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For the past ten years, my life has pretty much revolved around my son’s baseball career – which began when he was 9. It has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. Keeping Score isn’t a true story, and all of the characters are composites or completely fictional, but some of the events are real.
The world of competitive sports for kids is crazy, and it’s funny looking back on it, but it was pretty painful while some of it was going on. At the same time, it taught my son to bounce back from failure; it taught him persistence. I wanted Keeping Score to be more about baseball, though. To me, it’s about how much we love our kids, and how it’s physically painful when bad things happen to them. And it’s also painful when they start to grow up and pull away.
Th excerpt I’m sharing is a microcosm of the entire story–the connection with her best friend over baseball. the crazy parents, and the romance with the coach…
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When her son Sam asks to try out for a travel baseball team, divorced mom Shannon Stevens thinks it’ll be a fun and active way to spend the summer. Boy, is she wrong! From the very first practice, Shannon and Sam get sucked into a mad world of rigged try-outs, professional coaches, and personal hitting instructors. But it’s the crazy, competitive parents who really make Shannon’s life miserable. Their sons are all the second coming of Babe Ruth, and Sam isn’t fit to fetch their foul balls. Even worse, Shannon’s best friend Jennifer catches the baseball fever. She schemes behind the scenes to get her son Matthew on the town’s best baseball team, the Saints. As for Sam? Sorry, there’s no room for him! Sam winds up on the worst team in town, and every week they find new and humiliating ways to lose to the Saints.
And the action off the field is just as hot. Shannon finds herself falling for the Saints’ coach, Kevin. But how can she date a man who didn’t think her son was good enough for his team … especially when the whole baseball world is gossiping about them? Even Shannon’s ex-husband David gets pulled into the mess when a randy baseball mom goes after him. As Sam works to make friends, win games and become a better baseball player, Shannon struggles not to become one of those crazy baseball parents herself. In this world, it’s not about whether you win, lose, or how you play the game… it’s all about KEEPING SCORE.
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Sam grabbed his baseball bag out of my trunk and ran down the hill to the softball field, where the try-out was taking place. I was still in my work shoes, so I followed slowly behind.
When the field was in sight, I couldn’t believe my eyes. A huge banner proclaiming “SAINTS BASEBALL” was strung across the backstop. There were nearly seventy nine-year-old boys, all wearing their baseball uniforms. The single set of bleachers overflowed with parents, who were also standing behind the backstop and near the baselines. Even Saints founder Patrick O’Connor had made an appearance. He seemed very pleased every time some star-struck dad asked for an autograph.
When I got closer, I could hear the parents’ anxious, boastful chatter.
“Saints assured us that the try-out’s just a formality for Trevor. They’ve been trying to get him to play select since he was six, but we didn’t think that was fair to the other kids, having to be on a team with someone so much younger and so much better.”
“I thought it was too soon, but Kyle’s pitching coach wanted to get a number. He’s already throwing seventy miles an hour. The coach thinks he’ll be at ninety five in high school.”
“Jeremy isn’t going to be able to blossom to his full development in a cold-weather state. We’ll be moving to Florida in the fall so he can play year-round. The Florida State coach said he’d sign him right now if he could.”
That gnawing feeling that showed up every time Sam was at bat took up residence in my stomach. What if David were right? What if all these kids threw sixty miles an hour, made plays that made Derek Jeter look klutzy, and hit the ball into Virginia?
Then I remembered what Mike had said: That based on what he’d seen, Sam should have no problem making the Saints team. I took a deep breath and told myself that all this bragging was just that, and if I wanted to, I could sit down and babble about how two select teams were fighting over Sam, and which one should we chose?
A tall man wearing a Saints jersey that said “Coach Kevin” pinned the number 55 on Sam’s back, and pointed for him to join other kids warming up in the outfield. Sam ran out there, his belly jiggling ever so slightly. The coach jotted something down on a clipboard. He was about my age, with an athletic build, curly brown hair underneath his baseball cap, a tanned face, and a cleft chin. His butt wasn’t bad, either.
