OpEd Columns

Drama of T-ball tailor-made for television (Indianapolis Star 8/20/05)

1-2-3, Charlie's Cubs!
With that cheer, my T-ball team filed out of the dugout, picked up their treat tickets and gleefully ran to the concession stand one last time this season. The sweet reward for completing a 23-game, three-month schedule.
T-ball was finally over for the summer.
"Excuse me sir. Are you the coach of Charlie's Cubs?"
Yes, I am.
"Hi, Brian Patterson, producer for YSN, the Youth Sports Network." He squeezed my right hand.
"Listen, coach. We want your team to play in our championship T-ball tournament on national TV next Wednesday night. What do you think?"
"It's called "T-Ball Tonight." YSN's answer to the Little League World Series on ESPN. It's one of our highest-rated shows. You heard about that Pennsylvania T-ball coach who paid his player to hit a disabled kid with the ball? That's where we got the idea. If only we could have caught that game on camera. Anyway, can you get your kids back here next week to play the winners from the Anchorage sectional? "
It was all too fast for me. "These kids are 5 and 6 years old," I said. "They throw water in the dugout. My shortstop plays in the dirt."
I tried to make sense of it all. "We don't even keep score."
"Well, you do now," Brian said. "Listen, it's a reality show. The score doesn't matter. We're looking for drama."
The team parents overheard our conversation. "Justin! Kyle! Conner! Get over here! You're gonna be on TV!" Their excitement was untamed. I couldn't say no.
Justin struggled to eat his licorice rope and speed-walk back to the field at the same time.
Brian and I walked to the parking lot. "Why did you pick our team?"
"Coach, do you see that? Six Honda Odyssey minivans. Your team is the perfect fit. It's "T-Ball Tonight," presented by Honda. We have a sweepstakes contest during the sixth inning."
"Sixth inning? We don't play more than three innings."
"Well, you do now. It's pretty crazy the things these kids do after standing out on the field for two hours. It's a real meltdown. Great stuff. Our best ratings come during the last half hour."
Brian dropped his shades, dialed his cell phone, jumped into his SUV and rode off into the Indiana sunset, only to return five days later with an entire TV production crew.
Game time was here. For the first time all year, the normally apathetic parents in the stands outnumbered the kids on the bench.
The first three innings looked no different from any other T-Ball game. Cute kids with helmets and gloves. Everyone batted. Everyone scored.
Not very dramatic. I was certain that "T-Ball Tonight" was headed for cancellation.
But then it happened. The mass meltdown.
In the top of the fifth inning, with the scored tied 42-42, I looked out to center field.
"Aaaahhhh!" Spinning in circles, Conner flung his hat at his estranged dad who was helping coach the outfielders. He ran up to him and, face-first, smashed into his father's rear end. Conner bounced back to the ground.
"He hit him! He hit him!" Conner's mom jumped over the fence, screaming at her ex-husband. "Get your hands off him!"
"I'm just standing here. He's tired for God's sake!" he shouted back.
"I'm calling the police. I've got a restraining order, right here in my purse. Get away from my son."
Embarrassed, I looked to the stands. Moms, stepdads, babysitters, legal guardians. All on their cell phones, mugging for the TV cameras.
I looked to third base. Oh no. Garrett wet his pants on national television.
He waddled to the stands looking for his mom. "Just stay out there till the end of the inning!" She waved him back onto the field.
I looked to first base. Justin was rhythmically pounding his head into the first base bag. "I want my licorice rope!" he screamed endlessly.
Next to me in the dugout, producer Brian clinched his fists with glee. "Yes!" he shouted. "This is awesome."
"This is awful," I said to myself. "At least T-ball season is finally over."
"No, it's not my friend," interrupted Brian. "America just voted. Charlie's Cubs are back again next week!"
Gee, that's great.

Ted Mandell teaches in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
Copyright 2004 Ted Mandell

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