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The Short List
In a life full of choices, there are only four that matter
By Bill Butterworth
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Lesson from Little League
One of the greatest moments for any parent is when his or her child signs up to play Little League baseball. It borders on patriotism-a love of country coupled with a love of one of its favorite pastimes. It does entail parental responsibility: a parent's commitment to his or her child is measured by that adult's ability to attend each and every one of the games, practices, and important fund-raisers. There's something about selling doughnuts, magazine subscriptions, or washing cars that says "I am a good parent." (Do you notice who is doing all the fund-raising? It's not the kids!)
More than anything, Little League is an opportunity to show our sons and daughters how much we really love them.
For me, Little League was an opportunity for my kids to show how much they loved me.
Like many families today, we have had a Rand McNally approach to our history together. Our first three children-Joy, Jesse, and Jeffrey-were born in south Florida, while we were living just north of Miami. John and Joseph, our fourth and fifth children, were born in Anaheim, California, after we moved to Orange County.
By the time our gang hit Little League age, we were firmly entrenched in the town of Fullerton, just north of Anaheim. Joy played some Little League but gravitated more naturally to a Boys & Girls Club basketball league. She eventually grew to be six feet one inch tall in high school and played on a team that would go all the way to the California state finals.
Jesse fell in love with baseball. As a proud member of the West Fullerton Little League, he began as a T-baller and made his way up the ranks as high as he could go.
Until he turned ten.
When Jesse was ten, we moved.
Not just down the road or a few blocks away. We moved from southern California to northern California. Earlier that year (due in great part to the "Hey, Ma! ... Hey, Bob!" incident) I had left my job and launched my own career as a full-time speaker and writer. My wife and I quickly determined that we could live wherever we wanted as long as it was somewhat close to an airport. Real estate prices in Orange County, California, were high, so we looked around to see if there were any other places on the West Coast, preferably in California, that had more affordable housing. After a few months of searching, we found the perfect place: Grass Valley, California.
The name had nothing to do with the "medicinal" grass California is famous for and everything to do with a delightful, small, sleepy town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. An hour's drive northeast of Sacramento, less than two hours south of Reno and Lake Tahoe, Grass Valley was idyllic indeed. And to top things off, the town seemed to be inhabited primarily by retirees who weren't driving real estate prices sky-high.
So our baby boomer family found a house large enough for dad and mom, five children, a dog, a cat, a bird, and some fish. We bought it for less money than what we had gotten for our tiny cracker box back in Fullerton.
Of course my wife and I didn't realize we were only one of hundreds of baby boomer couples who discovered Grass Valley virtually at the exact same time and descended upon it. For residents who had lived in this quaint little burg for years, the changes were myriad.
Including sign-up day for Little League. For a town that had put a handful of kids on ball fields in years past, it was overwhelming when literally hundreds of kids showed up to play.
There was a great deal of learning and growing and stretching and flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants as the league radically expanded. But one thing about Grass Valley Little League remained the same....
It was Little League on a budget.
I detected it pretty much right from the start. Coaches were abundant, but playing fields were at a premium, requiring practices to be scheduled for any possible hour the sun was up and the team wasn't in school. Equipment was a little sparse, but somehow enough balls, bats, catcher's masks, chest protectors, and shin guards were provided for each team.
Jesse was relatively unscathed by Little League on a budget until the fateful day the coach made an all- important announcement: "Come early to the next practice so we can pass out the uniforms."
Ah, the uniforms. For most kids, they're the tangible connection between their Little League team and the Major League Baseball team that shares their name. In southern California, the Fullerton Little League took this connection seriously. The year Jesse played for the Fullerton Little League Dodgers, for example, he was beside himself with glee since the Dodgers were his favorite team. A "veteran" with several years under his helmet, Jesse knew that his Little League Dodgers uniform would be an exact replica of the uniform worn by his adult heroes. And when I use the words exact replica, I am not exaggerating. Many of us parents were convinced that they were actual Major League uniforms that the equipment manager at Dodger Stadium left in the dryer too long. They were that authentic looking.
Grass Valley was far removed (in more ways than just miles) from Fullerton, but my little guy didn't know that. Jesse could hardly sleep the night before the next practice. He was excited about the endless possibilities of what a Grass Valley Little League uniform might look like. Looking back, I guess I should have warned him, but frankly, even I wasn't prepared for what would be offered up as "team uniforms." It wasn't pretty.
We arrived at the practice field early and joined the scrum of excited kids swarming around the coach. The coach barked a command to his boys, our first clue to what the uniforms might look like.
"Get in a single line over here to my right, boys!" he ordered. "That's it. Everybody get in line, and I'll pass out the T-shirts!"
The full-dress Grass Valley Little League uniform is a T-shirt?
The dawn of understanding had yet to radiate in my little boy's head. As a matter of fact, he interpreted the coach's announcement differently. With an exuberant smile, Jesse turned and gave me the "okay" sign with his thumb and forefinger. "Dad, they even give us T-shirts to wear under our uniforms!" he said with all the naive excitement a youngster his age could muster.
But finally the truth sank in. When Jesse put all the pieces together, he tried to stay strong, but if I recall correctly, I think his lower lip began to quiver, ever so slightly.
Yes, Little League uniform day just about reduced my son to tears.
"Can you talk to the coach, Dad?" Jesse pleaded with me, somehow hoping that my words could miraculously make more fabric appear.
"Sure, Son," I responded. I wanted Jesse to feel better; besides, I wanted an explanation too.
