Good Sports

Written by Matthew Dicks
Illustrated by Sean Wang
 
It’s the bottom of the whatever. Two men on base and I don’t know how many outs. I’m sitting beside my six-year-old son in a minor league ballpark in downtown Hartford. He’s stuffing cotton candy into his already stuffed mouth. He’s giggling. Barely watching the game, but it doesn’t matter. He’s sitting on the edge of a green field, watching underpaid ballplayers play a game he doesn’t quite understand yet, but when ball and bat connect, a crack fills the stadium with sound and his heart with excitement.
In the seat to my left, my nine-year-old daughter continues to talk to me about Degas. And Madam C.J. Walker. And Marie Curie. Earlier this evening, she went down a 30-foot inflatable slide behind the outfield wall. Before making the plunge, she shouted “Ruth Bader Ginsburg!” three times. After she hopped off the slide, I asked her why she shouted the name of a Supreme Court justice, and she said that when she’s afraid, she speaks the name of someone she admires, and it helps her to find strength. 
It was a beautiful moment, but ever since that moment, she’s been talking to me about other women she admires. She hasn’t stopped. She never stops.
I’m raising a daughter who I would’ve considered intolerable when I was her age, but here, in this ballpark, she can speak to me forever, because this is baseball. Slow, plodding, glorious baseball. It’s a sport that contains tiny fits of excitement surrounded by enormous amounts of time when nothing actually happens. It’s a predicable game. It has a flow and pace and rhythm that allows me to watch when necessary and look away when possible without missing a thing. 
It’s the perfect game for a boy who loves the crowd and candy, and a girl who hasn’t stopped talking since she started talking almost nine years ago.
It’s perfect for me, too. A perfect way to spend a leisurely summer day. 
When and if my children ever choose to play this sport in some organized manner, I will be thrilled. While I love my little ones dearly, the idea that I could sit in the bleachers, book in hand, reading, waiting for every ninth at-bat when my child might stand at the plate, is thrilling. The notion that I could simply look up at every crack of the bat to see which child has misjudged a fly ball, bobbled an infield grounder, or thrown the ball 15 feet over the first baseman’s head, allowing a dribbler to the mound to result in what the child will later declare an inside-the-park homer, strikes me as delightful. 
Baseball is the sport made for parents who love their children dearly but can only watch them in a sustained manner for so long. It’s a sport for the selfish parent. The wise parent. The parent who understands that his happiness is at least as important as his children’s happiness.
If I’m not happy, no one is happy. 
Baseball. This is what I want my kids to play. 
But please… not soccer. Anything but soccer.
Soccer is the sport for parents who are burdened with inexplicable guilt that can only be alleviated by self-inflicted suffering. These are the moms and dads who sit in the grass on the edge of an enormous field while 38 children run after the same ball at the same time. 
Soccer. A sport that the world adores but America has yet to embrace despite the barrage of newspaper articles declaring that youth soccer or Mia Hamm or the World Cup are about to push aside basketball or baseball forever and allow soccer to reign supreme. I’ve been hearing this since I was a teenager and, 30 years later, I still hear it. 
America does not love soccer. Americans are too smart to love soccer with all of their hearts. 
Self-important, urban-dwelling professionals who have the job flexibility that allows them to inhabit pubs midday and watch the World Cup profess a love for soccer. Middle-aged men who see soccer as a way of clinging to their once-athletic physique love soccer until they blow out an Achilles and turn to golf or the couch. Contrarians who insist on calling soccer “football” and take pleasure in correcting others love soccer. But we hate these people, and they obviously hate themselves.  
But your average American? No. Our children love soccer, but most of them grow out of that foolishness the same way they eventually come to realize that bullies can be defeated with disinterest and high school wasn’t so bad when compared to mortgage payments, dental insurance and hair loss.     
I can’t abide by the notion that my children might play soccer someday. Unlike baseball, where the action is predictable and paced, and moments of potential excitement are known and expected, soccer is a sport that demands your constant attention. In a game where the score might end up being 1-0, you can’t afford to miss your child’s game-winning goal. Possibly her only goal of the entire season, especially when every other move made on the field will have an indeterminate and indiscernible impact on the game.
“Hey Dad, did you see me kick that ball at midfield? I passed it to Francine. Did you see it?”
“Did you see the way I raced down the sideline at the end of the second period?”
“I dribbled that ball right past that girl before that other girl stole it from me and kicked it out of bounds. Did you see that?”
You can’t read a book during a soccer game. You can’t answer email between innings. You can’t make a quick run to the coffee shop immediately after your child has struck out, knowing you have at least eight batters before she will do anything again. 
Soccer is a ball-and-chain. It’s a relentless master. Perfect for those parents who question every decision, lament every bad choice, and want to do everything possible to make their child’s life bright and gleaming while ruining their own. 
Not for the wiser set like me. The ones who love their kids to pieces but understand that you can only give so much before you’ll become the cliché parent who says things like, “Someday I’m told I’ll have a life again” or “I feel like nothing more than a shuttle service for my kids.”
I can’t be that parent. I can’t be the ever-attentive, constantly cheering father. I know my limits. 
I want to be the marginally attentive, occasionally cheering father who is more than willing to pay attention to every ninth at-bat, look up at the crack of every bat, and buy ice cream for my kid after every game, as long as I get some, too. 
Baseball is the game for me. 

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