Play Ball!

Culture, Featured, Sports — By on May 23, 2011 at 6:00 pm

“Say it with me, Royals’ fans. Let’s ‘Play ball!’”

The stadium announcer says it every game right before the Royals take the field. Those two words are key to the start of a game. When it was my turn to pitch in ball games growing up, I remember the umpire shouting, “Play ball!” and pointing at me to start pitching. Those words mean that it’s time to get serious about having fun.

* * * * *

My youngest daughter, Sophie, accompanied me to tonight’s game. She had been counting down the days for the last two weeks until it was her turn to go with me to the K. To wake her up this morning, all I had to do was whisper, “Tonight, we’re going to the Royals game.” She sat up and picked out her Royals’ clothes and immediately the questions started.

“Will you have to pick me up at school to take me to the game?”
“Will I have time to pack a backpack when I get home?”
“Can I bring Charlie (her stuffed animal) to the game?”
“Will we see fireworks tonight?”
“What will we eat?”
“Will we get to play?”

She got off the bus mid-afternoon, ready and rearing to go. The game started at 7:10; we arrived as the gates opened at 5:40. We were immediately greeted by one of the members of the K-Crew, the Royals’ cheerleaders. The K-Crew walks around the stadium, conducting contests in-between innings and engaging younger fans during the game. Ebonee gave Sophie some tattoos and a poster of all the K-Crew members, and then autographed it for her. It was an immediate treasure. She diligently looked for cheerleaders for the remainder of the night, hoping to procure more autographs.

We headed down to the left-field foul pole and watched the Minnesota Twins take batting practice. The wind was howling out towards left field at a consistent 30 mph. She saw a few home runs and waved at a few players, all the while making certain her cowgirl hat from Papa didn’t blow away. She informed me that real cowgirls tip their hats as a sign of respect and greeting to others. She tipped her hat towards the Minnesota players, and we walked to the Outfield Experience.

The Outfield Experience is a phenomenal part of the K. Younger kids can take batting practice in the Little K and older kids can hit from pitching machines. Kids of all ages can be timed in a run to first base, ride a carousel, play putt-putt, climb on a jungle gym, play in splash fountains, get their pitches clocked, and play in a video game lounge.

Sophie started out at the Little K, where she took her five swings, got a couple of good hits, and ran the bases for a home run. We then rode the carousel together. She tipped her hat from high atop her horse; I tried desperately not to puke. After the carousel ride, we headed to putt-putt. In the five holes on the course, she almost made three holes-in-one. Finally, after golf, we visited the Frank White statue and gave him a high five on our way to grab a bite to eat. Sophie tipped her hat at the bronzed Mr. White as we left.

This particular Friday night was Buck Night. Sodas, hot dogs, and peanuts were all a dollar a piece. We bought a couple of hot dogs and a couple of Dr Peppers and sat down at the nearby picnic tables. We joined a couple of other Royals fans and were entertained by a local magician while we ate.

When we finished eating, we were on the completely opposite side of the stadium from our seats. We decided to walk to our seats via the scenic route. Even though the air was cool, we stood for a moment by the fountains in right field, getting sprayed, and took in the view from the Party Porch. We strolled to the foot of the enormous scoreboard and dreamed of what movies we’d like to watch on it. We walked by the Royals’ bullpen to watch pitcher Bruce Chen complete his warm-up throws. Sophie and I were cheering him on when he looked up at us. Chen waved; Sophie tipped her hat. With less than ten minutes until first pitch, we headed to our seats.

For six innings, Sophie and I played ball with the Kansas City Royals. We clapped to the rhythms of various recording artists, danced in between innings, and cheered at the top of our lungs. Sophie taught me that the volume of our cheers helped the players to do their very best. We joined with 31,000 other fans in singing, “Happy Birthday” to Veatrice Henson, who was celebrating her 100th birthday. To this day, I’ve never heard 30,000-plus people sing such a soul-stirring rendition of Happy Birthday. We also sang “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places” with the giant Garth Brooks on the scoreboard. Sophie didn’t know the words, so she danced the song.

Seated two rows in front of us were a grandpa and a four-year old boy. From the moment we sat down, the boy couldn’t take his eyes off of Sophie. In the top of the second inning, Sophie leaned over to whisper, “Dad, that boy keeps waving at me. I think he wants me to be his friend. Will you go meet him with me?” We climbed down over the seats together and introduced ourselves. The boy was enamored by Sophie’s smile and hat. She sat down next to him and shared her pencil, and they drew pictures together.

