“Thumb to thumb!” the old man shouted, holding up his hands in front of his chest. “Thumb to thumb – what does that mean???” His crooked finger panned slowly around the audience and stopped at…me. “You! You there, the lady! What does ‘thumb to thumb’ mean?”
“It’s the position a fielder’s hands should be in to catch a ball that’s coming in above the waist,” I replied, eternally grateful that I knew this one. As the only “lady” in a room filled with less-than-gentle men, I didn’t want my first spoken words to be “I don’t know.”
Apparently there was a lot I didn’t know when I replied to the local Little League commissioner’s email asking for volunteers. He laid on the guilt pretty thick – every team deserved to have a manager plus two coaches, and there weren’t enough parents who’d volunteered yet, so too many teams were short a coach or two. We needed to step up, do our duty as parents, get in there and help out!
I know a thing or two about baseball, having been a Little League mom for the past four years and a major league fan for the better part of four decades. I emailed back immediately to ask, “do you take moms?” Of course, he replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world (although I was about to start my fifth season as a baseball mom and I’d never seen one). Well then, I said, count me in – I’ll see you at the first coaches’ clinic next week.
“Are you insane?” Em* asked when I told her. “You know you’ll be the only woman in the room – the only woman coach at any practice, any game, any meeting, the whole year!”
I knew that, and I did find the prospect a bit daunting, which surprised me. I’ve been in the business world for many years, in executive positions, and I have no qualms whatsoever about how my smarts and skills stack up against any man’s. But those are men in suits and ties (or at least sports coats), men with business manners and behaviors that I know and understand. They may cuss like sailors when they go out after work, but inside the office they behave (mostly) like professionals. They don’t act like… guys. And the dads-turned-baseball-coaches I’d meet at Little League, as I knew from my years of sitting on the sidelines, were definitely guys.
But although I was a tiny bit nervous to walk into that first meeting , I knew that that anxiety was a big part of what propelled me into the room in the first place. After all, Ann* had almost always been the only girl on her team – often the only girl at a game, since the opposing team was usually all boys. She had never shown the least bit of concern about it, and we’d always treated it as a non-issue. Baseball was about playing the game, having some fun, getting better with every at-bat, and being a good sport. If I expected Ann to live by that, why shouldn’t I expect the same of myself? How could I continue to encourage her to play for the love of the game if I couldn’t do the same – if I were too chicken to be the “lady” coach?
So that’s how I found myself sitting in front of the septuagenarian baseball trainer who was giving us new coaches our first lesson in how to teach kids to play ball. I’d listened to him bark similar questions at the guys around me, so I knew my next step was to stand up and demonstrate what had just been taught. Previous volunteers had dropped balls, thrown bad pitches, and in every way set the bar fairly low for me. I thought I’d be okay demonstrating the thumb-to-thumb position for a catch – how much worse could I be than the guy before me who’d fumbled the pop-up?
When the trainer predictably waved me out of my seat for the demo, though, he hesitated a moment and then said, “wait, let me use a soft ball.”
Had I heard him right? He was switching from a standard baseball to a training ball for “the lady” – when half a dozen men had just embarrassed themselves with their dropped flies and wobbling pitches? He clearly didn’t know he was facing a card-carrying lesbian mom with a pretty respectable arm. I looked at him in astonishment as he fished around in his bag for a soft one. I didn’t say a word as I waited in the thumb-to-thumb position and snagged his embarrassingly gentle toss. And I wished sincerely that I would break one or two of his condescending old fingers when I hurled my best fastball back at him.
Since then I’ve been assigned to a team and attended my first few team practices. The manager seems intent on making me a real part of the team, but he also seems slightly befuddled about how to use me. The kids also seem a little puzzled, but I tried to set them straight from the get-go by making them work for me — just look at the lady coach funny and you may find all your fly balls dropping 10 feet behind you, or 15 feet in front. (They don’t have to know that their coach spends three days on anti-inflammatories after throwing the ball to them for an hour.)
We have a few weeks before the season starts, and I have a long way to go. I don’t know the rules as well as I thought I did from a lifetime of watching games, and I have to learn a lot about the mechanics I’m supposed to be teaching the kids. I may turn out to be the worst coach on the team, or in the league (or even in the world). But I’ve decided I don’t care. The important thing is being there – for Ann to see her mom participating as an equal to the guys; for the little boys who need to see that a “lady coach” can pull her own weight; for the little sisters on the sidelines to whom a woman in a coach’s jersey will be part of the norm.
And maybe, just maybe, for a trainer in the future, who should know better than to switch to a soft ball when the lady coach steps up for her turn.
*All names have been changed to protect my family's privacy.
Veronica Rhodes writes about gay parenting under this pen name.