GULFPORT —“Maybe next game," I said, trying to console my son. "Maybe next time your team will win."
He threw his batting helmet into the trunk, ripped off his Little League cap. "C'mon, Mom," he yelled. "You've been saying that for six years."
Ryland, 11, started playing organized baseball in kindergarten: T-ball, fall ball, winter and spring leagues, summer camps, minor league, then the majors. He has never been on a winning team. The team he's on now has won only one game all season. "You don't know how bad it is," Ry grumbled, "always being the loser."
Oh yeah? So I told him about when I was in second grade and my dad signed me up for rec league T-ball.
"I stunk," I told my son.
Even at age 7, I had no illusions of becoming an athlete. So when the coach split kids into two teams, I knew which squad I'd be on: the B-team. B, for bad. The A-team, everyone knew, stood for awesome.
I couldn't hit. (Who strikes out at T-ball?) I couldn't catch. (I threw like the little girl I was.) But I was one of the better players on the B-team. At least I stayed upright for the whole game. Most of my teammates would plop right there in the grass and blow the tufts off dandelions. Our shortstop got really good at weaving stems of clover into long necklaces.
Halfway through the season, we had lost every game. Thank goodness for "The Mercy Rule" — as soon as the other team was up by 10 runs, the ump sent us home.
The A-team, of course, won every game. Coach was so proud, he made the players a promise: "If you all win every game this season, I'll take you all to Farrell's and buy you a zoo sundae."
The kids went crazy, screaming, jumping up and down. Now that was something to work for.
In the early 1970s, in suburban Maryland, Farrell's was the prepubescent place to be seen. Before Chuck E. Cheese, Farrell's was where we had birthday parties, report card celebrations, any occasion to whoop about. Red lights would flash; a fire siren would scream; waiters in straw hats would thunder through the restaurant carrying an ice cream sundae as long as a broom handle: 12 scoops of ice cream, one for each kid on the team, smothered in a dozen toppings, capped by a whipped cream cloud speckled with rainbow sprinkles.
My teammates and I must've pouted. Someone might have even groaned. Whatever happened, Coach took pity on our B-team. "And if you all win one game — just one game this season — I'll take you to Farrell's, too."
All that spring, the sweet promise of that sundae kept us going. But wishes don't make wins.
Spring break came and went, then May dragged by. The A-team kept up its perfect streak. We kept getting clobbered. On the muggy ball field, we watched our ice cream dreams melt into the dirt.
The last game loomed, like a dreaded spanking. We wanted to get it over with, fast, and put that ultimate humiliation behind us. Coach told us to be at the diamond early, to cheer on the A-team. (Like they needed any encouragement.) We watched them shut down the No. 2 team
10-zip. "Farrell's . . . Farrell's . . . Farrell's!" they started chanting.
Then it was our turn. Hanging our heads, shuffling our sneakers, we slunk into the dugout ready to be slaughtered. We pulled out our bats. Tugged on our caps. Watched the other team filing across the field.
They were a coed team, just like us: two girls and six boys in blue T-shirts. They stood, waiting by the visitors' bleachers, a semicircle of parents, a couple of coaches. Two girls and six boys.
We waited. And waited. All the grownups kept checking their watches. All the kids started throwing their gloves at each other. The umpire dusted home plate for the umpteenth time. Finally, he walked to the other team's coach. The coach shrugged his shoulders, shook his head. The umpire came up to our coach. "They're short a player," he said. "They need to borrow one of yours."
On the wooden bench, we all stared at our coach. Who would he condemn? Who would have to help beat his teammates? Coach scanned our anxious faces — and then a pumpkin grin spread across his face. "No," he told the umpire.
"No. They can't have one of my players."
"They can't borrow one of my kids."
"Then you all can't play ball," said the umpire. "They'll have to forfeit."
"Exactly," said our coach. Their loss . . .
My son shook his head, climbed into the car. "So I should just blow some dang dandelions then, Mom, and hope some of the other team's players don't show?"
"Wouldn't hurt," I said.
Real athletes may not consider a forfeit a win, but it sure beats the humiliation.
To this day, to me, victory tastes like boysenberry syrup and whipped cream studded with rainbow sprinkles.
Lane DeGregory can be reached
at firstname.lastname@example.org or