Chapter 13 – So Much More Than A Single

Finally, in the second to last game of the season, with no one on base and the Angels’ third victory in a row already securely in hand, Todd got his first base hit off of live pitching! It was only a single, but from the reaction of Todd’s mom and dad, his coaches and his Angel teammates, a passing spectator would have sworn it was the hit that drove in the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series. 

As he settled in at first base and waited for the next hitter to arrive at home plate, Todd breathed a sigh of relief and gazed across the field at Kelsey, who was clinging to the fence in front of the third base bleachers, wearing the special smile that she typically reserved for her own little victories.  Todd returned her smile and gave her and his mom and dad the thumbs-up sign.  

Deep inside, Todd knew that all of his hard work was beginning to pay off.  He also knew that if it hadn’t been for Kelsey, he probably would have never known the joy and overwhelming sense of personal satisfaction that he felt at that moment.  Despite the odds and the disappointments along the way, Todd had refused to give up. He had proven to himself that with patience, practice, perseverance, confidence, and the support of others, he could clear one of the final hurdles that stood in the way of achieving his and his young teammates’ dreams.  

One victory later, those dreams came true.  Because they had finished with the best record in the first and second half of the season, Todd and his Angels were declared league champions, and as such, had earned the right to represent the league in a prestigious national championship tournament held each year in upstate New York!

Chapter 12 – A Simple Gesture, A Tear (Or Two) and A Turning Point

Unfortunately, the results on the field were slower in coming than Todd had expected.  Despite all of his hard work, Todd continued to struggle at the plate, failing to get a hit in either of the next two games.

Still, Todd and his Angel teammates began to see glimpses of the “old” Todd, the Todd who lit up the league’s scoreboards during the first half of the season.  Todd was starting to make solid contact again, hitting hard ground balls, albeit right at the opposing team’s infielders, and an occasional fly ball to the outfield.  More importantly, at least from his coaches’ point of view, Todd was returning to his former enthusiastic self.  Even when he wasn’t in the game, he was no longer sulking on the bench.  Instead, he stood against the dugout fence and cheered encouragement to his Angel teammates.

Todd’s little successes, combined with two Angel victories, were all the encouragement Todd needed to continue his hard work.  Day after day, night after night, rain or shine, whenever there was a free minute, Todd could be found in the backyard slapping balls off the hard rubber hitting tee into the net.

One day, Kelsey, who, up to that point, had been watching Todd work from a distance, joined him in the backyard and asked if she could help.  Todd was touched by his little sister’s offer, but gently told her there was nothing she could do – that this was something he was going to have to do on his own.  The truth was: Todd didn’t want to do anything to add to Kelsey’s struggles by suggesting a task that she might not be able to do.

Before he could finish his sentence, however, Kelsey bent down, picked a ball out of the bucket, and placed it on the large yellow tee, just as she had seen their dad do a thousand times before. Then, she stood back, and as a smile broke across her face, she motioned for Todd to hit the ball.  He returned her smile, set his feet, and smashed the ball into the net.  Kelsey burst into spontaneous applause.  There were tears in Todd’s eyes.

Chapter 11 – A New Day, Another Try

The next morning, without looking up from his cereal bowl and in a very matter-of-fact tone of voice, Todd told his dad that he had decided to give hitting another try.  His decision couldn’t have come at a better time.  There were only four games left in the second half of the season.  The Angels would need to win 3 of the 4 games in order to earn a place in the post-season tournament without a play-off.  Needless to say, their chances of achieving that goal were far greater if Todd could somehow find a way to regain his early season form, a fact that wasn’t lost on Todd as he walked over and placed his cereal bowl in the sink.

“I was wondering if you would mind taking me up to the batting cages and throwing me a few buckets of balls,” Todd said, unsure of how his dad would react to his sudden change of heart.  “I also was thinking that maybe we could set up a hitting station in the backyard, with a net and a tee, so that I could practice on my own, while you’re at work,” Todd continued.

Todd’s father simply smiled, put his arm around his son, and headed up to the park.

Over the next two weeks, Todd fully applied himself. He went to the batting cages 2 hours a day on the weekends, and every day after school, he spent at least an hour hitting balls off the soft plastic tee into the net in his backyard.  Sometimes Todd’s dad would come home early from work and place balls on the tee for him or toss them up from the side and then stand back as Todd ripped one after another into the middle of the net, while Kelsey sat quietly, attentively, knowingly on the porch nearby.

Slowly, but steadily, Todd’s confidence grew.

Chapter 10 – Seeing Kelsey Struggle Again – For The “First” Time

As his interest in baseball continued to evaporate, Todd spent more and more time at home.  At first, he kept to himself, hiding out in his room and making it very clear to everyone else in the house just how miserable he was and how much he wanted to be left alone.  After a few days, however, the brooding came to an end, and Todd reluctantly rejoined the family.

