By John Dickerson
For most of my son's baseball game, the man in the red folding chair sitting behind me had been just a voice on the hill. Now he was my enemy. His son was pitching. Mine was batting. When my son fouled off the first pitch, the father was gleeful. When the second pitch was called a ball, he questioned the umpire. After a called strike, he roared: "He can't hit you."
Impressive -- he was trying to intimidate a 10-year-old batter. I wanted my son to get a hit to shut him up, or maybe a line drive foul to do so more directly. In the end, my son lined out to the shortstop.
In the heat of competition, I was ready to make that guy's folding chair into a bowtie for him. But on the drive to 7-Eleven for the traditional post-game Slurpee, I had a creeping revelation. What if I was that guy?
After all, I was pretty invested in my own son's game. If I hadn't been, red-chair dad wouldn't have irritated me so. I started to catalog my own sins. I had cheered hard when my son threw a key strike; the dad of the kid at the plate probably thought I was a jerk. When my son was at bat, sometimes I yelled "good eye" to compliment him for not swinging at an obvious ball.
But sometimes I did this for the benefit of the umpire, who had called a ball bouncing off the plate a strike. When an umpire called a boy safe at second who was out by a distance that could be seen from space, I yelled "What?" so loudly that everyone stopped to look atme. Was I becoming the dreaded Baseball Dad?
Surely not. I know the type. They lurk behind the backstop spitting instructions between each pitch. I don't do that. They yell coaching tips to kids who aren't their own. They appear in the dugout between innings with advice. Or they berate their kids.
I'm not that bad, but there is something in the nature of baseball itself that can help drive parents to madness. There's nothing so complicated and misapplied as the infield fly rule.
It's also a game that encourages you to yell at the umpires. We do it at major league guames, so why not at the local diamond as well?
Most of all, though, baseball draws parents to emotional excess because it lets you do what normal parenting doesn't: cheer out loud for your child when they are under pressure and something's on the line.
The great lesson of baseball is that even the great players strike out. The key to the game, as in life, is to endure failure, adapt, and through grit hit more than you miss. It is a joy to be able to participate in this concentrated sneak instillation of the lessons of life, because most of the time you won't be there. After they strike out with a girl or a boy, you can't appear and show them in front of everyone that you support them no matter what happens.
Excessive behavior is embarrassing to your child, it's embarrassing to yourself, and it teaches your child all the wrong lessons about sportsmanship, character and grace. But even if you're not risking those outcomes, there is a challenge to finding the line between unconditional love and intensity.
Jason Larocque, a baseball coach who runs the Win Within program in Washington, D.C., tells the story of his dad who was there for his every game but never encroached. "He did it right," says Larocque. "He was a former high school and college baseball coach who never once made a comment during my games, spoke to my coaches, or forced me to practice despite his wealth of knowledge."
Now I don't know if I can never make a comment during games, but I can dial it back a bit. And I have picked up some great pieces of advice from other parents. Don't quiz kids about the game immediately after it's over. It puts too much on them when they're still processing the experience or finally taking a break from the pressure of it. Let them bring it up.
My favorite advice is from a piece published on thepostgame.com about horrible Little League parents. Great college athletes were asked what their parents said that made them feel great and that amplified their joy during and after a game. The overwhelming response: "I love to watch you play."
It's true: I do love to watch him play. Perhaps that's the best brake on overdoing it. I wouldn't want to send any other message that gets in the way of that one.