The day I realized I’d become an intolerable softball dad

By Keith Landry

I was sixteen years old when the dream died.

Digging new divots in North Reading High School’s bone-dry batter’s box, I’d convinced myself that if I just shortened up on the bat I could rip the pitcher’s best fastball into right field. Major League scouts had come to evaluate the kid on the mound. I was determined to make them notice me instead. Then I heard the ball tear past. I left the batter’s box three pitches later, having never swung the bat. In that moment I knew my name would never be penciled into a Red Sox lineup or added to an Olympic roster.

My heart, however, didn’t get the message.

In retrospect, that fateful fastball did more than just end a dream. It left a wound—one that I would bury so deep I wouldn’t feel it again. But I never stopped loving the game. I played in high school and college. I played the Thursday before my wedding and the Tuesday after the honeymoon. Even when the kids were young, I kept playing.

I have three amazing daughters. They all have my wife’s eyes. And her intellect. And her love of dogs. Basically, every positive trait my girls possess comes from their mother—save one. They all have my swing. Yup, the Landry girls can flat-out hit. Even my oldest who quit the game at age seven and chose a life of dance. And my youngest, who defected for the speed and intensity of lacrosse. But best of all, Rebecca, my middle child, the one who’s been terrorizing opposing pitchers for nearly a decade. That little lefty-swinging rocket-armed base stealer is the new standard bearer of our family. 

I should’ve seen the end of my reign coming. Even as a preschooler, Becca played instinctively. When she reared back to throw, she flashed the bottom of her left sneaker. If she took a hack, it was with malicious intent. She dove for ground balls and was disappointed when she didn’t field them. The day five-year-old Becca and I first donned matching Red Robin-sponsored tee ball shirts was the day I began coaching my heir, training my replacement, and projecting my dream. 

I can’t describe how much I wanted, no, needed her to be so good, so soon. All I can say is that I must’ve forgotten. Forgotten how hard the game is when your hand barely fills the inside of a glove, forgotten the challenge of hitting a round ball squarely with a round bat, forgotten how intimidatingly tall coaches are compared to elementary-sized kids and how badly those kids want to hit every pitch and make every play—even when their preschool minds and bodies won’t let them. Forgotten that, like me, Rebecca is a middle child.

Softball has a way of exposing my daughter’s internal emotional rollercoaster. Every hit is a victory of epic proportion, every strikeout is the end of the world. And there I was at every game, exacerbating her ride’s wild design, quizzing her about dropped fly balls and throws to wrong bases—a critically deconstructive coaching tape on continuous loop.

I’d like to say I was altruistically motivated, that I worked with her solely to help her strive for greatness in the game she loved. But if I said that, I’d be lying. In truth, I acted like she was the only part of me still playing. I expected her to be a better ballplayer than I had ever been. I’d correct her hitting mechanics after every backyard batting practice swing and miss. I’d get frustrated when a casual game of catch had too many overthrows—or underthrows. I’d open post game talks with negative remarks like, “The two things you can’t do are strike out and pop up.” 

My wife, Kimberly, suggested I alter my entire approach to Becca’s “development” as a ballplayer. I’d acknowledge and agree with her but then inevitably resume my judgmental commentary with the next fielding error or base running faux pas. I needed to embrace the role of supportive parent, to leave the coaching to her coaches. But I just couldn’t do it.

Then Kim stopped coming to games. I really couldn’t blame her. I’d become intolerable.

Which is precisely when I began to consider how illogical I’d gotten. It wasn’t enough to address how I’d been behaving. I had to dig down to why. Why couldn’t I just let my daughter play? 

The answer was deeper than simple lack of self-control, deeper than pride in my daughter, deeper than the desire to have the family name someday grace the back of an Olympic jersey. It came when my heart finally acknowledged what my head had known for so long. At best, I was an above average ballplayer.

In finally accepting that truth, all of my frustration in my daughter’s imperfect performance dissipated. I had no right to hold her to a standard of excellence that I had never possessed. The title of Landry Family’s Best Ballplayer belonged to Rebecca. Honestly, she’d held it for quite some time. 

So instead of my typical post game debriefings, lately I’ve started telling Becca how much I love watching her play. Rather than questioning her defensive miscues, I’ve let her know she has an open invitation for extra fielding at the local ballfield, anytime. And I no longer drastically alter my work schedule to make it to every game.

Since then, Becca’s performance has improved, whether I’m there or not. The air during backyard batting practice has been filled with laughter rather than tension. Kim’s been joining me in the bleachers again. And I finally hung up my own spikes for good, ending an unheralded thirty-seven year run in organized baseball.

Riding home from last week’s game, Becca said something that meant more to me than any victory, any clutch hit, any game-saving play either of us have ever made. She told me, with the quiet care she only uses when expressing gratitude, how much she loves having me at games. She didn’t say, “now,” but she didn’t have to. I knew what she meant. 

Will Rebecca keep chasing diamond dreams as I once did? Maybe. I just need to remember that if she does, they’ll be her dreams.

Not mine.

Keith Landry is a high school mathematics teacher, former baseball player and coach, lucky husband to a brilliant wife, and father of three amazing girls. He writes with the hope that others can learn from his parenting successes and failures.

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