My Worst Official Day as Aunt Beth came on June 22, 2012, when I watched a kindergartener push my small child nephew backwards off a baseball bench.
I was on my feet before he even hit the ground. The perpetrator saw a charging blonde rhinoceros of auntly fury raging towards the scene and vanished. This was a blessing; my employers tend not to look kindly upon attempted murder of a person not yet able to tie his own shoes; also, I’m pretty sure he could have taken me.
He was back on the bench by the time I reached him and checked for blood and bumps. He was fine, but not fine. He was crying. So I wasn’t fine either.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“We’re supposed to stay on the bench,” he said, inhaling with great heaves.
“Yes, and you’re on the bench; you’re doing a good job. What’s the matter?”
“Coach says we have to stay on the bench.”
This was to be my full briefing on the matter – I still don’t know if this was a bully issue, a single action rule-related altercation, or some sort of socio-economic kindergarten uprising against the proletariat – so I squatted down next to my sister’s son and patted the warm vinyl number on his back. “How about we put on your gloves so you’re ready to bat when it’s your turn?”
We were at an impasse. The child needed comforting, but refused be comforted, and so my psuedo-parenting abilities had reached their limit. I did know, however, that when I was five, peer disagreements reached the proportion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiation breakdown, the nearest adult made all the world turn with his or her mighty power and car keys, and that you could pick between the Barbie nightgown and the Dukes of Hazzard one, but for the most part, what happened to you and for you took place without a great deal of your own input.
There are reasons for this, of course – good ones – and once I was released to make choices more consequential than nightwear, I proceeded to make some colossally stupid ones (“It’s so nice of you to invite me to your dorm room at 1 AM while I’m crying and my boyfriend is five states away! What a great idea!”) And by this time, what I did or did not do, achieved or did not achieve, was in my own fumbling hands.
I’m just now discovering, however, a thin cross-section – one of heart tissue – of what the stumbles must have been like for my parents. Not hired right out of college, what with my super-employable English and poli-sci degree? What, outside of providing chocolate and moral support, could they do about it? What could they do about my car wreck in Florida while they were in Ohio, the air bag lacerating my face but bridging the short inflatable distance between walking away and the back of the paramedics’ sheet? They let my co-workers of two weeks take care of me. They had to.
As my nephew tumbled backwards into the dirt, in that jagged half-second between the cause and effect of childhood cruelty, he was edging me closer to a fuller understanding of what the life of a professional athlete might be like – for him, and for his parents who drove him to practice. We are conditioned, as fans, to see players as lights on a board, as blank spaces on the roster – to do otherwise is to invite endless heartbreak and fretting.
But they’re people. They’re not bargaining chips– well, they are, and they aren’t. Once athletes sign away the rights to their faces to appear on baseball cards, they do so with the knowledge that in many ways they will, for the rest of their careers, be viewed as such. It’s a lesson learned early, as many parents and children learned three weeks ago when fathers crouched low to explain to their sons that no, Billy Hamilton would not be signing autographs at RedsFest.
I like the Reds’ recent trade. It puts good players in our laundry. It switches out the human beings populating our clubhouse. May their flesh and minds and breath move with lightness, with joy, with us.