I was blessed to be given a second chance to experience this sort of joy and happiness these past few years as I coached my son's baseball teams. Sure, there are minor pressures and exasperations and annoyances, and hell yes there are demands upon one's social calendar and sometimes one's own sanity, but none of that ever mattered when I was on the field, with My Guys.
The team I drafted first as 8 year old players would form the core of a group of kids that I would then redraft again at 9 and 10, and would also spend summers with on a tournament team. By my estimation, I coached and managed somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety games with some of those guys over these last four years, with likely three times as many practices mixed in over that same span, plus maybe half as many extra games where we'd hang out and watch some other team play -- just loving baseball with each other.
And a few of those kids became really close friends of mine.
Perhaps it's odd for a grown man to try and describe that a loose gaggle of kids -- 8, then 9, and then 10 and 11 years old -- might somehow legitimately qualify as "friends," but there's no other way to describe them. There are always a few kids who just "click" with you. You "get" them and they get you, and you find yourself wanting them to succeed for the purely selfish rush of being able to see them made happy by something you helped bring about.
I'd work with a kid to fix a problem in his swing, and maybe he never really did totally correct the mechanical flaw, but over the course of that season or even multiple seasons you could see him understand what his demon was, and see him fighting to fix it, and see him have more and more success as he got better at overcoming that flaw. And then he'd bounce up from second base after sliding in on a hustling double to left center, and he'd allow himself a rare public moment of personal pride expressed in an uncontrollable smile, and he'd shoot you a glance from second to where you stood, coaching at third, and you'd smile and point an index finger at him as if to say 'YOU, my man, ROCK." And he'd smile and point a finger back at you to return that never actually-spoken sentiment, and for a flickering little moment All Was Right And Good in this world, and the sun would shine forever, and the grass would remain forever green.
Which is, of course, an illusion. A lie. A cruel sham we perpetrate on ourselves to obscure the inevitable moment when the pendulum of joy swings back the other way and restores some sense of karmic balance to the Universe.
Over these past few years, more and more of My Guys would drift away. Some would give up ball entirely, favoring other sports. Some of them would move to other neighborhoods or states and remain active in local leagues there. Some would elect to join local select or tournament teams, and play full-time for other coaches. But a few -- a very precious few -- would hang on, and would always be there, at your practice, or stopping by your practice to give some skin and trade some silly joke, or to hang out for a few minutes after or between games and just talk about what they'd been up to, what successes they were enjoying, what challenges they were still facing on or perhaps near the field.
Eventually, that group evaporates down to just a handful of players, maybe two or three, and today I got word that one of these players -- maybe my favorite of the entire bunch, that one kid I adored more than any other, and wished I could duplicate and carry with me onto every team as an example of what a little league ballplayer was supposed to be -- was leaving the league and unlikely to return. He's on a tournament team, and his dad is retiring from all involvement in our league, and it hit me suddenly: "I'll never share a dugout with this kid again."
I don't expect most people to really understand the painful finality of that statement. It's not just about losing a good player, or even an under-sized buddy, or turning a corner and realizing that an entire chapter in my life -- one of the most gloriously joyful and precious ones -- is now closing with a gentle hush. It's more that crushing RE-realization of the inevitability of decay and death. Of re-learning those painful lessons already learned once when I was ten or twelve or eighteen: lessons of mortality and change and time.
Of the ending of all things good.
No, there's been no death, yet that's what this feels like. Never again will we swap that private smile where we knew that we'd managed to do something cool that neither of us had really been sure we could, that we'd managed to pull a great joke on the Universe and steal an extra helping or three of fun from the serving line, where we'd claimed some great and and wonderful memory that only a tiny private group could ever understand, would ever understand. We'd had some good times, and now, the good times are gone.
Where once we cheered, the echoes have now faded, and today they seem all but silent and lost to the breeze of time.
For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph - a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting."
-- final lines from the movie PATTON