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May 23, 2013

Out of Left Field

Watching Baseball with a 4-Year-Old

by Matthew Kory

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Woman: I’m so bored.
Man: Me too. I wish there was some way we could derive significance from our meaningless sex-filled lives.
Spokesman: [appears] Now you can! With “Children!”
Man and Woman together: [confused] Children?
Spokesman: That’s right! Children! Children are you, but smaller, slower, and almost impossibly incompetent! Act now and you’ll experience the miracle of life on a daily basis! With “Children” it won’t take long before you’re asking yourself, “Hey! Where’d my meaningless life go? And can I have it back?”

 * * *

There are times when I want to be left alone. That probably doesn’t make me a crazy freak. Over roughly three decades I grew accustomed to watching baseball games in a certain way. I scrutinize the pitcher, dissect the hitter’s swing, over-criticize the announcers, generally over-do every little aspect, all without saying a word, or I just sit back and viscerally root for my team. Now I have two 4-year-olds, so all that is generally impossible.

At their shortest, baseball games take two-plus hours, which isn’t long in theory, but when young children are concerned, two minutes of quiet uninterrupted time can be too much to ask for. That doesn’t mean watching baseball is over for me though. In a way, fatherhood is like sabermetrics. It forces you to look at previously static things in a new way. Now baseball is a new experience, of course for my son, but also for me.

One of my sons has taken an interest in the game. He wears a slightly oversized baseball hat I bought for him and sits next to me for up to a half inning at a time. That might not seem like much, but unless toy trains are involved, my kids have short attention spans. Being 4, he has to ask questions and ask questions and ask questions about those questions. A typical conversation between he and I will follow a “statement,” “agreement,” “why statement?” format. For example:

Him: That truck is black, daddy.
Me: Yes, it is.
Him: Why is it black, daddy?

To me, the format can be an odd way to go about acquiring information, but I’ve gotten used to it. If nothing else the constant questions force me to think about the millions of things that I know intrinsically but that hover just below my subconscious. I don’t have to think, “That truck is black,” and I don’t have to answer “Why is that truck black?” partly because I don’t much care about the answers, but mostly because my mind, seeing so many different things at once, has to triage. One can’t drive a car with full concentration and ponder the reasons why some trucks are one color over another. Also, there are so many vehicles on the road that you’d never get anywhere. But my kids don’t see it that way. They are full of questions about every aspect of life. Everything, they assume, has a reason for being the way it is and their father (me) knows all the answers. To find the answers all they need to do is ask, and they do. It’s cute and wonderful in a way, but it makes concentrating on the intricacies of anything difficult. This goes for driving and watching a baseball game.

We all probably have vague memories of when baseball was new to us, but seeing my son try to grasp the rules, the vocabulary, and the emotions of the game is fascinating. I’ve tried to put myself in his place. Imagine looking at the baseball field, except you don’t know what any of it is. The bases may as well be bags that someone left in the middle of a playground. Maybe they are! The crowd yells at random intervals, so does your Dad, the ball gets hit and it doesn’t matter, and then the ball gets hit and it’s amazing and everyone jumps up and down. Why? Or, as my son would say, “Why, daddy, why why why why why why?”

Watching a baseball game with a 4-year-old is what the pause button was invented for. Unfortunately, I hate watching games on delay. So I pay attention when I can and miss what I miss because fatherhood requires it.

My original idea for this piece was to transcribe conversations between my son and I over the nine innings of a game. I may yet do that, but now it’s an impossibility. There are too many breaks for anything approaching continuity. There are breaks for the bathroom, to fight with his brother, to run in circles, to play with toy cars, to play with toy trains, to use the bathroom again, to demand juice, to demand crackers, to drag his dad into his room to show me his blocks, to demand I read him a book, to use the bathroom again, and on and on. That is only a partial list. So instead, I’m offering a list of disconnected conversations and quotations, which gives a better feel for what it’s like to watch a game with a 4-year-old.

* * *

“Batting is so hard.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Why is batting so hard?”

* * *

“Is that third base?”

* * *

“Why he just caught it, daddy? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?”

* * *

“He hit the ball into the audience!”

* * *

In the fourth inning:
“Is the game over?”
“No.”
“But I see they’re moving.”

* * *

“He only has one ear piece. Why?”
“He has only one ear.”
[quiet] “Nooo! Ha, you’re silly, daddy.”

* * *

“Daddy, this is my bear. He has a pumpkin. Pumpkins are yummy. He can’t play baseball. I want to play with my trains now.”

 * * *

“Bleah bleah bleah-blu-blu-blu-bleah!”

* * *

“Dad, I want it to be over.”

* * *

About the sideline reporter:
“What is that lady doing?”
“She’s talking.”
“Why?”
“I… don’t know…?”

* * *

“Daddy, where are his clothes?”

* * *

“Why the catcher always catches?”

* * *

“What are those black things on his [the batter’s] rosy cheeks?”
“That’s eye-black.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Maybe if you get it in your eyes.”
“Where else do you put it?”

 * * *

There are two dialogues that stand out as far as making me think through something I might otherwise not are the following. One is this:

“Why did they take the pitcher out?”
“Because he’s tired.”
“His arm is too weak?”

I answered quickly, but then I thought, is that true? In essence, probably not. I gave an easy answer, but often pitchers are taken out for other reasons, like ineffectiveness, injury, platoon splits, pitch count, or the manager plain doesn't like the cut of his jib. In fact, most pitchers probably get taken out for reasons that have nothing to do with their arms beyond more complicated matters like release point, arm angle and the like. I'm not sure I'd ever put that thought into words in my head before. The other was the one about batting being hard, this one:

“Batting is so hard.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Why is batting so hard?”

How do you answer this one? I think I fell back on "Because it is," which has been passed back to me on other topics. ("Why is your yogurt on the floor?" "Because it is.") Still, the real answer is so much more complex because batting is complex. That's essentially the reason I love it. It requires so many skills and all at such a high level, it would be difficult to explain to a 4-year-old, but thinking through what those skills are (hand-eye coordination, strength, body control, balance) makes batting sound impossible. In the end "hard" is probably a better thing to tell a 4-year-old than "almost impossible."

Soon enough he’ll grasp the rules. He’ll understand them as a backbone to a greater understanding of the sport. The basic questions will stop and the odd questions (fish skeletons?) will dissipate. Like many things in life, even though they can be frustrating, I’ll miss them when they go. It’s a stage of his life that he’ll only go through once and it’s a charming one. We’d all do well to ask more questions and then carefully consider the answers. And for me, answering them forces me to think through everyday issues. It’s good mental exercise, and as a person with 4-year-olds, I need all the exercise I can get.

Sure would be nice to get a second’s quiet time though.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox

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