As he did so, Todd began to notice things about Kelsey that he was sure he must have seen before, but never really paid much attention to.  He saw how she struggled, often in the privacy and silence of her room, to do the simplest of everyday tasks – things that Todd and his friends took for granted.  Day after day, he witnessed Kelsey’s frustration as she wrestled with the laces on her shoes to tie the most basic of knots – a knot that Todd could tie in a matter of seconds.  He watched as she fumbled clumsily with the over-sized buttons on her blouse.  At times, Kelsey’s frustration boiled over and turned to anger, as she labored against the clock to dress and groom herself before heading off to school or church.

Over time, Todd grew to greatly admire his little sister and her persistence.  More than once, he found himself silently applauding her eventual successes and was deeply touched by the joy that was evident on her face as she achieved even the smallest of victories.  It wasn’t long before Todd realized just how difficult the challenges were that Kelsey faced every day – challenges that, in Todd’s mind, had to be far greater than learning to hit a baseball.

When he did, Todd’s self-pity disappeared and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of shame and embarrassment at how quickly he had given up in the face of his own struggles.  It was at that moment, inspired by his sister, that Todd made the most important decision of his young life – he was not going to give up what he had grown to love so much without a fight.

Chapter 9 – Going Through The Motions

At his mom and dad’s insistence, Todd continued to practice with the Angels and to attend games, but his heart and his mind were no longer in the game.  Even when the Angels started to rebound from their slow second-half start, Todd’s attitude toward the team and toward baseball didn’t change.  The days of being the first to practice and the last to leave were a thing of the past, as were the countless hours that Todd insisted he and his dad spend in the batting cage or on the practice field each week.  Instead, Todd was routinely the last to arrive at practices and games and the first to pack up his gear and leave the field when they were over.

Not surprisingly, Todd’s lack of practice did little to improve his performance.  Strike-outs, which once were an anomaly, became commonplace, as was the chatter of discontent among Todd’s teammates when he hurriedly returned to the bench after another failed attempt to get his first base hit.  Soon, his performance in the field also began to suffer, as he booted one ground ball and made one throwing error after another. Todd was just going through the motions, riding out the season.  Truth be told, he couldn’t wait for it all to end and had already begun to think of better ways to spend his time, perhaps a sport that was a little easier to play, that allowed a little more room for error, that would be a little less frustrating.

The Angel coaches quickly sensed and then grew increasingly disappointed by Todd’s obvious lack of enthusiasm and commitment.  It wasn’t long before they moved Todd down in the batting order, and when that didn’t work, sat him out completely, hoping that one or both would motivate Todd to work harder, to break out of what they hoped was simply an unusually long slump.  Little did they know, however, that the bench was precisely the place that Todd Douglas wanted to be.

Chapter 8 – Commitment To The Team

Moments later, Todd’s dad came into the room and sat on the corner of the bed.  Without saying a word, he placed his hand on Todd’s shoulder and waited for the tears borne of weeks of frustration, disappointment, and sadness to subside.

In time, they did, and Todd slowly lifted his head off of his pillow.  He told his dad that he just couldn’t do it, that no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t hit live pitching and he wasn’t about to continue to endure the embarrassment and ridicule that accompanied his inability to hit.

His dad paused, and then, much to Todd’s surprise told him that he understood Todd’s decision.  “Hitting is tough,” he explained.  “In fact,” he said, “it may be the most difficult thing to do in all of sports.  Did you know that a hitter has only a fraction of a second to swing at and hit a 90 mph fastball thrown from a major league pitcher’s mound if he wants to hit it in fair territory.  If he starts his swing just .02 seconds late, he will miss the ball completely!”

“When you think about it,” Todd’s dad continued, “it’s a wonder anyone can hit a baseball, let alone one thrown by an 11- or 12-year-old pitcher, who has little, if any, control over where the ball is going. Certainly, no one – not your mom and I, not your coaches, and not your teammates – will blame you for giving up.”

“But,” he hurriedly added, “you’re not going to quit in the middle of the season.  Your coach made it clear at the beginning of the season that kid-pitch was part of the deal and you made a commitment to him and your teammates. So, as hard as it may be for you, whether you choose to ever play baseball again or not, you’re going to finish the year.”

Chapter 7 – Calling It Quits

The next day, at the breakfast table, Todd’s mom and dad could tell that Todd was still very troubled by what had happened the day before.  They tried to console him, to reassure him that if he would just be patient a little while longer, things would turn around.  But the harder they tried, the more upset Todd became.

Finally, Todd stood up, and with tears welling up in his quickly reddening eyes, announced that he was quitting the team and giving up baseball – FOREVER!

Before his mom and dad could catch their breath or the shattered pieces of his childhood dreams could hit the kitchen floor, Todd angrily stormed off to his room, slammed the door, buried his face in his pillow, and began to sob uncontrollably.

Chapter 6 – A Sister’s Love, A Special Bond

The car ride home, which for most of the season had simply been a continuation of one Angel victory celebration after another, was suddenly quiet and somber, except for Kelsey, Todd’s seven-year-old sister.  She was always excited, before, during and after Todd’s games – no matter how well (or how poorly) he played. 