I reminded myself that I wasn’t here to ogle coaches.
Sam started throwing, but the balls weren’t coming back to him with any sort of regularity. I couldn’t see who his partner was, just the kid’s back — Sam was playing with number 1.
I looked for a place to sit on the bleachers. And that’s when I saw her. Jennifer. She was covering her face with a paperback, obviously hiding from me. As if I wouldn’t recognize my own best friend from the neck down.
Now I understood that look between Jennifer and Scott Sunday night, when I said I didn’t even know summer teams existed. It wasn’t, “Why didn’t Mike ask Matthew to play on his team.” It was, “Let’s hope Shannon doesn’t find out about the Saints try-out.”
Someone who avoided confrontation might sit on the other side of the bleachers and pretend not to see her backstabbing best friend. But that someone wasn’t me. I climbed over a few people and squeezed in right next to Jennifer.
“Didn’t we read that in book club last year?” I asked.
She put the book down and painted on a big phony smile. “I never got around to finishing it. Shannon, I thought you already decided Sam was going to play for Mike this summer.”
“He can’t. His league won’t take Saints kids.”
“Oh. Because, that’s the only reason we didn’t mention the try-out to you.”
“Really? So when exactly were you going to tell me? Because two days ago, I didn’t know anything about this.”
On the field, the kids finished their warm-up throws and got into lines at shortstop, second and first base. Now I could see that number 1 was Matthew. He got into the shortstop line, while Sam was directed to first.
A different coach walked up to home plate, struggling with a heavy bucket of balls and a metal bat under his arm. My stomach flipped as the true depth of the betrayal hit me. That coach was Scott. Obviously he had moved up in the coaching world, a promotion if you would, from rec to select coach.
And he never bothered to say a damn thing about it. Not to Sam or any of the kids on the Rockets.
I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach.
Jennifer sighed, blowing her bangs up off of her forehead. Not a guilt sigh, but something more akin to righteous annoyance.
“Here’s the thing. The boys all do everything together. They’re interchangeable. Same classes, even though Matthew should be in the G&T program. Same teams. Same people, over and over again. Scott and I felt that Matthew really needed an activity that was his and his alone. So he could start to figure out who he was as a person.”
So Matthew was having an existential crisis. Nine years old seemed a little young for that, but everyone was an overachiever here in Persimmon.
Who was this person? Who was this woman, whom I’d called my best friend for years? How could she do this to us?
“And when Patrick told Scott he needed another coach for the U10 team, it just seemed obvious.”
Patrick. As in Patrick O’Connor, the “Saint” of Saints Baseball, who was sitting three rows above us and to the left. Of course. Scott knew him through his work with the Orioles foundation. He’d only mentioned it a few hundred times.
Scott was hitting ground balls to the kids at short and second. They fielded them, and then threw to the kids at first.
Matthew and Sam came up at the same time. Scott hit a soft grounder to Matthew, so soft it barely came off the bat. Even so, it went through Matthew’s legs. Scott grimaced, then hit him another one. This one bounced off of Matthew’s knee. He dropped his glove on it, then picked up the ball and threw it to Sam.
The ball was nowhere near first base. Sam jumped into the base line, made the grab, then stretched his foot out to snag the bag.
Jennifer bit her lip. “He just really needs an activity that’s his and his alone,” she repeated. “Where he can shine, without all the pressure of performing for his friends. Can’t you understand?”
“Of course,” I said, as another ball went through Matthew’s legs.
I patted Jennifer on the back. “But maybe you should have picked an activity that Matthew’s actually good at.”
I didn’t mean the words to sound as cruel as they did. But Jennifer’s face turned red, and her smile disappeared. “We’re supposed to be best friends,” she hissed. “But you’re so damned competitive where Sam and sports are concerned. I get it; he’s good. But you don’t have to make everyone else feel so terrible.”
She grabbed her book and stomped off loudly down the bleachers, joining the other parents behind the backstop.