Limitless Ability T-ball is a blast. A kid in a wheelchair comes up to hit, and he is going to get a hit. A blind child plays left field. Not a problem. It’s all good. Many errant throws are made in the general direction of first base. No one cares. Those of us supporting the players are getting a great workout fetching balls thrown in every direction imaginable. Everyone makes it to first base safely, and cheers break out constantly for tiny victories.
My autistic eight-year-old son Avery is at the plate. He looks so serious. When he concentrates really hard, his tongue creeps up above his upper lip like Michael Jordan focusing on his next move. Avery’s tongue is peeking out as he whacks the ball off the Tee and runs like a madman to first base. He’s predictably safe. My heart is so full I may cry. I tear up a little, but no one notices.
We haven’t told Avery he’s autistic yet. We don’t have the right words, and we don’t want him to use it as a crutch in life. We want him to reach and believe he can grasp anything. That nothing is beyond his power to achieve. What does it mean to be autistic? On this particular baseball field near our home in Ocala, Florida where players have so many different challenges, it doesn’t seem to mean anything at all.
Everything is a matter of perspective. All of Avery’s limbs and senses are functional. He races around the field after baseballs that fly over his head. His throws are sometimes even on the mark. He is blessed with so much by comparison with some here. And there are others like him that are fully functional in most obvious ways but fairly dysfunctional in less obvious ones.
I played Little League baseball for one season back in Salisbury, North Carolina where I grew up. The game was fraught with anxiety for me. So competitive. I threw up in my mouth just a bit every time I came up to bat. I don’t think I ever got a hit in a game and not often even in practice.
My dad must have hoped for more. Maybe he imagined an athlete inside me that I never was able to realize. I remember telling him that little league was a mistake. He encouraged me to keep going, not to give up on the team. Play out the season. The team needed me. I was pretty sure the team would have been happier if I stopped showing up. But I I finished the year with my perfect hitless streak at the plate intact and rode the bench in any case until each contest was well past decided.
I got some tiny baseball trophy at the end of the year for my participation that I promptly stuck in a drawer because it made me physically ill to see. It had just been decided by unanimous decree that every single child on every team needed a trophy. Even the most unspectacular athlete imaginable, me, needed one.
My older son Andrew played baseball for one year in Asheville, North Carolina. It was a rash and weird decision on my part to put Andrew on a baseball team. I think I wanted him to fit in. Maybe I wanted to fit in, to be a parent among other parents in the stands rooting hard for a team. This would give us a spot in the community, a place to be among our new tribe.
His team was the best team in the league. Andrew may have been the worst player in the league on the best team, but it was not his fault. At the age of ten, he’d never played baseball before in his life. Since I’d had such a horrid experience with the game, I never played baseball in the backyard with him.
I played basketball and tennis with him. We sledded down hills in the snow together. Once I looked on in horror as he managed to veer his little sled just out the path of the snowman we had just constructed and into the path of a little girl who stood immobile with fear as he raced toward her. He took her out like a perfect strike in a bowling alley. She cried a bit as she was gathered up by her mother, but I believe she lived. So, we’d played our share of backyard games, I suppose. But never baseball.
He learned the rules of the game as he learned the unspoken names of each blade of grass in right field during practice. I yelled at him to get up and pay attention. He stood up for a few minutes. Then he sat back down to examine the grass more closely. “He’ll get there,” one sympathetic parent said to me. “Will he, really?” I asked, daring to hope.
Andrew did get a hit in a game and make it safely to first. The score against the other team was 12 to 1 when he got in. The mercy rule was about to take effect, and the other team was simply playing out the string. He whacked the ball pretty solidly. He was as surprised as anyone else on the team and in the stands that it happened. Everyone had to yell at him to run to first. He kicked up a ton of dust at the start just like a cartoon character and finally got enough traction to move forward and just beat the throw.
I was cheering so loudly at this point I thought I’d be ushered out of the stadium. He gave me a look. The look was relief and embarrassment. There was a small shrug. I know, I said to him in my mind, I never expected that to happen either. Pretty cool. This was the highlight of the season. It never got better than that. We went out for milkshakes afterward.
In what feels like the dead of winter in New York City, I can’t help but think about my boys of summer. They both took their turn at bat like I did. Only Avery had much success playing a game he could not lose. If only Andrew and I could have played Limitless Ability T-ball. More fun. Less angst. Everyone gets a hit.
These days Avery is struggling through high school in Chelsea, trying to make friends and get good grades. It’s not easy on either count for him. Geometry theorems and dystopian novels are flying left and right, and he’s caught in the middle without a clue some days. Big Brother is Watching while points, lines and planes seem to fly in every direction at once.
Andrew is back in Wilmington, North Carolina where he has a job and friends. He is suffering through a series of roommates who go bad and jobs that may lead to something or nothing at all. He seems on the right track, but it’s a bit precarious. He gets down sometimes.
Maybe trophies should not be handed out like candy to children simply for showing up. It probably cheapens the accomplishments of those who strive for victory. It might weaken the resolve of those who don’t. But sometimes in life you need a win.
The rules of the game are hardly ever designed for victories for all.