January means baseball, right? Our youth league begins its practices in February in preparation for the March-to-June season, so the evaluation day to give the coaches a look at the players they will pick for their teams always happens in mid-January. This year, the evaluations were last weekend, under clear blue but very cold skies.
The evaluation for Michael was a little different than in years past. The division Michael has moved into is no longer limited to teams playing other teams from within our league. Three teams will compete against each other and teams from the two immediately adjacent towns. Two additional teams, divided by age, will compete as travel teams against leagues from a broader local area. The players trying out for those teams had to attend two days of evaluations rather than one. They also knew that the rosters for those teams were largely set before the evaluations even started, based on the All-Star teams from last summer. For 11U new team, it was widely known that one of the star players had decided to play in a different league this season, freeing up one roster spot for the team. Every other player was planning to come back. The 10 or so kids trying out who had not already played on the All-Star team last year were essentially competing for a single spot on the team.
Michael was apprehensive going into the evaluations, as he usually is. He had a good first day, though, simply playing the way he knows how to play. His pitching, in particular, caught the attention of a lot of the dads and coaches. A number of them came up to me to say that they noticed how well Michael was playing. Some of the boys who clearly would be on the team told Michael the same thing, offering their opinion that he had taken the available spot on the team.
After the first evaluation session, Michael was flying high. He knew he had done well and was rightfully proud of himself. He returned to the field in the afternoon with me to help administer the rest of the evaluations; I could hardly keep him off the field. Michael's coach from fall ball made a point of telling me that he had spoken with the 11U coach about Michael, and that in his opinion. Michael was a lock to make the team.
It was only after the good first evaluation that Michael allowed himself to want to make the team. I assured him he had done well, but that was always on the bubble. I told him that even if he didn't make the travel team, he would have a great time on the house league teams, one of which would be coached by his fall ball coach. He was fine with that, but knowing that he stood a good chance of making the top squad made him want it more. After second day of evaluations which consisted mostly of hitting, Michael was nervous that he had not hit with enough power to wow the coaches. What he didn't see was that a lot of the power hitters performed very poorly against the soft-toss pitching at the evaluation, while he always made solid contact. All he could think about was the roster announcement Wednesday evening.
Wednesday evening, the call came. Among eleven familiar names, his was the new one for the 11U team. After three years of playing in this league, Michael has clawed his way to the top. This is a very nice validation of all the extra work he has put in to improve. He is a fun-loving kid, but there are not many out there who listen to coaches better or train as seriously as he does. He could not be more happy, and we could not be more proud.
Now, of course, the hard work starts. He will get a uniform with his name on the back, but he will also be expected to play at a very high level. It seems daunting, but I believe he's up for the challenge. As I constantly tell him, if he simply plays the way he knows how to play, he will give the team what it needs. Plus, with expert coaching and excellent teammates, he should make rapid progress in his own development. I suspect games will be a bit more tense than they used to be, as the play transitions from purely recreational to largely competitive. However, all these boys feed off of competition, no matter how nervous it may make them. Whether I will survive the season is a different story entirely. Thankfully, all I will have to do is go to games and take pictures.
Best of all, Michael's peers made it known at the evaluation how glad they were that it looked like he would make the team. He drew more satisfaction from that than anything else. We all yearn for a place to belong, and that place is almost always defined by who occupies that space with us. Sports may be in many respects a world of artificial urgency and ad hoc camaraderie, but the bonds between peers are real. Right now, before any strikeouts or errors, hits or wins, the joy of making the team matters most of all.