Participation Revisited – COVID 19 Induced Perspective on Sports

    “Just get rid of those. They won’t want them.”, my husband of 39 years said as we came across storage tubs of mostly “participation” trophies belonging to our sons while preparing for a move.

      As I sorted through them, memories from our good years as a “baseball family” came flooding back.

     This was just prior to this sports-less world we find ourselves in due to Covid-19. Who could have imagined something so much an integral part of our way of life would be gone quicker than you can steal second base? The world seems hardly recognizable when thinking of empty stadiums and athletic fields. Our local paper ran an article listing what sporting events would have taken place this week. Instead of sports coverage, there is coverage on coping with COVID19.

     Will sports participation, once we get it back, no longer be a given but something for which to be grateful?

      It is ironic, given my early years, that I would write about ballparks in any kind of a positive way. I was that girl in gym class who was always the last to be picked for any kind of a team sport. I could hardly run at all and found out years later that my feet are sort of a mess and I could have used some orthotic assistance. My mom, thinking she was sparing me humiliation and embarrassment, wrote note after note: Please excuse Donna from gym class today. She is not feeling well. My confidence dwindled until I never wanted to try for fear of failure.

     In my neighborhood, extra-curricular activities did not happen at a ballpark but on our city sidewalks outside our apartment building in the heart of South St. Louis. We lived across from a gas station and a bowling alley with a neon sign that I watched flash in my window in bed at night. There was a bar on the corner.  Circling the block on our bikes and hopscotch games with the neighborhood kids on the sidewalk- that is what I did. We spent much time at my grandparents who were in survival mode as generational poverty seems to make it go for folks. I did not know about youth sports teams, summers loading up the car for a day of ball, drinking Gatorade and disputing umpire calls.

     This changed when I was in middle school. The St. Louis Cardinals baseball team had a program honoring good grades. Middle school students who qualified were offered free admission to games at Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis. Making good grades, except for gym class, was something I was good at. I was offered a card which I carried with me for years, I was so proud.

     My mom dropped me off at Busch Stadium. I was alone, but I loved every minute of the game. I loved the cheering of the crowd. I loved the concession stand smells- the hot dogs and popcorn and the game itself. I loved feeling the warmth of the afternoon sun and the stadium, the biggest place I had ever been. I knew then that while I might never be a strong athlete, I could enjoy rooting for others and loving the game of baseball.

    Is it any surprise, then, that I married a baseball player?  The first time I went to see him pitch, what stands out in my memory are the sounds at the ballpark. The crunch, crunch of players spikes on the asphalt as the players made their way to the field is still a sound that brings back pleasant memories. The crack-ping sound of the ball hitting the bat during warm-ups was a sound I loved.

   Along came two sons and we were packing it up and headed to the park as soon as they could play. One spring, our house burned, and our son’s 1st grade teacher, Jenne Thompson, replaced his glove and cleats out of her own pocket. I remember the young outfielder whose only focus was the bubble gum he was chewing, watching the bubble he was blowing grow bigger as the ball rolled right past him. “Pay attention and spit that gum out of your mouth!” the head coach shouted. It was straight out of the Bad News Bears.

      One week I spent 67 innings wrapped in a sleeping bag during the cold start to the season, but by the season’s end we were packing coolers of cold drinks and sandwiches.

     In high school, away tournaments were family vacations. We made ammonia water rags for the boys to cool their necks and moms unpacked battery operated fans to use while kicked back in our lawn chairs in shorts and sandals. We won a World Series, a State Championship and earned college scholarships but more importantly, we knew where our sons were most of the time and they were surrounded by people who cared about them. We were not home together eating dinner around our table most nights, but we were together and that is what counts most.

       Staring at the trophies that day, I realized having the chance to “just” participate meant someone cared enough to make that happen. In this case, my husband and me.

      These were, in effect, family participation trophies. Yogi Berra said, “Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.”   Though my husbands and my athletic experiences were in stark contrast to each other, we came together to provide those opportunities for our children and that is a beautiful thing.

     As I reflect on this, we find ourselves in a sports-less world. Will the opportunity to participate be more meaningful once we are free to play again? Will we appreciate the power sports have to bring people together in all kinds of ways? As I hear that crack-ping of the bat hitting the ball in my mind I believe the simple act of participating may never seem so good.

I am keeping those trophies.