Kelsey had Down’s Syndrome.  She didn’t really understand all that baseball stuff – the winning and the losing, the hitting and the striking out, the differences between fastballs and curve balls, put-outs and force-outs, ground-outs and fly-outs, singles and doubles, and the often fine line between an error and a spectacular play.  She also didn’t understand the pressure that Todd and his Angel teammates put on themselves to perform, the disappointment they felt when things didn’t go their way, or the unparalleled joy that came with being a “hero” (if only for a moment). 

Still, Kelsey loved baseball.  She loved the smell of the freshly cut park grass on a Saturday morning, the warmth of the sun beating down on the pretty red clay, the colorful uniforms of the players, and the joy that she saw in the faces of other children at play.  Most of all, Kelsey loved baseball because it meant spending time with her big brother, and she loved her brother very much – and Todd loved his little sister. 

Theirs was a very special relationship, a bond that, unbeknownst to Kelsey, was formed even before she was born.  Todd still vividly remembered that night.  He recalled his mom and dad coming into his room several weeks prior to Kelsey’s birth and, with tears quietly streaming down their faces, patiently explaining in very simple, but unmistakable, terms, that the little sister whose arrival he had been so eagerly and enthusiastically awaiting was going to be different from other children in many ways.  They told Todd she would look different and act different, that she likely would be a little bit slower in doing and learning things than other girls her age.  But they also were quick to assure Todd and to remind him in the weeks that followed that when it came to the things that mattered most – the love they would have for her as a family and she for them – things would be no different at all.  Somehow, even though he was very young, Todd understood what they were trying to say and, as he reached out to touch his mom’s belly, he began loving (and feeling a need to protect) his little sister and he never stopped.

But that afternoon, as the Douglases drove away from the park, even the radiance and innocence of Kelsey’s smile could not console Todd.  In his mind, he had let his teammates down at a time when they needed him the most and, try as he might, he could not erase the emptiness that his last inning strike-out left behind or the hurt that he felt when he overheard the whispered criticisms of his teammates and friends in the dugout after the game.  He just couldn’t bear the thought of another turn at bat, another strike-out, another unkind remark in the dugout or the hallways at school the next day. 

Even though he knew it would break his heart, Todd had decided to give up baseball.

Chapter 5 – Todd’s Struggles Begin

Todd had done his best to prepare for the change from machine pitch to kid pitch.  Unlike his Angel teammates, who seemed perfectly content to enjoy the luxury of their “blue friend” until someone dragged it off the field, Todd made it a point to spend at least a little time each day practicing hitting live pitches from his dad.  In fact, I often arrived at the games to find Todd, his dad and a large paint bucket full of balls already hard at work in the batting cage, and on more than one occasion, the three of them were back in the cage even before I had finished packing up the gear from the Angels’ dugout to make room for the next game to start.

From what I could see, things seemed to be going well.  Consequently, even though Todd struggled quite a bit with his teammates’ pitching during the first few practices, neither he nor the Angels became overly concerned.

However, as Todd’s struggles continued and the first two games of the second half of the season came and went without his getting a hit, he began to get frustrated and discouraged.  Todd’s frustration and discouragement only increased as the Angels began to slowly slide down in the standings and the pressure from his Angel teammates, many of whom had quickly adapted to the new form of pitching, continued to mount.  By the fourth game of the second half, Todd had yet to record his first hit off of live pitching.

At my insistence, his teammates, some of whom, like Chris Anderson and Doug Johnson, had become Todd’s closest friends, did their best to be supportive. But when Todd struck out with runners on first and third and the Angels down by only a run to the second place Cardinals to end game five, all of the Angels, including Chris and Doug, began to taunt and poke fun at their friend and first-half hero.  Todd had had enough.

Chapter 4 – “Kid Pitch”

At the beginning of the year, I told Todd and his teammates (perhaps “warned” would be a better word) that, at the halfway point in the season, the pitching machine would disappear and “kid pitch” would begin.  Many of the boys were visibly uncomfortable about the idea of saying goodbye to the boringly predictable mechanical friend that they had grown up with during their entire baseball lives – and with good reason.

Like a trusted friend, life was relatively easy with a machine.  Except in the rarest of circumstances, the players knew exactly what they were going to get from the machine and where and when they were going to get it.  As a result, Todd and his teammates always stepped into the batter’s box with confidence, knowing that, because the pitch was almost certain to come right over the center of the plate, at precisely the same speed, all they had to do was anticipate the timing of the ball’s arrival, make a good level swing, and then stand back and watch the flight of the ball as it traveled sharply into the field of play.

But substitute an 11- or 12-year-old boy who had never pitched before, and you never knew what to expect.  One thing was for sure – no two pitches would ever be thrown at the same speed, and it would be nothing short of a miracle if a pitch crossed any portion of home plate, let alone came right down the middle.  In fact, during the first few weeks of kid pitch at our afternoon practices, hardly any at bat ended without an Angel diving to the dirt to avoid an errant toss.  More often than not, they didn’t make it in time.

Suddenly, to Todd and the rest of the freshly bruised and battered Angels, the path to the league championship, which only a few weeks earlier seemed flat and unobstructed, looked a lot more like a treacherous, winding mountain road.