Their voices are still that of young boys.
They squeak when they cheer and holler.
But their athletic ability shows they’re becoming something more: young men. These young people stand on the threshold of innocence, that special, magical place where youth sports is still just that. Youth. Sports.
They might boot a grounder, drop a fly ball or strike out, and unlike higher-level sports, the reactions from these young boys often elicits tears, which their mothers soothe with hugs. Or, even better, nachos from the concession stands.
Each week, hundreds of children, families and coaches turn out for the Kalispell Pee Wee baseball league at the Kids Sport Complex, where 7- to 12-year olds participate in one of the oldest youth sports programs in Kalispell.
Soon, these players will be thrust into a more serious, competitive pasttime. It’s not that far away. In fact, just across a dirt strip between two fields at the Complex, the Majors, the 10- to 12-year olds, are already getting it done. These are the players whose skills allow them to progress from the Minor league, players who showed promise for a higher level of baseball.
In the Majors, caoches use strategic signals for their batters and runners, while in the Minors, coaches still use mostly the English language for instructions. The coaches grumble a bit more audibly at the umpires’ calls, while in the Minors, we accept the fact that the umps, too, are just kids.
Looking at one team just this week, you see how these games we play with our children are much more than that; we no longer have tribes and colonies that are defended with warriors and wars; it’s these small, innocent places of baseball fields and basketball courts where our young people are taught the lessons of life. From our fathers and our mothers. It’s here that we fathers pass on the lessons to our boys; it’s here we show them all that life is (mostly) about: work, dedication, reward, and most of all, laughter.
The mothers sit quietly in the stands, blankets draped over them to protect them from the windy prairie north of Kalispell. The fathers and men, meanwhile, are on the field, helping coach or providing support from the sidelines.
I noticed this the other night, as my oldest son hit his first double of the season — a high looper over the third base line. He glanced at me quickly, a silent acknowledgment that I was there. Looking around the four baseball fields that night, I noticed I was not alone. Dozens of parents sat in the chilly spring breeze with purple knuckles and cold ears. It made me proud to be part of a community where the parents care so much.
Over there by the dugout, helping coach, was a Kalispell police officer; over there, as third base coach, was a high school principal; sitting in a lawn chair was a high school basketball coach, watching his second grader, and in a field next to ours, a Realtor Kim Barstow coached her Cleveland Indians.
One of her players struck out. When he reached the dugout, the tears came to him quickly. Coach Barstow bent over, gave the kid some solid words of encouragement — and a great big hug.
They’re still just boys. And it’s still just a game.
But for these young men — even us parents — this is real life, right here, right now.