I never said much
to Leigh during our sessions, except to remind her of proper form when it
eluded her or to acknowledge that some of her misses were really due to my poor
pitching. I also praised a good swing, regardless of result. But for the sake
of concentration I never spoke during her swing—that is, until the pitch that
got away. Then I yelled, "Look out!"
understand what to look out for. Until then the pitches had been feathery and
harmless. But what seemed to me a ball of yielding pudginess suddenly appeared
to her as a dangerous missile. Caught in mid-swing, she had "opened"
her body at the precise moment my inside, unintentional brushback plunked dully
against her ribs, slightly above and to the left of her navel.
She dropped the
bat. She looked at me in total surprise. In the next instant her face tensed
and conveyed the message that she had been utterly betrayed. Then came the
decision whether to cry. Yes. Loudly.
It had never
occurred to me that the change to a more substantial ball meant that I should
explain to Leigh the first fact of the game, the real game: The ball is hard.
But it was too late now. She already knew.
She lifted her T
shirt and revealed an impressive strawberry. The tears were easily quelled, and
her confidence in me was restored when I explained I had not intended to hurt
her. Once we had determined that there was no lasting injury, we agreed to
continue. I threw one more, a nice fat one, exactly like those she had been
clouting before. She missed. I witnessed the most profound and unequivocal
bailout I'd ever seen. Her front foot was metaphorically in the dugout before I
released the pitch.
I realized I had
been the cause of a primary athletic emotion. I tried to explain that because
I'd thrown a great number of pitches without hitting her, I was unlikely to hit
her again. And that even if I came close again, she would now know to move
away. Her brain accepted this; her body didn't.
I believed that,
like the beginning rider first thrown from the saddle, Leigh needed to stand in
again, right now. I instructed her to keep her front foot forward. She improved
slightly, made contact once or twice, but only through strength of will. Her
heart had gone. Was I to insist that she hang in there, risking more tears, not
from injury but from facing an overwhelming challenge? Would I make baseball
for her a test of courage at age five? What might be the effects of quitting
now? Would I be telling her that pain meant tears and that tears meant one
didn't have to try?
I remembered my
own youthful agonies, standing in against a 12-year-old southpaw sidearmer who
shaved both the corners of the plate and his face. I remembered my fear.
"Let's go in
for today, sweetheart. We'll come out again soon." She agreed with great
relief. I don't know when or if Leigh will be ready to test her insides against
the real pain and conflict we call sports, but I'm not ready to test her
By the evening I
was more overwhelmed by the incident than Leigh. I decided there must be some
compromise between making our games a premature test of character and allowing
them to be without content or challenge. I told her that the little plastic
ball might be better for us to use for now, but that we could use the bigger,
heavier ball whenever she wanted. This seemed agreeable to her, and though we
haven't used the hurting ball since, some day we'll face it again. And next
time we'll both be ready.