, Big Guy didn't want to talk about it until the next day. As he cranked Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" on the stereo, I saw the opening.
"You know, that song reminds me of the Lighting Bolts. When you started believing that you could win, you started winning.
"Yeah, we shouldn't have lost in the finals but they changed some rules," he replied.
Yes, they had. Earlier in the season, the rule had been "the inning ends when a team has batted around," but then it changed to the five-run rule. Rules about required numbers of players changed. The "runner's interference" rule that was nonexistent when huge opponents plowed into Lightning Bolt fielders suddenly reappeared in the finals.
"Yes, some things were different, and I don't really understand why. But forget all that and remember what a great season the Lightning Bolts had and how much fun you had playing with your friends. The Lightning Bolts were a very special team. I don't think I'll ever forget them."
"You know, the Reds are lucky. They get to play with their friends for as long as they want. We had only one season. I wish I could play with the Lightning Bolts forever."
That's when I knew that my tiny little ballplayer had matured roughly 10 years in 10 short weeks. He'd endured the biggest loss of his young life, but less than 24 hours later he was looking back not with bitterness but with pride in the team's accomplishments. He's learned that sometimes you can give it your best and things still won't go your way, but you have no chance at all if you walk around chanting "we're all doomed."
And, finally, he learned to embrace the second-place trophy. "We worked hard for this," he said.
Copyright 2011 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.