Meredith’s Musings: For The Boys, For the Game
article by Meredith McKinnie
Baseball began in February this year, and I’ve never seen Boyfriend so excited. He had recently transferred from a head coaching position at one school to an assistant position at another to learn from a longstanding head coach he much respected. He wanted to learn from the best. He wanted to learn what made one the best. I love that he craves to be his best. And as a coach’s girlfriend, expectations exist. Boyfriend never mentioned them. He knows better than to tell me what to do; the rebel in me will revolt. But I knew. Be present, be supportive and if you can, fall in love with baseball, too.
This season made it easy. It was my busiest semester at school, but every free chance I got to attend a game, I was there. And admittedly, sometimes I was the woman sitting alone in the corner of the bleachers grading essays, feeling productive, balancing work and my supportive girlfriend role. I remember being engrossed in grammar and sentence structure when the crack of a bat would pull my attention back to the field. And little by little, I paid more attention to the game. I realized, “Wow, these kids are pretty good.” What began as sitting there quietly, quickly morphed into cheering players’ names I’d never met and leaping into the air on a line drive catch or a home run. I learned the terminology and the reasons why we bunted on the third strike in the sixth inning. I had questions after every game, and Boyfriend always had an answer. I became genuinely interested.
When we made the playoffs, I saw the stands’ overflowing capacity. I saw community defined at every game. I saw headdresses and T-shirts, all in the same blue color. I heard bullhorns and shouts of support and enthusiasm. We were all there for a common goal. We believed in these boys because we could see they believed in themselves. They were a team. They worked together. They supported one another. One player’s success was every team member’s success; no hostility, no poor sportsmanship, just classy camaraderie built year by year as these boys grew and played together. What I saw on that field over those few months is what makes us cry in sports movies; it’s what stirs the soul, hard work and humility meeting success.
And then it happened; we made the state championship. It was during finals week, and I was slammed, but I made it happen. I made two trips down south to catch both games. I was too invested. Boyfriend needing me there is not why I went. I couldn’t miss it. The idea of only hearing the game on the radio saddened me, and what if they needed me? What if my one voice cheering made a difference? I couldn’t let them down.
My stomach was in knots that first game. This opponent was good. But I kept reminding myself, so are we. Watching Boyfriend on first base, coaching the batters and the runners, he looked composed; he looked confident. But I know my Boyfriend. I could see his often-clenched fists, his shifting from one foot to the other, his hands on his hips when he knew it was a bad call. He was nervous. He wanted this for the boys as much as they did. He knew they deserved it. In his eyes and in all of ours, they were the best; they were what Boyfriend aspired to be part of a year ago. Now he could call them his.
The morning of the state championship, Boyfriend was acting odd. He avoided eye contact, freaked when I picked up his bat he uses to hit balls to the outfielders before the game and had little appetite. I’d never seen him like that. But then I remembered, no game had ever mattered this much; no stage had ever been this big. But I stayed supportive. I kissed him and hugged him and told him, “Y’all go play YOUR game.” It was all I could say.
It was a battle. I lost my voice. I yelled as hard as I could, as if every decibel would inch them closer to that winning run. I knew they could win this game. Heart always wins, right? That’s what the movies teach us. And the Chiefs had the heart. So through my own clenched fists and in the heat of the scalding sun, I braced myself through every pitch. I marveled at the turnout in the stands. The community showed up for its heroes. I saw the pitcher’s mother with her head buried in her lap on the first pitch. I could hardly watch either, and he wasn’t even my son. I saw the head coach’s wife right in front of me. She’d been here before, but this time, her only son was in right field. I saw each and every player’s mother, father, step mother, step father, all unified with one goal. I saw the red and blue signs we’d made the night before now being held by trembling fingers in the last inning. I saw belief and hope on everyone’s faces, as if we could will them to a win.
But we fell in the final inning. We lost by one run. With everything we’d done, we couldn’t will them to a win. So along with the parents we slowly and quietly exited the stands to make our way to the dugout. But what I saw there surprised me most of all. The boys had made a circle around the coach. Tears were streaming down their faces. And it occurred to me. I knew them by the numbers on the back of their jerseys, I knew them by their stance in the batter’s box, I knew them from Boyfriend’s comments after a game, I knew them as hometown heroes. But they were just boys, learning to become men on the baseball field.
I saw Boyfriend in the corner of the circle, tears also streaming down his face. He doesn’t cry often. I froze because I didn’t know the dialogue. I didn’t know how to be supportive after a loss. We had always won. So I approached him slowly, and he wrapped his arms around me and whispered, “It’s okay, babe, the tears are for the boys.” He was sad for their loss. He was sad their heart plus humility had stalled before the ultimate trophy. But he knew they had done everything they could. We all did. Like every game they had won before, they left their hearts on the field, still beating, waiting for the next at bat.
A few hours later, back at the hotel, I saw the parents and players assembling in a field near the parking lot. After a shower, I headed downstairs to join everyone. And what I walked outside on brought me to tears. The parents had assembled in lawn chairs watching their sons play a Sandlot-style baseball game. Many had no shoes because the shoes were serving as first, second and third base. They were laughing. They were giving every hit their all. They would search as a group in the tall grass when someone hit the ball too hard. They were playing ball again as a team because they loved it. A trophy didn’t determine their worth. It didn’t determine the game’s worth. And with a silent look at Boyfriend, we both realized we had won. We had the heart, we had the fortitude and we had the team.