It was a little slip of paper tucked in amongst some other stuff Will brought home from preschool. Truth be told, I almost missed it entirely. But when my eyes scanned the words on the page, I was suddenly flooded with tidal waves of excitement. And trepidation. Followed by shame for acts I haven’t even committed yet.
“Four-Year-Old Wiffleball Sign-Ups”
There’s a league for 4-year-olds that starts in April and runs to the end of May. Every Saturday Will is going to play Wiffleball with a bunch of other kids and learn the fundamentals of the game. Well, technically he’ll be perfecting the fundamentals since I’ve been teaching him to swing a bat and throw a baseball since he was about a week old. But I digress.
On the surface this seems totally innocuous and very much a win-win. Will gets to be active, play with other kids and learn about a sport all at the same time. And it’ll be valuable bonding time with him as we practice and get to be together doing something we both love. All of that is true. On paper this should be a very fun, laid back time during which I can take pictures and talk with other parents and delight in watching my son scamper playfully around the baseball diamond.
But I don’t think that’s how it’s going down.
To understand what I’m talking about, you need to know a few things about me. First of all, I’m a perfectionist. Not regarding everything in my life, but certainly regarding sports. And second, I’m a huge crybaby when things don’t go perfectly. Which is often.
When I started playing baseball at the age of 5 I showed promise very early. I had a great arm and I could hit. My first coach was a friend of my dad’s, a born and bred New Jersey guy named Bill. He was a really good guy underneath his gruff exterior, but he was also a miserable prick. He knew I was good so he held me to a higher standard. While other kids were being praised for their attempts to catch the ball, I was criticized even when I did catch it for not using the right fundamentals. Or if I didn’t hit the cutoff man fast enough. Or if I legged out an infield single he’d poke fun at me for not hitting it in the outfield.
Ultimately he made me better, but I carried lofty expectations with me when I advanced to the next leagues for older kids. And that’s when it got really bad.
I made the all-star team when I was 9 years old. We had a really great team and a lot of awesome players in our age group, and we’d play together every summer for the next four years. Our coaches really knew what they were talking about and I learned more than I ever imagined about baseball in that time. But they expected a lot. I mean it. A lot. For instance, when we were 10, I remember we lost a game to our rival, Franklin. And after the game they told us we let ourselves down, our parents down and disappointed the entire town. I was crushed and in tears. And I vowed to never let anyone down again.
As you already know, that’s impossible. But combine that need to please with a perfectionist’s attitude and you got me as a kid. The kid who cried when he struck out. The kid who cried and threw a temper-tantrum when he didn’t make a play in the field. The kid who—and I’m not making this up—cried after hitting a double off the fence because it wasn’t a homerun. And of course, the kid who nearly had a mental breakdown if we lost the game. Let’s just say there are plenty of pictures of me with my team holding second place trophies and crying hysterically.
A neurotic, hyper-competitive, perfectionist crybaby. Those were some good times.
But for better or worse, I’ve carried that with me even to now. While my athletic days have long since passed me by, that attitude resurfaces in even the most mundane of endeavors. For example, MJ will no longer go bowling with me. When we were dating, she was beating me in the 8th frame and I was so pissed off I started kicking the ball return. And those of you who have watched Patriots and Red Sox games with me can probably attest to the fact that I am, well…not exactly a sane person when things start to go south.
Even with Will I’ve seen the competitiveness flare up. I eagle-eye his milestones and make sure he’s ahead of the curve. I compare him relentlessly to other kids his age and older, and get legitimately upset if they can do things he can’t. Hell, his recent progress report from preschool showed him to be advanced in every category except letters. He’s average in letters. This struck such fear into me that I’m now going to work more on letters with him every single night until he’s reading Stephen King books.
Which brings us to wiffleball.
When I found out I had a son my first thoughts were of teaching him sports. Unfortunately, I fear I will be “that sports parent.” The one everyone hates. The one who takes a kids’ game way too seriously. The one whose son goes 3 for 5 and then criticizes him for striking out in the third inning. And God forbid Will is average or even below average at sports. I’m not sure I can handle that.
I was raised with high standards, with sports and even grades. While everyone else had the traditional grading system, mine was different. An A was good, a B was a C and a C was failing. I still remember my dad asking me why my A- couldn’t have been an A. And I don’t fault him for that, it kept me on my toes and made me work hard. But I also remember it feeling like an intense amount of pressure.
I don’t want to be That Sports Parent. I really don’t. But I think it might be inevitable. Thankfully MJ will disembowel me if I get too out of hand, so it’s nice that I have her to correct me. Yet even if I’m not expressing it, I’ll be thinking it. I already have visions of Will as the star catcher hitting the game-winning homer to take the state title. Yes, I absolutely intend to live out my dreams of unfulfilled athletic glory through my son. And yes, I’m also aware of how pathetic and unfair that is.
But I think Will is going to ultimately thank me during his Cooperstown acceptance speech. The road to the Hall of Fame starts with Wiffleball!