Last year, my son Ford, then 6, was, let’s face it, the worst athlete on his tee-ball team. He was also the smallest, youngest and least experienced. Not surprisingly, the coaches often stuck him in the outfield. Sometimes they left him in the dugout for whole innings.
Ford, God love him, never lost heart. At times I was sure he’d want to quit. But then, to my surprise, he was ready for every practice and standing in the outfield for every game, that characteristic half-moon smile--the one he’s had to grow into since it covered most of his face as a baby--shining out from the shadows of his baseball cap. He always believed that the next game, the next practice, would be his big chance. Sometimes, that faith made me cry myself to sleep at night. If only he could play the infield just once, I prayed, it would make him so happy.
But Ford never got that chance. He displayed the generic at-least-you-participated trophy on the special shelf in his bedroom anyway.
“Next year,” he told me, “when all the big kids have moved up a league, I’ll be the oldest player and maybe I’ll get to play first base.”
“Yes, maybe,” I said.
“Next year” came last week. On our way to the first practice of the season, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw Ford smiling to himself, staring confidently out the window. His baseball glove was in his lap. I knew he was daydreaming about playing the infield. With the same faith that one knows the daffodils will bloom each Spring, Ford believed that this day would be his big break.
In the parking lot, he jumped out of the car and ran across the dusty field, calling out “See ya mom,” over his shoulder. He was too excited to wait for me to unbuckle his brother and put the baby in the stroller. My eyes grew wet when I noticed that his grey baseball pants, the ones that needed a belt and hung down to his ankles last year, now almost looked too tight and short as he ran to the field. Maybe this will be his big day after all, I thought.
I took my seat on the splintered stands and said a little prayer before the practice began. The sparkles in Ford’s eyes nearly danced and he couldn’t contain the smile on his face as the new coach introduced himself to the team. The coach split the children into two groups. One groups went to practice in the infield. The other group went to the outfield. Ford was in the second group. I could not stop myself from crying, and I hoped that the other mothers didn’t see. While he fielded grounders and caught pop-fly’s, Ford constantly glanced longingly at the kids in the infield. Perhaps, like me, he thought the coach would switch the groups halfway through practice. But we were both wrong. One hour passed, and Ford was still in the outfield.
When he came to me on the stands after practice, Ford said, “I really thought I’d be in the infield this year.”
“I know, Honey,” was all I could say. What else was there? I was prepared for him to say that he wanted to quit.
“I’m going to go talk to the coach,” Ford said.
He ran across the dirt, waited for the coach to finish picking up stray balls and baseball bats, while I turned around in my seat and whistled at the wind, pretending not to know this assertive little boy. Then I heard Ford say, “Coach, I’ve been practicing real hard all summer, and if you just give me one shot at the infield, I think I can do it.”
The coach smiled. “Sure, we’ll give you a shot next practice,” he said.
Ford ran back to me yelling, “Yes! He said he’d give me a chance, Mom!”
All weekend, Ford practiced in the front yard. He studied major league games on television. And when Monday night’s practice finally arrived, there he was in my rearview mirror again, smiling out the window.
He ran out onto the baseball field and the coach put him on first base. I have never smiled so much. There was my child, standing in a cloud of red baseball dust, his hands on his knees, ready for whatever came his way. He caught some and missed others, but he was there, and I knew he would remember that moment for the rest of his life.
After practice, Ford told me, “I’m glad they gave me a chance, because without a chance, how can anybody ever know what someone can do?”
It occurred to me then that with his patience, his faith and determination, Ford will be able to do absolutely anything. And I hope he always has the chance.