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Adam Kuhlmann

Little League, Revisited

Photo courtesy of the author / Getty / Little League World Series / Photo illustration by Longreads

Adam Kuhlmann | Longreads | April 2020 | 17 minutes (4,265 words)

It’s a cold, gray morning in late December, the week that sags like bunting hung between Christmas and New Year’s. I pull my mother’s Subaru alongside a large cinder block building identified only by a street address peeling from a rust-pocked and dented steel door. I see no functional windows, just a few square cavities that have been boarded up from the inside.

My wife, Mysha, eyes the grim façade from the passenger seat. “Is it strange,” she asks, “that Chase takes lessons inside a commercial slaughterhouse?”

Chase is my nephew, an 11-year-old with the eyelashes of a Hollywood starlet and a penchant for neon athletic wear. During our annual holiday visit to my Virginia hometown, he had invited us to watch him pitch and hit baseballs for an hour, under the tutelage of a private coach.

“It gives him a leg up,” my sister had told me the previous night after Chase went to bed. Perhaps sensing my skepticism, she explained the nature of today’s competitive child-rearing: how all of a kid’s activities — from his first birthday party to his college admissions — must be coordinated and enhanced, for a fee, by biologically unrelated adults.

At 39, with no plans to father a child myself, I am free to pass judgment on all manner of parental behavior without worrying that, one day, I’ll have to admit I was wrong. So, I reminded my sister about the 1990s, when the most we’d hoped for was piano lessons. As for getting into college, I told her about the Friday night before I took the SAT. I’d stayed up late, crowding around Betsy Newman’s backyard fire pit. I’d joined a boozy, a cappella rendition of Blind Melon’s “No Rain.” My test prep had consisted of just saying no to the nozzle of a can of Cool Whip, a triumph of restraint I’d managed without a glance of adult supervision.

My sister patiently absorbed my nostalgia. Then she added: “Chase wants this too. He loves baseball.”

I couldn’t argue with Chase’s results. Last summer he’d been selected for the all-star team of his neighborhood little league. My sister sent us photos of the boys celebrating at a local Mexican restaurant. In one close-up, Chase’s arm is draped over the shoulder of a boy with the same tousled hair spilling from the same star-spangled hat. With the other hand, he is slugging a yellow concoction from a goblet the size of a table lamp.

During our annual holiday visit to my Virginia hometown, my nephew, Chase, had invited us to watch him pitch and hit baseballs for an hour, under the tutelage of a private coach.

Looking down at her phone, Mysha confirms the address, so we slip into a small parking lot in the back of the building. Though it’s no more welcoming than the front, at least we find no sign of doomed Angus cattle.

Inside, the facility’s décor hews to jock brutalism. Forty feet above us, fluorescent lights hang from metal beams, filling the cavernous room with a stadium’s ice-blue brightness. The atmosphere is warmed only by the sound of classic rock rattling from speakers bolted to the walls. Black netting curtains off a pair of batting cages, where a few stocky teens hack at soft tosses. The floor is covered in green artificial turf studded with five-gallon buckets, around which cluster litters of scuffed baseballs.

I spot my brother-in-law, Clay, seated with two other men whose buzz cuts and taut expressions would fit in on the bridge of a naval destroyer. They lean forward from metal folding chairs, studying the ritualized movements of their boys. Nearby is a makeshift pitching mound, where I spot Chase moving into his windup: a fluid and compact gathering of 100 pounds of muscle and bone. His pitch sails high, pulling out of his catcher’s crouch a college-aged man in gray sweats. His bottom lip is swollen with tobacco, and he pauses to discharge a brown stream into a soda bottle before offering my nephew a blunt appraisal: “You’re overthrowing again. What happened to your release point?”

Chase cocks his head thoughtfully. “I forgot to reach out with it.”

“Right,” the coach says, demonstrating with his own right hand before returning a dart to Chase’s glove side. “Fix it.”

In his plush suburban home, Chase is a merry prankster. When he was 4, he stood on the carpeted mezzanine, reached his hand between two wooden balusters, and dropped an untidy sock onto the face of my sister, napping on the sofa below. Here, in this Spartan box, Chase’s aim is nearly as true — but he is all business.

We slide in, and the fathers stand to make room for us in the self-consciously gallant way of Southern men. And suddenly I recognize that I am easily the smallest person in the seating area. This includes my wife, who at 6-foot-1 dwarfs me in a way that attracts stares in public.

Out of the corner of my eye, I track a wide throw that tips off Chase’s glove and bounces once on its way toward our congregated shins. I bend and manage to spear it with my right hand.

One father draws out a whistle through his teeth.

“Once a second baseman, always a second baseman,” Clay says.

I toss the ball back to Chase, who registers the deed — and our presence — with a stoic little nod.

“College ball?” asks the other father.

Before I can laugh, say “no,” and explain that this catch had been the most graceful maneuver I’d accomplished in 20 years — indeed, I’d just tweaked my back and would require, this evening, a liberal application of Tiger Balm — Clay jumps in.

“This guy played in the Little League World Series!”

I wince.

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