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Who Are You Again? And Where's Left Field?

May 19, 1999|CHRIS ERSKINE

They sit on the bench and listen to the coaches, whom they don't really know by name but now sort of recognize when we show up in the dugout.

". . . And that's the rule for tagging up," I say, finishing an explanation for tagging up.

"Huh?" one of them says.

"Tagging up," I say. "I just told you about tagging up."

"You did?" asks the little red-haired girl.

I'm the only dad she knows who talks with a limp, who starts out saying one thing, then veers off in another direction entirely, leaving everyone within earshot totally puzzled. She likes that in a dad.

"What'd he say?" one of her teammates asks.

"Something about flags," the little girl says.

They are some of softball's most promising ingenues, 14 players who show up every week at the school ball field, where coaches who smell like lawn mower gas interrupt their yardwork to try to teach them softball--to hit, run, throw and scratch themselves in embarrassing places, just like those players on TV.

"Now," I say, "we're going to work on scratching ourselves in embarrassing places."

"Huh?" one of them asks.

"Just kidding," I say.

"What'd he say?" one of them asks.

Like most ingenues, they will not laugh at my jokes. Only at their own jokes, which honestly aren't all that funny. They just sit there, wrinkling their 7-year-old noses.

Easily restless, they look at me as I speak, then look 30 feet behind me, as if someone were there. I keep turning around. No one's there. They only wish someone were there.

"Can we hit now?" one of the ingenues asks.

"Yeah, can we hit?"

"Maybe later," I say.

In 10 minutes, we will start a game. In 10 minutes, 14 other little softball ingenues will show up to take us on, then scatter across the field, picking dandelions and catching lady bugs. If it sounds intense, it is.

"Does anybody have any questions?" I ask before the game starts.

"Who are you again?" one of them asks.

"I'm your coach," I say.

"Where's left field?" one of them asks.

Each game, we go through this. Left field. Right field. Second base. Each week we learn the positions, then forget them, then learn them again. It's become sort of a team ritual.

"I played left field last time," a player says.

"You don't like left field?" Don, the assistant coach, asks.

"I like left field," she says.

"Then run out to left field," Coach Don says.

"Where's left field?" she asks.

And then the game starts, and we look pretty good for the first couple of innings.

"Nice play, Nicole!" I yell.

"Way to go, Erika!" I say.

That's mostly my job, yelling "way to go."

Even when they sort of screw up, I yell "way to go." Keeps the mothers happy.

"Way to go, Carrie! Way to go, Devon!"

My other responsibility, besides yelling "way to go," is to occasionally stroll out to the field and wake up the outfielders, who stand there--still as Stonehenge--in some sort of softball trance.

"Breathe!" I say as I wander the outfield. "Everybody, breathe."

"Huh?" they ask, standing with their gloves at their sides.

"Breathe," I say.

For six weeks now, we have worked with the team, worked on getting the girls' elbows up and their gloves in the dirt, drilled them on the basics over and over again, till they tune us out and we speak only to ourselves.

"Swing level," we say, or "don't pick that scab," basic stuff they'll use an entire lifetime.

"Girls, keep your gloves out of your mouths," Coach Lorraine says.

And finally, after six weeks, it's starting to come together, here on this scruffy little diamond as the sun sets and the parents keep looking at their watches.

Then, in seconds, it all comes apart.

"Oh, no!" yells Coach Don.

"Oh, no!" yells Coach Lorraine.

What happened, in case you weren't there, is that the other team caught a line drive, surprising not only our three base runners, but also the first-base coach, who allegedly was me, at the time allegedly lounging in the grass with some of the parents, talking about mutual funds.

When all of a sudden I look up and see this girl catch the line drive and all our runners take off anyway, when they should've stayed on the bases and tagged up.

"BACK! BACK! BACK!" I scream as I race onto the field, flapping my arms like a big duck. "BACK! BACK! BACK!"

But nobody goes back. The base paths look like one of those traffic circles in Athens, where everything goes round and round, and chaos reigns and everybody acts like nothing is wrong. That's how the base paths look.

In a few seconds, the first baseman who caught the ball steps on first, then runs to tag third. Triple play, unassisted.

"What happened?" the players all ask.

"What happened?" the parents all ask.

"Way to go, everyone," I say as we head to the dugout.

"Way to go."

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is

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