The players finally have a grasp of the game's fundamentals. They chatter in the dugout, new friendships cemented, important moments to rehash. "Remember when we had that double play?" "Remember when I slid into home plate?" "Remember when I had that big hit?"
I do. I do.
The beep and whir of cameras held by proud parents and grandparents compete with crickets chirping in the background. The smell of Deep Woods Off and dust fill our noses. The coaches chide their players, laughing and relaxed and (quite) relieved that the season is over. They joke with light hearts, tugging down baseball caps. One carries a player like a sack of potatoes to the outfield while the infield collapses in giggles.
The score doesn't matter, in fact, it never has. Tonight the coaches agree to play the last inning by a whole new set of rules. Mr. D calls over the flurry of players running towards the dugout, "Whoever didn't hit twice tonight, grab a helmet." I check the roster and line up the kids--only four. The rest sit tight, gloves on, ready to race back out after the fourth hitter. Three outs won't end this inning. Our turn at-bat ends when everyone has had a fair chance to hit the ball again. After the fourth hitter, two runners on bases, one out, we switch positions with the opposing team. Our team catches and tags their batters out, out, out, out, out, out. But the score and the count don't matter. We're not playing against a clock, we're not playing to win. We're playing for fun.
The evening air is warm and filled with bugs. The right-fielder is snagging balls like a pro and one little girl scoops up the ball and flings it towards second base--her first contact with the ball as an outfielder all season. August vacations and back-to-school rushing around will come soon enough. Tonight we linger for team pictures and indulge in post-game slushies and popcorn, savoring the end of summer baseball.
Thanks, coach. We had a lot of fun.