"Coach, can I speak with you for a second?" I asked quietly.
"Yeah, but make it quick," he growled back.
He wasn't going to make this any easier, but I courageously plunged ahead. "A T-shirt? Is that all the kids get for a uniform?"
The coach looked agitated beyond his normal agitated state and immediately became defensive. "Well, you have to go to a store and buy him a hat, but, yes, that's it for the uniform." He scowled at me and couldn't resist one last zinger. "Are you one of those new guys that moved here from southern California? One of those 'my son is used to wearing an official Major League Baseball uniform that shrunk in the dryer' kind of guys?"
It was clear to me that despite the advances since the Civil War, there were still tensions between the North and the South. I, therefore, avoided answering and slunk back to my son. "That's all they provide," I told him. As I recall, Jesse needed some time to process this major blow to his baseball career. Initially, it rattled him, but he recovered nicely.
There was another jolt ahead from Little League on a budget, however. And that jolt was headed right toward me.
It was the first game of the season. After weeks of nothing but practice, the time had come to actually play for real. My son's team looked resplendent in their official T-shirts, hats from Kmart, and assorted blue jeans, warm-up pants, and real baseball pants. One player wore a multicolored pair of pants that looked like they came from MC Hammer's closet.
Prior to the start of the game, something transpired that I had never seen before. Honestly, I couldn't figure out what was going on. The teams were seated on their benches, the families and fans were seated on the bleachers behind home plate. The two opposing coaches, grown men dressed in jeans, golf shirts, and Kmart hats, stepped up to home plate. There they shook hands with each other and passed on encouraging words, "Let's have a good game!"
That was cool. I didn't have a problem with that custom at all. It was the next move that threw me. Once the ceremonial handshake was completed, they turned and faced us. Searching diligently throughout the crowd, they each began saying, "I'll take you" and "I'll take you, sir," while pointing to specific adults seated in the bleachers.
For some reason, this was making me nervous; I swallowed hard. Why are they doing this? I asked myself silently. I couldn't figure it out. "What are they doing?" I whispered quietly to my daughter and younger sons.
They responded enthusiastically. "Dad, they're picking umps!"
I let that thought settle in for a moment and then blurted out loud, "They don't have umpires?!"
"Nope," my kids replied. "They can't afford to pay 'em, so they pick 'em right out of the crowd!"
I found this revelation to be particularly disconcerting. I began to have a panic attack of personal conscience. How can they do this? I asked myself. How can they put a parent in such a pressure position? We love our kids, and we want their team to win. Therefore, would we ever call our kid out if it was a close call? If I was behind the plate and my son was the batter, would I ever call a strike? Worse yet, if my son was the pitcher, would he ever throw any balls? No, they would be strikes right down the old pipeline.
This was a horrible predicament, my own personal morality tale. For the entire next week I paced around the house, frantic about the game on Saturday. "I know they're gonna pick me. I know they're gonna pick me," I muttered, sounding the mantra of a tormented man. I had no idea how it was going to go down, but I wanted to be ready for whatever came my way.
Saturday arrived, a day that must have been prearranged by God as one when all my worst nightmares were to come to pass. We watched the teams warm up, take batting practice, take fielding practice, then take their positions on the bench. The two coaches came to home plate, shook hands, offered each other "good game" wishes, and then turned to face the crowd.
"I'll take you. I'll take you, sir," they began in earnest. After they chose two fellow adults, a coach fixed his focus on me. He pointed my direction and said very clearly, "I'll take you, sir."
Fortunately, I had seen that finger point at me a thousand times over the last seven sleepless nights. Without missing a beat, I leaned forward from my seat on the bleachers and responded to the coach with unmistakable crispness.
"Ich kann nicht verstehen was mitt mir los ist, aber Mutti sind immer noch kaput, suzammen."
That's right, I answered in German. And if you don't speak German, I believe I said something like, "I cannot understand what is wrong with me but Mommy is broken, together!"
The coach looked at me like the proverbial deer in the headlights, his blank stare scaring me. Then he snapped out of it, turned ever so slightly to look at my kids and asked, "Your dad doesn't speak English?"
My kids glanced over at me with a telling look. "This is the moment we've all been waiting for our entire lives!" was my first interpretation of their expressions. Followed by "We could get him into so much trouble right now!" I thought I saw just the slightest sly grin appear.
Inside I was actually screaming, Help me, kids! Love me, kids! Bail me out here, kids!
Well, thankfully, my kids didn't hang me out to dry. When the coach asked them if I spoke English, they paused for maximum effect and then shrugged their shoulders, as if to say, "That's a really good question, Coach!"
The coach couldn't hold up the game any longer. "Well, kids, I can't have someone out on the field who doesn't speak English. Tell your dad we won't need him." And with that the coach began scouring for another adult in the crowd.
I was free from my moral quandary! Actually, I was off the hook, not only for that game, but for the entire season! Of course, my poor kids were interrogated by their friends and classmates. "Your dad doesn't speak English? What does he do for a living?" To which they would honestly reply, "He's a speaker."
Yes, my kids showed a lot of loyalty on that sunny Saturday, as well as a lot of concern and compassion for their old man. Let me add that I definitely don't condone lying as a way to get out of anything. My quick thinking in German wasn't the best example to set for my kids. But despite my ill-advised scheme, they taught me a lesson that day-choices are a part of how we love.
Excerpted from The Short List by Bill Butterworth Copyright © 2009 by Bill Butterworth. Excerpted by permission.
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