He got the call innocuously enough. I was tapping away at the keys, navel-deep in the daily do, when an e-mail came in from the tee-ball commissioner. A kid in the Sevens League, the next link up the Little League Food Chain, had broken his arm roller-blading; would Robert like to sit in and play with the bigger kids?
I thought, Robert would murder his grandmother in order to sit in and play with the bigger kids.
Just the same, I figured I'd officially run the idea past him before I pimped him upward. Predictably, the response was: "Dad, I sooo want to do this!" Awesome, I thought. All the fun and challenge of taking actual pitches, from an actual Zooka. And no need for geronticide.
Robert has been jonesing for this moment ever since his first tee-ball game, when he learned that no one makes an out. In the first inning a kid hit a grounder to him, and he threw over to first base. The first baseman dropped it, kicked it into right field, collided with the right fielder, picked it up, and had run halfway to the pitcher's mound before the chorus of "RUN TO FIRST!" took hold. And the batter was still out by about 20 feet because he'd stopped to watch a squirrel climb the backstop. Despite this, the boy was escorted to the bag and patted on the head for a job well done, and Robert looked at me like his birthday had just been canceled.
As we walked to the field, Robert yipped and jumped like a terrier, telling me how cool it would be to play a real game, with a real score. As we neared the field, though, he saw his tee-ball team on the other diamond, about to make up last weekend's rainout, and his nerves took over. He was suddenly aware that he's only six and he's never played with older kids before and this is TOTALLY DUMB, DAD!
I told him we could easily just walk across the way and join his team like nothing ever happened, if he wanted. He thought about it for an interminable two seconds (while my brain shouted ZOOKA! ZOOKA! ZOOKA! to itself), then walked gingerly to the near dugout and sat by himself, a black hat among blues, cleats drumming against the bench supports.
I took a moment to swallow my heart.
What happened after that didn't really matter. (Two-for-three with a strikeout and an RBI single that got wedged under the Zooka.) The kid acknowledged his fear, and he tried. I remember I had a similar chance when I was eight. I got to pitch my first game for the Ray's Lunch Phillies, and even though I'd studied the look of a major league pitcher, I had no idea how to throw the ball for a strike. So I walked three guys in a row, and when I finally got one over the plate this planetoid of a child smashed it for a grand slam. I was so mortified I pretended I'd hurt my arm and spent the rest of the game pouting at the end of the bench.
With luck, the line of cowardice stops here.