“You’re dead if you only aim for kids. Adults are only kids grown up, anyway” – Walt Disney
Saturday afternoon, after John Cohen’s team finished their first scrimmage of the spring, Mississippi State’s baseball coaches and players left the field and went not home, but to their indoor facility, the Palmeiro Center, for the beginning of the annual father/son camp.
The 24-hour event is a camp in two forms, with young baseball players not only learning the game, but actually camping inside the complex with their dads. Blankets, pillows, sleeping bags and air mattresses littered the artificial turf by the end of the night Saturday.
Fathers and sons alike were taught fundamentals of pitching, hitting, throwing and running by coaches, current players and graduated former Bulldog stars.
In one corner of the building, All-American closer Jonathan Holder taught a fourth grader how to properly wind up.
On another patch of the green turf, Cohen himself chatted with kids, offering tips and observations.
They watched a movie before the night was over, listened to speeches and presentations from Cohen and his staff and woke up to a Sunday morning message from the team chaplain.
One father – there for the second time after taking his older son years ago and now making the return with the younger – said the most memorable part of the camp, to him at least, was the message from pitching coach Butch Thompson.
Thompson told the fathers that, above anything else, spending time with their family is the most important thing they can do. As obvious as it may sound, the coach said, the carrying out of that idea was of supreme importance.
And baseball, Thompson told them, can be the glue that holds it together. Whatever it is a family finds to strengthen that relationship.
Lee Tingle and fourth-grade son Trace spent the camp together, bonding through baseball.
“It’s just a great experience,” he said, “being with my son, being able to share baseball with him for a weekend, being able to get away from all the hustle and bustle of life and just focus on baseball and this little ballplayer right here. That’s what it’s all about.”
A GAME OF CATCH
On the same Saturday afternoon the father/son camp began at baseball, a moment unique to children took place between the brick walls of MSU’s tennis courts and the steel frame of the Bulldogs’ softball stadium.
Even the kids who love sports the most still have the attention span of kids. The combination of curiosity and an inability to remain stationary leads kids to adventures and activities adults wouldn’t otherwise think to do.
While their parents presumably watched as MSU played Harvard at the A.J. Pitts Tennis Centre, a little boy and little girl, somewhere around 10 years old by their look, stood several yards apart in the grass outside throwing a football back and forth.
Perhaps they were family, but the tone of conversation sounded more like classmates excited to find themselves alone together outside of school, a rarity at that age.
The boy offered to teach the girl how to catch.
“There are two ways you can do it,” he explained to her.
“With your hands, like this,” he said as he threw the ball in the sky to himself and reached up to snatch it out of the air above his head.
“Or with your chest, like this.”
He then threw the ball back into the air, folded his arms as if cradling a newborn and let the ball fall into the gap he had created, bouncing off his chest and into his hands.
“You try,” he told her.
He threw the ball high in the air across to his catching partner with the best spiral he could, putting his whole back, both arms and even a swinging leg into it.
She held her arms in the same open cradle he had shown her, letting the ball fly in and bounce around the basket she had created.
“Did that hurt?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she responded, a smile on both their faces.
SUNDAY AFTERNOON WITH THE FAMILY
Back at Dudy Noble for a Sunday afternoon scrimmage, Cohen’s club pitched and hit, just as they had taught, while many of the fathers and sons from the camp sat in the stands and watched.
At the same time, a boy walked in from the left and a boy walked in from the right, meeting in the middle.
“What’s up, guys?” the P.A. announcer asked.
“My dad said I could come up here and get a prize,” one of the kids answered.
The other nodded in agreement.
He couldn’t very well turn one of the kids away, so the announcer told them, this time, they could both have a prize.
Though they would have to play rock, paper, scissors to see who got their first choice of the loot.
The winner picked a Frisbee he took back and showed off to his dad.
Next door at the Humphrey Coliseum, MSU’s women’s basketball team was hosting Missouri in a big SEC match-up.
Press row at The Hump is two long tables on either side of the basket nearest the visiting team bench. In a gap in the middle of the table on the right, MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin sat and watched the game with his daughter Abby. He would occasionally lean in to explain some of the details of the game, pointing at players, likely describing what happened and why it mattered.
All the while, Abby’s sister Sophie was hard at work under the basket. She had been picked to be a ball girl for the game, an honor not lost on her or family.
Not far behind the two Stricklin’s, the Bulldog Club’s Mike Richey and his family sat in their seats doing the same, watching the game with one eye and their ball-boy son with the other.
On the opposite side of the Coliseum, freshman football player Gabe Myles sat by himself several rows up behind the goal.
After a few seconds, a little boy hopped down the steps, climbed around Gabe’s knees and sat down next to him.
A Starkville native, Gabe sat and watched the game with what looked in appearances and mannerisms to be his little brother, both leaning forward with their elbows on their knees and chins in their hands.
As I drove away from campus at the end of Sunday afternoon, most of the traffic had cleared, the sun was setting somewhere behind the cloudy sky and only two other people were left in view exiting the corner of university grounds dedicated to athletics.
A man and a boy walked down the left side of College View Drive, the adult with jacket still on and the child with his maroon windbreaker dangling from his arm.
I looked in my rearview to get another glance at the pair walking home, a little boy with his shoulders bouncing back and forth, head only a little above the waist of the man walking next to him.
Just as the elder of the two reached up and scratched his chin, so did the youngest, neither aware of the other’s simultaneous scratch.
“Why do we have to grow up? I know more adults who have the children’s approach to life … They are not afraid to be delighted with simple pleasures, and they have a degree of contentment with what life has brought – sometimes it isn’t much, either.” – Walt Disney