Dear Neighbor: Kim Porter: Curveball

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 6, 2024

By Kim Porter

Dear Neighbor,
When my son was 10, I was asked to be a volunteer baseball coach for his team. It was mostly fun and instructional. For the players, they loved it. It wasn’t competitive, just enjoyable. Everybody got to play. Everyone was a winner. Some had never worn a glove, while others had a difficult time catching the ball. And no one knew how to bat.

For the coaches, it had its ups and downs — mostly downs if your son was playing for you. If the team won, the kids were lauded. If the team lost, it had to be the coaches’ fault — right? When each practice or game was over, my son and I had a bonding tradition. We purchased a milkshake, sat and drank it and bonded.

The end of the season was near and I was ready for it to end. What I thought would be a bonding experience, had become extremely challenging. If my son played well, he would get pats on the back. If he did poorly, I would receive an empty soda pop thrown at my head. This was not a win/win situation, more like a loss/loss experience.

My son would feel guilty if we lost. I would feel disheartened, wondering what we were teaching them at such an early age. Was being this competitive really worth the pain and agony? It was just a game. The process began to sink in. I think my son saw this before I did. I believe he felt the tension before me. I know that our relationship was not the same. Was I his coach or his father?

Then it happened (part one). It was the last game of the season. If we won, we were champs. To lose, we would have to hang our heads, ashamed. The game was tense, very close and we were tied. Our starting pitcher was having problems. He walked the first batter. He didn’t seem to be confident (let’s face it, he was only 11). The crowd was getting louder. As I looked toward the stands, the pitcher’s father was extremely vocal and upset. Was it time to change pitchers, and pull his son? Should we just let it play out?Let’s face it — it was only a game. Kids need to learn how to fail.

So what did I do? I called a timeout, gathered the team and turned to my son, “you can pitch and get us out of this mess.” The team responded, “Yeah, come on Dean, you can do this.” We all seemed happy, confidence was our goal. That was not the end of the story, much less the end of the lesson.

It started well, my son struck out the first batter. Then he walked the next one. The crowd was getting anxious, voices were louder, fingers were being pointed and one parent yelled “get the coach’s son out.” I stood up and leaned forward, I clapped my hands and supported the team. But, what I didn’t do was personally applaud the pitcher, my son. I did what coaches do, I put pressure on him. I pushed him. I didn’t let up. I had become competitive. I needed to win, and he was to help me do just that.

Then it happened (part 2). The noise lifted. There was some silence. It was the moment where we were on pins and needles. We were waiting on the pitcher (my son). He seemed like he wanted to pitch, but he couldn’t. He looked toward the bench, motioned to me to call a timeout. That was good. He wanted to think more about it. He wanted to strike the batter out. He needed my baseball wisdom.

I walked out to the mound. He looked me straight in the face and said, “I need a father, not a coach.”

Boom! — curveball through my brain and straight to my heart. Tears came to my eyes as I put my arm around my son. We left the ongoing game, walking off the field, by the bench, under the bleachers and to the car. As we entered the car he asked if we could get a milkshake and I knew all was well. I was his dad.

“Dear Neighbor” authors are united in a belief that civility and passion can coexist. We believe curiosity and conversation make us a better community.