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By 7 a.m. Saturday, when my picnicking co-conspirator arrived at our home park, some of the prime spots were gone. But he moved quickly - busting out crime scene tape, small posters and clips. And soon he had set up a perfect perimeter. It was close to the area where the trophies would be handed out but not too close. The signage was clear and concise - there would be no doubting our claim. And we had a wonderful mix of shade and sun, or at least we would have, if the day hadn't been so overcast.
Our T-ball (and coach-pitch of course - don't ever forget the coach-pitch) seasons ended with a picnic and awards ceremony last week. And somehow the event has evolved into a sort of miniature North Side land grab. I suppose it's a chance to play Sooner (those enterprising Oklahomans who, when given the chance to settle some land north of Texas left early and grabbed the prime real estate) for a few hours anyway. People arrive early in the morning on the day of the event (I'm guessing some even get out there the night before) and, yes, string up lengths of the distinctive yellow plastic from tree to garbage can to tree to try to ensure their teams have the perfect picnic experience.
The event has become ingrained enough that first thing in the morning on a path near the portion of the park in question there were more than a dozen garbage cans lined up where usually there are none. The cans with wheels were obviously there to help everyone define their space. We later learned the organizers didn't even want us to put garbage in those cans for fear they would overflow (people put garbage in there anyway and by the time I was leaving at around 12:30, the refuse was already approaching the rims). The picnic area is not far from a park district fieldhouse and we were urged to bag up our garbage and take it to the spot behind that facility where a couple big ol' dumpsters are parked.
In terms of marking our territory, crime scene tape definitely beat at least one of the alternatives. Next to us was a piece of land roped off with only thin string. It was up high enough that us sub-six-footers were OK but I was worried that at some point some former power forward was going to come along and get garroted. I suppose the thinking behind all of this has something to do with good fences making good neighbors, but one couldn't help looking around every once in a while and feeling slightly uneasy about what our fervor for private property hath wrought.
My cohort even divided our temporary homestead into two halves, one for the Rookie Red Sox (my five-year-old daughter Alana's team) and one for the Junior Dodgers (eight-year-old Noah's squad). Alana's team was scheduled to claim their trophies at 9:30 a.m. and the ceremony began right on time in a little out-of-the-way parking lot next to one of the park's youth diamonds. That's the place where no one is allowed to leave their car except district employees, inspiring an occasional vision of a foul ball soaring up and out away from home plate only to eventually crash down on one of the chosen vehicles.
The bats were silent on this day. There were only kids and parents and coaches, who uniformly kept it brief before handing out special T-ball trophies. Alana was happy to get hers but I was guessing it would soon be forgotten amid the clutter (clothes and toys and books and school projects and art projects and camp projects and all of the other little items that pile up on every last one of our open surfaces - the dining room table, the kids' desks, etc.) of a busy childhood.
An hour later, it was my turn to hand out the precious mementos. Only half my team showed up (14 of 16 had been there for the last playoff game so I suppose if late-July/early-August vacations had to happen I was glad they happened after the post-season rather than during it) but it was a good half. My remarks were completely forgettable but I did manage to go 8-for-8 getting first and last names right. I forgot to thank the mom who organized the snack schedule (shame on me!), but she did a nice job of pretending she didn't mind (let's be fair, there's a very good chance she indeed didn't mind).
After Noah and I returned to our picnic area with his award, I realized I might have been wrong about his sister's reaction to her new trophy. She immediately noticed that the metal figure on top seemed slightly more golden than the one on hers. A little bit of sulking ensued but was quickly forgotten when the Dodger parents began to lay out the food.
A cupcake, three homemade cookies, fruit salad and some cherry/blueberry pie later, a little contentment kicked in. I thought about asking Noah and Alana what they had learned from T-ball but I was confident there wouldn't be terribly satisfying answers. I hope there were a few lessons along the lines of concerted, consistent effort paying off in satisfying achievement and about how much fun collective, competitive endeavors can be.
Allowing myself the slightest bit of sappiness, the best part of the experience for me was several months worth of watching kids try hard to master some of the awkward baseball skills so many of us American sports fans so admire, and then watching at least one of them display newfound mastery in just about every game and practice. That and all those delicious snacks.
Jim Coffman's daughter played her first season of T-Ball this summer. Her older brother played in his last year in the Junior Division. Coffman chronicled his travails as coach of his son's team and observer of his daughter's initial foray into this slice of Americana. Thanks, Coach! (That's Coach Jim in the mug shot at the top of the story, and Coach Jim on the mound while his team wears rally caps in the photo above.)