‘My legs were shaking,” Austin said about a half-hour after the final out.
“That’s neat,” I thought. “I felt like I was going to throw up.”
As a professional sportswriter for more than 25 years, I’ve covered hundreds of games. I’ve been to multiple Super Bowls and Rose Bowls. I covered the 2000 NBA Finals, the 2012 NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championships and the 2016 College World Series. I was at the “Tuck Rule Game” — contested in a blizzard, shrouded in controversy, embedded in history.
None of it prepared me for the exquisite torture of watching Austin, the older of my two sons, and his team play in the Little League All-Star Tournament.
That final out, incredibly, secured a berth in the state tourney. Freedom Little League will represent Tucson and District 12 in the tournament for 9- to 11-year-olds in Flagstaff, starting Monday night.
The boys celebrated by sprinting to the mound and mobbing our starting pitcher, who had carried Freedom to a 4-0 record in district-tournament play. Austin skipped in from left field, giddily tossing his hat and glove into the air.
Austin, who turned 11 in April, is a decent ballplayer. He has made All-Stars for Freedom Little League three years running.
None of us expected much when he made it the first time, as a 9-year-old. He had a sore shoulder by the end of that spring, and most of the other All-Stars were older and bigger than him.
Last year, when Austin had a more prominent role, and the team was better, and the games were tight and tense … I thought I was going to die. I never had felt so nervous watching a sporting event. I paced about the bleachers at Anamax Park in Sahuarita. Every pitch felt like an epic event – a chance for something wonderful to happen or for disaster to strike.
I tell Austin to go to the plate with a clear mind. See ball, hit ball. All those fundamentals we’ve been working on? Hopefully that becomes muscle memory.
Meanwhile, this is what’s going on in my head:
Don’t step in the bucket … get your hands back … be patient … man, I hope he gets a hit … a walk would be OK, right? … RUN!!!
I took comfort in realizing I wasn’t alone. One of the other kid’s parents — Kelly Yablonski, the coach’s wife — had played softball at Stanford. She agreed with me that this particular experience produced a unique and intense anxiety.
I often have wondered why that is. It always comes back to one thing: an unrelenting sense of helplessness.
As a parent, you spend years nurturing, guiding and teaching your children. You change their diapers. You tie their shoes. You make them meals. You read them books. You show them how to field a ground ball.
But then, when they’re at the plate or on the mound, they’re alone. The chain-link fence separating the players from their families and friends might as well be a Level 10 force field. You’re powerless to assist your child. All you can offer are shouts of encouragement that they might not even hear.
Last year’s Freedom All-Star Team in the 8- to 10-year-old division provided thrills that felt like Independence Day fireworks. The scrappy squad won its first two games in the District 12 Tournament. It was awesome. The kids were elated. Their parents beamed with pride.
Freedom lost its next two games, overpowered by Sunnyside and edged by Rincon. But it had been a heck of a run. And maybe it was just the start of something.
This year’s team seemed better. The returnees were a year older. The newcomers brought needed skills.
I watched it all come together from the other side of the force field as a volunteer coach – kind of like Arizona baseball’s Marc Wanaka, only not nearly as knowledgeable or perceptive.
I knew some of the kids from past teams. I’ve gotten to know the rest over the past six weeks.
Here’s the thing about that: You become invested in all of them.
Whether it’s speedy, intense Elliot; smooth, sweet-swinging Mateo; tough, resourceful Billy; vocal, determined Matthew; enthusiastic, energetic Robby; precocious, powerful Adrian; serious, hard-working Drew; resilient, fundamentally sound J’mien; instinctive, sure-handed Zach; quiet, quick Manny; or dynamic, unflappable Yaxel – our hard-throwing ace and hard-on-himself slugger – I want each of them to succeed as much as I do my son.
I pull for our coaches, too, because they’ve become trusted friends, they’re good people and they’re big proponents — as I am — of positive reinforcement.
The man leading that charge is our head coach, Tyler Pickrell, a multisport athlete of some renown here back in the day (or so I’ve heard from his dad; Ty would never brag about himself).
I first met Ty in the lobby of the UA’s Lowell-Stevens Football Facility, where I had just wrapped up some football interviews. Ty was in the process of buying season tickets and wanted to scout seats inside Arizona Stadium. Right away, I was impressed by his attention to detail.
We got to talking about Little League. Our sons would become teammates in the spring of 2018. Ty would coach the 8-10 All-Star team that June.
I liked the way he went about his business. Ty’s the kind of guy who will spend his own money on a pitching machine in the interest of helping the team. He’s the kind of guy who will get so wrapped up in practice — so consumed with coaching up the kids — that he’ll forget to drink water for 2½ hours on a 105-degree day. I know Austin is in good hands.
Ty and his assistants, Brian Edwards and Dave Sbarra, had Freedom ready to roll for the District 12 Tournament. Freedom outscored its opponents 44-2 over four games, including wins over Rincon and Sunnyside (twice) – bigger leagues with deeper pools of players to choose from.
Now we’re headed to state, and the exquisite torture begins anew.