The rules of the game

A dutiful soccer mom secretly obsesses over softball.

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It’s the spring season. Wet, cold, dull days, broken by afternoons so bright and mild that the air seems to be full of fine, loving fingers skimming across my skin. Sitting beneath intemperate piles of cherry blossoms in the bleachers, sipping soda. Huddling under my winter coat and an umbrella, pelted by hail. Smelling the wet new grass underfoot, squirting through mud to the sidelines. Peering through the afternoon sun at a white ball darting sideways into a mass of churning, girlish legs, high voices shouting, parents clapping. This is my prospect now — practice on Wednesdays, games every Saturday, a casual spring season full of lovely distractions, moody eighth-grade girls, flower-perfumed park trails and rolling fields painted with tiny white daisies. Cheerful anticipation. I rarely miss a game, chatting and chanting with the other parents at the sidelines, taking turns running up and down with the flag, trying to understand the offsides rule and alternately comforting and crowing with the girls.

This is my dirty little secret: I hate soccer.

I am down to the last of my three children living at home now, and no more chances. One son was built for sports, lean and strong and fast from the day he was born. Of course he hated sports, particularly anything smacking of a team and cooperation and working together. Even individual competition like gymnastics and swimming both bored and terrified him.

He was, and remains, a person who prefers to create his own rules and win or lose according to private standards. He’s got a rock band now, and writes songs like “Guerrilla Love” to growl into the microphone. It’s the closest he’s come to open gamesmanship in 21 years.

My other son is short and stocky, built for wrestling as few people in the world are. He loved sports, but hated wrestling. He dreamed of height and speed, and in high school played, with varying degrees of ineptitude, football, basketball, track and volleyball. I tried going to games, tried sitting in the bleachers by the football field on dusty autumn days. Unlike many of the other parents, I had no trouble spotting my son in a field of helmets and shoulder pads: He was half the size of the other players, a miniature man in the shadow of looming giants. I counted up my insurance premiums, closed my eyes. But he rarely played, and when he did, he cheated and got benched again. I tried going to basketball games, too, another happy prospect of gold oak floors and squeaking shoes and the echoing bounce of a ball under bright lights. But he was cocky and embarrassed by his poor skill and rude in his embarrassment. Track didn’t last long — too many boring laps of training, I think — and volleyball barely even began before he quit.

Now he’s on a bowling team, and I’m not invited.

My daughter, my strong, fast, short, powerful, shy daughter, loves sports, the concept of sports, the very idea of teams, the notion of cooperation, the possibilities of rules and referees and timekeepers and scores. She shoots hoops in the afternoon at our streetside basket, and sometimes neighbors join her, playing H-O-R-S-E. She bicycles, she runs, she spent her entire seventh-grade lunch hour as the only girl on a flag football team, she swims and snorkels. She loves to move and play. But most of all, she loves soccer.

I hate soccer.

What you must notice in the list of sports above is that one is missing. Nowhere in this litany of childhood games is the glorious word, the very name of spring, the thing we call softball.

I began playing softball late in life, as these things go, when I was 21, living in the counterculture haven of Eugene, Ore., going to the university a little, being a poor single mother a lot, having fun and working hard. I joined a great league made up of a couple dozen teams sponsored by various nonprofit and collective businesses and organizations, a determinedly noncompetitive way to compete with each other. We banned strikeouts, enforced gender ratios, controlled batting rotations, all in the name of
letting new and weaker players — most of them women who’d never played before — learn and enjoy the game. It was weird and fun and surprisingly successful, with practices several times a week and games every Sunday for almost six months of the year. There was a huge elimination tournament at season’s end.

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I fell in love with softball and with every single thing about it. I fell in love with the rotation of skills, the profound difference between hitting, catching, throwing, running. I fell in love with the slow anticipation, with the dusty fields, the clang of a ball against the chain-link fence, the outrageous delight of a solid smack between my Louisville Slugger and the ball, the pleasure of scooping a grounder, turning to throw into second and feeling the ball leave my hand in a perfect curve, looping through the summer afternoon to land smack in my teammate’s glove. I loved the blind leap for a high drive. I loved that every single moment on the field involved all nine players, that no matter where the ball was, everyone was playing every minute. I loved to hunker down, waiting, watching, ready. Everything. I met my husband on that field. I still have my glove.

Anyway. I hurt my back, doing something else, and found it harder and harder to spin and twist and slide. I moved away, to a city where leagues wore uniforms and required tryouts. I had three kids, and new interests. I looked forward to coaching my own kids someday, introducing them to the same joys of softball I’d come to love.

And none of my kids ever wanted to play softball. None had the slightest interest — not even in watching the World Series. Boring. Stupid. Slow. The youth softball leagues around here are still busy in spite of soccer’s dominance in local sports, and I have friends whose kids play long seasons, who talk excitedly about batting averages and base-stealing, friends who coach their kids, who spend their spring evenings in the park, tossing a ball back and forth, feeling the sound smack when the looping curveball comes around perfectly into place, the joy of a beautifully timed blind leap up for a high drive. Everything. My niece plays softball — and my sister watches her patiently, my sister who never played sports and thinks softball is a stupid, boring game.

I’m a soccer mom. I watch the lovely girls in every color and just about every size and shape, the teeming mobs of girls who adore soccer and bounce off walls in February waiting for another chance at an open field after three months of winter rains; the strong, confident girls who slide and kick and jump and, most of all, run. They run and run. The ball shoots back and forth along the field, the girls congregate and separate and run. There’s a near miss. They run, the ball rolls off the field. And so it goes.

These are the rules of the game, the game of rearing children to be themselves, whoever they may be. The rules of becoming myself, whoever I may become. I know I could be a softball coach, and perhaps the time will come when I’ll take up the game for someone else’s child instead of my own, when I won’t have so much trouble persuading someone to toss a ball back and forth with me in the fading summer twilight. I know I could learn more about soccer — I’ve tried, really, but I could try harder. I could even be my daughter’s soccer coach, if what I wanted most was to be my daughter’s coach.

But what I wanted most when I grew up was to be a softball mom.

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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