Randy was at a Little League game, watching his nephew play. Only, he was not paying attention to his nephew. He was watching the dugout.
A boy warmed the bench. He was all alone.
Maybe it was the way the kid held his head that made Randy feel so bad. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they hold their head. The kid sort of drooped his chin.
The game was in the eighth inning. The boy wore his uniform, it was spotless, no dirt. He sat beside the water cooler. Head down.
Randy made his way to the dugout and introduced himself. Randy asked why he wasn’t playing on the field.
“‘Cause,” the boy said. “I ain’t no good at baseball.”
“Don’t say ‘ain’t,’” Randy said. “It ain’t proper.”
This was a course of habit. For Randy’s whole life, his mother had corrected him for using the word “ain’t.”
“Aren’t,” Randy suggested. “Say ‘aren’t‘ instead.”
“Aren’t?” the boy said. “I AREN’T no good at baseball? That ain’t right.”
Randy had to think long and hard. He couldn’t find the right word to say in place of “ain’t.”
The boy looked at Randy like the man’s wheel was spinning but the hamster was dead.
“Well,” said Randy. “It ain’t a real word, so don’t say ‘ain’t.’”
And so it went.
Randy told the kid his life story. It wasn’t a long tale, but it was a sad one. His father walked out on his mother when he was five. He had to grow up on his own, his mother worked two jobs.
The boy had a similar story. He was alone in this world, warming a bench.
But nobody needs to hear a hard luck story when they have one of their own. So Randy offered to help the kid improve at baseball. He said he’d teach the kid to field and to bat.
“Don’t bother,” said the kid. “I ain’t no good at baseball.”
“I told you,” Randy said. “Don’t say that word. Besides, how do you know you AREN’T any good if you ain’t gonna at least try?”
Randy was no athlete. In fact, he was a house painter who dangled from two-story ladders, operating commercial paint sprayers for a living.
So he enlisted the help of his brother-in-law, who once played college ball. And his neighbor, a retired P.E. coach.
Thus, on Mondays and Fridays, Randy would get off work and swing by the park with one brother-in-law, and one retired P.E. coach.
For one hour, three grown men would teach a twelve-year-old how to play the game. They cheered for him. They taught him how to wear his hat backwards, and how to make noises with his armpits.
Sadly, the kid did not improve. Nothing changed after two weeks. He still warmed benches at games, he still hung his head.
One day, Randy had an idea. He suggested the kid try pitching.
They taught the kid to wind up, how to hold the ball with split fingers, and how to deliver.
The first pitch smacked into Randy’s glove and made a loud noise.
“My God!” shouted Randy’s brother-in-law. “We got a real pitcher on our hands!”
And that was that.
After a few years, the boy pitched his way through high school. He was attracting more than just local attention at his games.
Out-of-town visitors came to see him. These were the kinds of visitors who held infrared guns pointed at the mound, and notepads in their laps. Scouts. And with each pitch, the scouts had to check their guns to make sure they weren’t broken.
And that’s how it happened. That’s how Randy, a stranger in paint-stained clothes became friends with another stranger. He wasn’t kin to the boy, but he was proud of him, and he rarely missed games.
That was 23 years ago.
Yesterday, Randy opened a newspaper to see a familiar name in the back of the local announcements. A man is getting married.
A man who attended college on a baseball scholarship. A boy who earned his degree in education, who sometimes helps conduct clinics for Little League teams.
Randy still paints houses. And he still has a knack for making kids smile—he has two of his own now.
He doubts the boy even remembers him after all these years. But take it from a boy who’s been there, there’s no way a child without a father ever forgets the first person who believed in him.
There just ain’t no way.