Spring might mean working in the garden – still something I hope to do, despite the promise of a hell mosquito year kicking up – but for us, the last six years, spring has meant driving kids to practices and watching ball games. The push into sports came from my former Little Leaguer husband; I wholeheartedly agree. Whereas some folks can’t grasp an artistic mind and athletic appreciation co-existing, Bobby never saw a contradiction in striving for uniqueness while also being part of a team. Over the years, all the sports clichés have proven true – including the yelling coaches and uptight parents – but the positive ones have outweighed the bad, by far. You keep your game face because people are counting on you. You play hard even if you “don’t feel like it,” because people are counting on you. You shake off failure and try again. You never give up because anything could happen to put you back on top. You play to win, but maintain a level of class regardless.

All good life lessons. And I admit, I get choked up over certain sports movies, so real life games provoke a sometimes embarrassing amount of passion. Chelsea’s first year in the senior leagues, the team was chock-full of older, accomplished softball players. The catcher knew the game inside-and-out, had a rhythm with the first baseman in which they could pick off anyone who dared take a lead – a rare situation in Little League softball, where usually a throw to first would allow the runner time to either get back safely or scoot off to second before the ball could make the round. I saw her make a spectacular diving catch for a bad throw with a runner coming home. She flung off her catcher’s mask, stretched her arm to its limit, the ball landed in her glove as she thudded to the dirt. She made the out.

Chelsea’s had ups and downs as a hitter – when she’s on, she’s really on – but she moves more quickly than almost anyone in the league and matured into a center fielder who could race to the hole and make the catch – and her love of stealing bases brought in a lot of runs (and a lot of gray hairs on my head). Dropped third strike? Need someone to bunt? She’s on first before you can say, “What happened?” Last year was her last year, but I expect she’ll come to the field, watch her sibling’s games. Partaking in the softball tradition kept her more stable in the rougher teen years, gave her a tradition to hold to, a way for us to support her, cheer for her, despite the constant arguments and challenges that parenting her brought for a while.

Kaylee’s moving up to the seniors this year. She looks small again suddenly, but not as small as I thought she would next to the “big” girls. Her first year of softball, All-Stars playoffs overlapped with with her aquatics camp, meaning we’d pick her up at Big Lagoon, she’d nap during the drive to Fortuna, we’d roust her, send her out to the field, where she’d blow minds with how well she played. Like all the kids, she’s had her high moments and low – one of her most memorable games involved bringing her team from behind with a grand slam, but dropping what would’ve been the third out; the other team won after all. Now that she’s 14, her interest has waned a bit – all the distractions inherent in middle school – but she’s still playing, giving it a go, holding a high standard of sportsmanship. She has no patience for whiners.

Nick’s team dominated all season last year, went into playoffs that were as breathtaking as any World Series. He was one of the younger kids on his team and undergoing his first season since the diabetes diagnosis, but he played with heart, loves the game. His first year in baseball, back in the minor Bs, he forgot to wear cleats one day. (This is the kid who used to forget to wear shoes to school sometimes.) They almost didn’t let him play, but decided he could get by in his slip-on sneakers. He hit a home run that game and redeemed himself. This year, he’ll get to pitch some, have to step into the big shoes left behind by the 2007 team, most of whom moved up this year.

As exciting and fun as cheering on great play is, part of the learning experience involves witnessing all the bad stuff, too. I’ve seen a coach make his daughter cry during a close game in which she lost her pitch, started walking batters. He screamed her to the baseline, yelled in front of everyone and sent her back to the mound with tears streaming. There’s not a lot of crying, but a lousy, ill-tempered coach living vicariously through his kid(s) sure can bring that out. I’ve seen coaches bring their personal baggage to the game, encouraging their players to steal bases when their team is clearly dominating the game, getting testosterone-y with other coaches, taunting the other team’s players. Playing hard and competitively is great; rubbing the other team’s faces in it is lousy sportsmanship. I’ve seen parents yell at coaches, heard complaints muttered in the stands. Inevitably the season starts off with everyone on good behavior, then somewhat disintegrates into either smugness or frustration, depending on how the team is doing and against whom they’re playing. Sports provides plenty of examples of what not to do as well as aforementioned affirmations.

Not all games are thrilling. Sometimes, it’s a wash and thank goodness they instituted the ninth batter rule in the younger divisions and the 10-run mercy rule in all of them. I remember when the ninth batter rule wasn’t the case – still isn’t in playoffs – and watching 22 walks in a row. Did I mention the Yukon-like conditions of the field? The sun drops below the redwoods early in the day and the north wind howls right over the diamonds, turning the stands to ice. I dream of dropping a dome over Washington Fields or at least installing heated bleachers. Instead, we keep sleeping bags and Mexican blankets in the car, along with extra socks and beanies and jackets and food.

Because the kids play in Eureka, we have a connection to people we otherwise wouldn’t – we used to live in Cutten, have lived in Manila for years now, but are overall Arcata-based. Hanging out with families who’ve been here generations, who are most assuredly not part of our normal political-social circles, but with whom we have a common base, at least for four months out of the year, is a reality check, an important factor in our awareness of the complexity of the whole Humboldt community we’re grateful to be part of. Off-field sadness comes with knowing more people, too. I’ll never forget Chelsea’s first coach, a great coach, Bill Pomeroy. He was killed in a logging accident two years later – I remember seeing the story in the T-S and the blow of recognition. Chelsea continued playing with his younger daughter over the years; she plays tough and kicks ass doing it. Between last year and this year, two boys on Nick’s team have lost their fathers. Every big hit and great catch these kids make brings triumph, of course, but also a sadness because you know who’s not there to see it.