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There Is No 'Cry' in 'Team'

The kid was thin, not scrawny, but thin. And he wasn't particularly motivated.

Pee-Wee League baseball had largely been a bust, with a coach whose drive to eke out wins meant that only the top hitters and fielders saw playing time, with the rest of the kids benched and only landing opportunities to improve their meager skill sets if and when the margin of runs was sufficient.

The kid was a quiet one, with a passion more for books and board games and individual pursuits far greater than any interest in team sports and the inevitable rankings of who's better, who's best, and who doesn't even warrant consideration.

The kid was an allergy sufferer, whose summers alternated between days-long hay-fever sneezing fits and long stretches of antihistamine exhaustion, stretched out on the couch or in bed.

But the kid wanted to make people happy, and if that required pitching in with a team effort, however reluctantly, because the group needed an extra player or the coaches insisted everyone get a chance, the kid made the effort.

The kid was in Cub Scouts or Webelos or some intermittent stage before achieving the level of Boy Scout proper, and the merit badges had been fun, and the dads were an easygoing group that promoted a good work ethic and the camaraderie of trying new activities, working toward the President's Physical Fitness Achievement Award, and stepping out of one's comfort zone to learn new things.

So after a loose round of try-outs and sampling different roles, the kid found softball — the Chicago-style 16-inch slow-pitch variety — kind of intriguing. The pace was different. Their were no gloves. The ball took strange bounces depending on how worn it was (big hops when it was fresh out of the box, smoother rolls when it had been played with for awhile). But it was a bare-hands kind of sport. It was accessible. Most kids could hit and field that 16-inch orb with relative ease. It was the neighborhood game of choice.

And the kid mastered that slow underhand pitch, with its high arc meant to send the ball up high above the batter then almost straight down atop the plate, challenging hitters to gauge the spin and angle in way that regular baseballs never did.

The team tallied a series of wins. The kids worked fairly well together to pull off the occasional double play. They mastered the basket catch when pop-ups reached the outfield. And they cheered each other on when good plays were made or a nice grounder yielded a base hit or a double for their side. There was at least one solid hitter that could drive the ball into distance to land some runs. Occasionally a home run, even. The high-fives at the pitcher's mound after a win were easygoing and upbeat. The cheesy "2 ... 4 ... 6 ... 8" chants were silly but shared happily.

The streak ended badly, and rapidly. A couple of errors opened one mid-season game up early. The other team had more power hitters than the kid's team. They also caught some lucky breaks.

When the later innings rolled in, the kid was on the mound, holding his own but not racking up the easy grounders and occasional strike-outs that had been common before.

When the other team's big hitters got on a roll, the runs mounted. Defeat for the kid's team not only seemed possible but increasingly likely.

That's when the shortstop said it. "Shit! Come on. Can't you strike ANYONE out?"

The kid kept pitching. Small hits kept coming, runs squeezing in, compounded by errors in the field. The easy coordination that had marked the team's early games faded fast, replaced by anxious bumbling.

The shortstop let up shouting his frustrated comments. Instead, he muttered them quietly behind the kid on the pitcher's mound. He shared his deliberately loud whispers with the second- and third-basemen nearby. He wasn't going to lose this game because of shitty pitching or lame-ass errors. He made a show of pivoting right and left, apparently ready to jump on any line drives headed into his section of the dirt.

An inning later, with maybe a whole full inning still to go, the game seemed to most of the team already far out of reach. The kid had to finish the game. Short of rotating players already in the field there wasn't another experienced pitcher on the bench to draw on.

The kid pitched. The shortstop kept up his running taunts and exasperated exclamations. A coach finally told him to knock it off. The coach yelled out to the team to play heads-up ball, to stay smart.

The shortstop didn't, wouldn't, relent. The kid felt the tears on his face before he had a chance to even know they were coming. The sweat and tears blurred his vision and he couldn't see clearly enough anymore to size up the pitching zone.

The coach came out and put a consoling arm around the kid. He told the shortstop to knock it off. Again.

The kid has no recollection today of the game's final inning, its outcome, of other games.

Lesson instilled.

Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.