If there is such as thing as a sports gene, I don't have it. I have never played organized sports or even took much interest in them. Still, as a single mother of two boys entering their prime sports years, I felt I should do my best to introduce my sons to this seemingly universal male fascination. I know it's a stereotype, but I assumed all boys were supposed to be sports fanatics. They were supposed to be consumed with the desire to throw and chase various-size balls across various-shaped fields. The trouble was, as far as I could tell, my sons were not.
As any modern parent would, I blamed myself. It must have something to do with the absence of an adult male perspective in our household, I reasoned. I began to worry that my boys were missing out on some fundamental knowledge that fathers have passed on to their sons through the millennia. Even more foolishly, I then set out to provide them with that knowledge. Although I didn't know a shortstop from a tight end, I encouraged my boys to play ball and to sign up for organized teams. My sons, however, were too busy hammering together their latest invention or digging another hole trap for unsuspecting friend -- typical boy activities to be sure, but no sports.
Last spring, I had a breakthrough. I was finally able to persuade my older son, Paul, then age 11, to play Little League baseball. Never a fast mover, Paul had always appreciated more relaxed pastimes: chess, horseshoes, and, thanks to my weekly stitching club, crocheting. Horseshoes not being offered by the local recreation center, I thought baseball -- which seems to entail a lot of stnading around waiting -- would be just the thing.
At his first game, I watched with growing anxiety as Paul, playing first base, drifted into a daydream as batter after skinny little batter tried in vain to get a hit. By the time a ball finally came his way, he was in another world completely, and the throw flew right by him. After this scene was repeated in subsequent games, Paul ended up spending a lot of time in the dugout. Gentle soul that he is, Paul didn't complain. Instead, he brought his crocheting to work on.
Looking back now, I probably should have said something. Because as soon as Coach Flaherty saw the afghan-in-progress, he told Paul to put it away. I believe he said crocheting in a dugout was unsafe. The very fact that I would have called it resourceful made me realize how far I had to go as a sports mentor.
I suppose all this should have been a sign that my sons were going to have an unusual relationship with sports. Indeed, we soon discovered that Paul's special baseball skill was something he did off the field. At the end of the season, the boys were asked to sell raffle tickets to raise money for the team. Every day after school for two weeks, Paul hit the pavement. When the fund-raiser was over, he had outsold all his teammates and won four tickets to Fenway Park in Boston to see the Red Sox play. To him, it was as sweet as hitting a grand slam.
Paul and his brother, Andrew, had been to a couple of baseball games with their 12-year-old cousin, Anthony -- the type of kid who sleeps with his baseball glove on -- but this was my first game. Driving into the city, I listened to the cousins talk about the teams playing that night. What amazed me was how much my boys knew. Players' names, strengths, and statistics rolled off their tongues with ease. Did I miss something? Here I was feeling guilty about not being man enough to pass on the mysterious ways of sports, and Paul and Andrew didn't seem to need me at all.
Trying to take some of the credit, I reminded myself that I did bring up sports once in a while, excitedly reporting when a record had been broken or when that Great One retired from -- what was it? -- oh yes, hockey. One year, I even suggested we throw a Super Bowl party. The boys were thrilled. They retired to the their rooms that evening talking about the teams that would be playing and the people we'd invite over. I slept contentedly that night, pleased that my efforts were paying off and that the sports beast buried within my sons was starting to emerge. The next morning, they told me they had "the whole thing worked out," and could I please pick up this list of ingredients for the special Super Bowl hors d'oeuvres they planned on serving -- a menu they had been discussing all night.
Pulling into a parking lot near Fenway, I commented on how surprised I was that they knew so much about baseball. Bad me. It elicited the preteen scowl, a shocked and disgusted expression that comes from witnessing the gravest act of parental stupidity. Of course they knew about baseball. How dare I suggest otherwise? I tried to recover with, "Oh, that's right, you guys have all those baseball cards with the info on them," but it was too late. My ignorance had been revealed.
It would only get worse. After we found our seats, I asked the boys a hundred questions about the game. Do pitchers only pitch, or did they watch a base once in a while to break up the monotony? How does the referee know what 's a strike and what isn't? The umpire, the boys replied in unison, uses a formula based on the height of the batter to determine the strike zone. And the biggest mystery of all: Why on earth do baseball players feel the need to spit so darn much? Not only is it impolite, but don't they know that they are on national television?
As the game wore on, the boys started pleading to go get something to eat. I tried to put them off, but they persisted. "Look," I snapped authoritatively, "I don't want to miss any of the game. Let's just wait until halftime, and then we'll go down."
I could hardly hear over the roar of laughter coming from all around me.
"There is no halftime, is there," I ventured.
"No," they all giggled.
Trying to save face, I shrugged my shoulders and mumbled that it didn't seem fair to me, not one bit, that these poor guys didn't get a break during the whole game.
After the game, the boys and I stood amid a throng of other fans waiting for a glimpse of the players and maybe an autograph. Anthony spotted Dan Duquette, the Red Sox general manager, walking to his car. I had recently heard Coach Flaherty tell Paul's team that Mr. Duquette grew up near our town and played Little League on the same fields they did. Before I knew it, Paul and Andrew were catching up the general manager on his old stomping grounds. Yes, kids still played ball at Sheldon. Sure, MacDonald Field too.
As they chatted, I said almost apologetically, to a nearby police office, "You'd never know that they're not big baseball fans, would you?"
"Sure they are," he said, "Look at them."
When I looked objectively at those two beaming, confident boys talking to Mr. Duquette outside the stadium, I had to agree. they were fans. Maybe not like the Anthonys of the world, but sports fans nonethless. Paul and Andrew enjoyed the idea of baseball: the excitement of going to a ball park, the ritual of comparing the great players. They didn't need to play the game to be a part of it. I began to wonder why I ever felt the need to change them. They were just approaching sports the way they approached most things: unconventionally.
It's a lesson I imagine I'll often be reminded of in the years to come. Kids are who they are, not necessarily who we think they ought to be. Since that day at Fenway, I've spent a lot less time worrying about pushing my sons into activities I think boys should be engaged in. And I've spent a lot more time planning the activities that they simply enjoy. Which, as it turns out, are the ones that I prefer too.