In the top of the third inning, the grandpa offered to buy us drinks. He and the boy left, returning two innings later with a Coke and peanuts for Sophie. Sophie had never eaten peanuts in the shell. I taught her how to crack the shell open and she and the boy entertained themselves for another inning playing peanut games with the wind. The grandpa introduced himself as “Peanut,” saying that was the nickname he’s had since his childhood.

Peanut and I continued to cheer on the Royals, sharing stories and experiences at the K. When I looked up, it was already 9:00, well past Sophie’s bed time. I knew that she wouldn’t want to leave and had planned a trip by Krispy Kreme donuts to help bribe her out of the stadium. We said good-bye to Peanut and his grandson, Sophie tipping her hat as we walked out onto the concourse.

On the way out of the stadium and to the car, we saw another woman leaving, walking on crutches. It was apparent (to me) that the woman had cerebral palsy, and the crutches were a part of her way of life. Sophie kept looking at the woman, and I was afraid that the woman would be offended by Sophie’s stares. Sophie motioned at me to lean down, to whisper something in my ear. “Dad, is she one of the Royals’ cheerleaders? She looks like one to me.” It was the most beautiful question of the night.

I walked over to the young woman and got her attention. “Excuse me, ma’am, but my daughter wants to know if you are one of the Royals’ cheerleaders. She thinks you look just like them and would like your autograph.”

The lady smiled and said, “Oh no, I’m not a cheerleader, just a season-ticket holder. Thanks for asking and have a wonderful night.”

Sophie tipped her hat, and I picked her up and carried her to the car.

* * * * *

At some point, the vast majority of us forget how to play. When we really play, we aren’t obsessed with keeping score or statistics, we just don’t want the fun to stop. When we really play, we don’t focus on thinking about what we’re doing or mental mantras to help us do our best, we immerse ourselves to live and feel the moment to the fullest. When we really play, we easily lose track of “normal” time. There is something sacred about playing that is lost when we attach numbers and dollars and careers to it.

A friend of mine is the executive director at the Christian Activity Center in East St. Louis, IL. He is constantly telling potential donors of the important physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of playing. Playing increases and improves circulation in the body and stimulates the brain. Children who play at least thirty minutes a day make better grades and have better self-esteem than those who are couch potatoes. It is essential to our humanity that we play. When we forget how to play, we quit reflecting part of the image in which we were created.

Unfortunately, we usually take play way too seriously. In order to “play,” we have to have the right equipment and the right clothes and the right shoes. In order to “play,” we have to be with the right people and on the right team to guarantee a victory so that we will have the most fun “playing.” We take lessons so professionals can tell us how we can “play” just like they did, instead of forging our own path from the dirt.

Tonight at Kauffman Stadium, Sophie and I played. When you play, new friends are made and snacks are enjoyed and someone always breaks out in a song and sometimes 30,000 people sing along. When you play, you are always making noises and moving around, and one must always keep an eye on the lookout for cheerleaders and others to invite to play with us.

* * * * *

In the middle of all of this playing was a Royals’ game. When we left, the Royals were losing 3 – 1. They scored a run in the bottom of the seventh and took the lead on a bizarre sacrifice fly to the shortstop, thanks to the amazing speed of Jarrod Dyson. Shortly after Sophie started snoozing, Joakim Soria earned another save as the Royals took the first game in this series against the Twins.

* * * * *

Sunday, May 1

Today was May Day. I don’t know how to celebrate May Day, but seeing as it is a Sunday, I went to church and played bass in the worship band and spent time sharing life with the teens who come to hear stories of Jesus and really play four square. Jamie, Kaylea, and Sophie arrived after the early service is finished, and Sophie told me to look on the door handle to my bedroom when I get home.

Today was also the busiest day of my life. After two morning worship services, there was a lunch at church, followed by Kaylea’s piano recital, a baby shower for a friend, a birthday party for one of Sophie’s friends, and the annual dinner celebrating our high school graduates. I returned home at 8:40 pm, completely physically and mentally exhausted.

Just before bed, I remembered Sophie’s words from this morning. I looked on the handle and saw a small craft. Sophie is always creating things with paper, glue, scissors, and whatever supplies she can find. She once told me, “Dad, my heart is sad when I don’t have a craft to make.” I can completely relate—I feel the same way on Royals’ off-days and after I finish reading a book. This craft is a May Day gift—a construction-paper bouquet of flowers. On it, she has written in her very tiny but legible script:

Der Dad,
Thainck you for taking me to the Royals on Friday.
I had a grat tim whith you.
Love,
Sophie

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