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Field of Daydreams.

I love Little League in New York City, which is a surprise to anyone who knows me. After all, I am too old for organized teams ever to have been a presence in my youth. I grew up on a little dead-end street with a vacant lot at the end of it, where the neighborhood boys (it was never girls back then) gathered stones-much better than balls-and batted them around with sticks. If anyone got hit, they would be exhorted by their stern fathers not to act like sissies and cry.

In any event I'm not a baseball fan. I'm not the sporty sort if the truth be known, but my son likes the game and it's a mother's lot to sacrifice. Besides, I live in Manhattan, where the five- or six-year- old softball league is pure, raucous, ridiculous entertainment. I hear it's different in the suburbs or west of the Hudson River, where people actually know the rules, but here in the Big Apple, you have a lot of parents whose idea of a physical workout is running on a treadmill with Palm Pilots in their hands. Some of them have not recently risked exercise without a personal trainer, so it's amusing to see them come out of their Wall Street warrens and pantomime big guys on steroids. No one's ever gone as far as chawing tobacco, but smaller affectations- chewing gum while looking tough-are no less hilarious.

In truth, the fathers are quite gentlemanly-unless of course there's any likelihood of an actual score, at which point they behave exactly as they might on the floor of the stock exchange on a particularly volatile market day. Most of the time, they gather in knots, evaluating the children for promise, giving tips about swing and stance, rubbing their shoulders and rotating their arms as though loosening the kinks of some greater exertion, removing their caps, running their fingers through their hair with genuine athletic grace, settling the caps back on their heads with practiced major league nonchalance. Their jeans are dry-cleaned, their shirts are weekend-casual-handsome button-down, denim-linen blends. Their barn jackets are from London Fog.

The mothers express their competitive tension in different ways. They huddle in anxious clumps comparing statistics: So where's your kid in school? What were his scores?

The children themselves are as cute as buttons in their bright blue uniforms with the names of various major league teams across their chests and the much larger names of local sponsors across their backs. Each week my son's team plays a different commercial patron. There is something weird and only-in-New-Yorkish about watching Murray's Cheese Shop battling it out with Forbes, Inc.

"Wouldn't you know it," grumbles a father who works for Fortune magazine. "I've got Forbes on my back all day as it is. Now I've gotta deal with it on my kid's back."

The rules are generous in the junior minor league. "The runner is out if he/she goes out of the basepath (within reason)," a rule that is tested when, for example, a coach shouts, "Run to home," and the reasonable young neophyte heads for his house. The proscriptions for conduct are basic: "Batters should be warned only once about thrown bats." And the coach's objective is limited to "keeping their heads in the game"-that, I assure you, being no small task.

The first pitch is lobbed, the game begins. Well, sort of begins. As the ball arcs through the air, the batter stops to watch a flock of pigeons rise into the air. The first baseman stops to blow his nose. The second baseman stops to trade Pokemon cards with the enemy team. The center fielder sits cross-legged on the ground, apparently digging for earthworms.

The second pitch is lobbed, a second child at bat. "Choke up, buddy boy," howls the proud father, who is sitting behind me but so close to the edge of his seat that a fine spray moistens the back of my neck. Buddy boy is about three and a half feet tall with a huge helmet sliding about on his little head. The team shirt hangs on him like a dress. Buddy chokes, swings and then topples with the weight of the bat. As he lies sprawled on the ground, his father offers reassurance to grow into: "Atta boy, champ!"

A third pitch is tossed, and the batter unexpectedly smacks the ball. No one is prepared. The little third baseman has been chatting away on a cell phone; quickly he hands it to Daddy. The ball hurtles toward first. Seemingly relieved, the third baseman takes back the phone and continues an animated discussion about whether he should be forced to suffer pumpkin tortellini yet again for lunch.

Meanwhile, the first baseman makes a valiant run for the ball (with no help from the outfielders, who are busy eating doughnuts). He might have caught it but for the fact that the children are playing on what is also a soccer field, and there are large goal nets at either end. The ball curves downward into the goal zone/outfield, and the first baseman leaps upward through space to meet it. But his feet tangle in the net, and he crashes to the ground. He is not hurt, but he is hopelessly ensnared, flopping like a fish, head and shoulders on the ground, feet suspended high in the net.

He flails like this for quite a while because no one on the field even notices him. His unusual misfortune has been upstaged by an intense boxing match that has broken out on second base: Two children are pushing and pummeling each other so that one forgets to run, the other is oblivious to the ball. When the one who forgets to run is taken off the field to be chided by his mother and have ice applied to his noggin, he wails, "But she started it!"

"This is why they shouldn't let girls on these teams," complains his father bitterly.

But when the din dies and the dust settles, we realize that a miracle has graced us: The batter has quietly, doggedly, trotted all the way around the diamond and back to home plate-past the bobbling first baseman, through the battle at second and under the nose of the third baseman, who is again chatting on the phone. The mothers whoop. The fathers holler. The pigeons wheel in fright. The sun breaks through the clouds; popcorn and Gatorade pour from the heavens. A rainbow appears in the deep water-blue spring sky, as joy in Mudville reigns.
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Title Annotation:junior minor league baseball father's narrative
Author:J. Williams, Patricia
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 22, 2000
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