Go get 'em, tiger

A single T-ball mom admits her crush on the heroically patient coach of the perfect kids' game.

Published June 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

T-ball is just about the perfect game. No pitcher, no innings, no outs added up, no score. For kindergarten boys and girls, it's non-competitive heaven. They do their best to hit the ball off the tee, run to first (when they've figured out what "first" means), where a parent stands to tell them when to try for second. And then there's the coach, showing them how to bat, urging them to run, yelling, "Third, third!" like mad, cheering them all the way home. They go into the field not when three hapless kids have made outs, but when half the team has batted.

I'm a T-ball mom. If national elections took place in the spring, we T-ball moms would be as famous as soccer moms. In fact, we're the same people. In the fall, we drive our kids and their black and white balls to practice, then switch to hauling their baseball gloves and bats in the spring.

I'm not just a T-ball mom, I'm a single T-ball mom. I don't know if those other three moms at every practice, every game are single moms too. We don't ever talk about it. There is a game to get on with.

Among the moms who come alone, one is the proud parent of a very talented boy who, at 6, deserves the batting gloves he wears. There is another mother whose child plays like a pro. Her older son is there too, and after T-ball is over, she takes him to his softball game. Then there is the very attractive woman with long, dark hair, the mother of a veteran player who shows the younger ones how it's done.

And there's me, midlife mother of two of the worst players on the team. Call them inexperienced if you'd like. Call one too young -- at 5 years old, he spent the whole first practice in his position on the pitcher's mound with his back to the hitter, facing the outfield. Well, that was where all the people were, wasn't it? He spent the next few games playing in the dust. And, despite the verbal gold medals he'd given himself, he soon gave up altogether and sat with me. Luckily, the season wasn't over yet.

I don't know if all the T-ball coaches are as good as Rusty. And I don't know a thing about Rusty outside of T-ball. I don't know what he does all day. And I don't know where his wife is. (Though Rusty's son plays on the team, no mom is there to watch him.) I've never seen him get put out with any of the dust-kicking, inattentive kids. Rusty claims he isn't nearly as patient with anyone over 7.

I don't care. I'm in love with him.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not confessing, or sending a valentine. I'm here to testify that there's a change in what a woman finds desirable after she has to raise her children on her own. That regular, pre-kids attraction -- which is often based on things like availability or looks or shared interests -- gets overpowered by an ability to fall in love with a man because he's kind to your kids. This happened to me with the soccer coach too -- and his wife was at every practice. There is just something about a grown man kneeling next to my child explaining how to hit or kick a ball that does me in. When the soccer coach mussed my 6-year-old's hair in that fatherly way, the kid and I were both gone.

My children's father moved 600 miles away two years ago. He had reasons: a new job and our troubled marriage. My children's father is a good man. He sees them when he can, calls, sends money. He would be with them if exigencies of professional life and emotional pressure allowed him to. But they don't. And we all have to get on with our lives. I teach minority students whose families are often led by a mother. To me the only new aspect in the disturbing trend of fatherless families was that mine became one of them.

I've undergone the metamorphosis of single parenthood -- from sharing the load of kid chores to the acceptance of too much work, too much responsibility, a drastic cutback in what I can accomplish professionally, a far crabbier relationship with children I wanted to mother perfectly and an all-out appeal for help from friends and any other source I can think of.

I've gotten good at keeping two boys on the move. And I've gotten good at looking for men who'll give my guys a taste of what they might have gotten from their father.

A family friend showed up at our house one evening when I was lying semi-comatose on my bed with the flu, while my children played in agricultural lime in the backyard. I knew they were OK -- I could hear them -- but there wasn't a thing I could do about the lime. Our friend appeared in the backyard, gathered the boys up and put them in the tub. Then he made them waffles, which the older boy declared were "the best dinner ever." I went to the kitchen in my ratty pink terry-cloth robe and haggard face, and asked our friend to marry me.

This was another case of falling in love at that moment strictly for mom reasons. It didn't matter that I wasn't divorced when I proposed to our friend. And it didn't matter that the soccer coach was married, or that I was born and bred counter-cultural and the soccer coach is FBI. I'm not in love with them that way; I'm in love with their
willingness to get dirty for my boys.

Rusty is pretty counter-cultural too, from what I can tell. He has gray hair in a pony tail and slouching jeans that he clearly wears all day. He puts his arms around my sons to show them how to bat. He gives them bubble gum before a game so there is a field of 5- and 6-year-olds merrily chawing away out there. He tells my sons not to scrunch their butts when they swing, and this works. He knocks their feet a little apart with the bat. And he tags them as he chases them, Keystone cops-style, into home. He calls my little boy "Killer."

Rusty kneels in the dust beside my elder son when he hasn't caught a single ball the whole game. No one has taught my son how to lose well. But when Rusty stands up, he has restored my son's good humor.

My 5-year-old was going in the dugout long enough to get the bubble gum; then he would sit out the game with me, and return post-game for treats. When I talked to Rusty about my little guy's recalcitrance, he told me how his father had made him catch hardballs 50 minutes every night, and how he was one big bruise as a kid from having those balls hit him. His goal, he said, isn't to try to whip these little kids into shape. He wants them to think T-ball is fun and to want to play again next year. I wish my children didn't have to live without their father. Failing that, I wish that my boys will learn from their father's absence that there is another way to father, just as Rusty learned gentleness from his father's rough treatment.

My hopeless children turned out to be winners this season. The eldest got the "most improved" award and the little one was inspired to play the last game after he got the same trophy as everyone else on the team. They both want to play next year. I don't know about those other mothers out there alone on Saturday morning, but for me, the gratitude of the single T-ball mom knows no bounds. Do I feel another proposal coming on?

By Virginia Moran

Virginia Moran is a professor of English at Fisk University. She writes novels when she isn't running after boy children.

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