Charlie and I attended the recent scorching-hot Thursday afternoon game against the Twins. Since he plays Little League baseball, Charlie understands a lot of the game, so we could chat about double-play balls and left-handed batters, which his father taught him to be. I pointed out the various helpful signs around the park, like the team's home run totals and the one that records pitch counts and pitch speed. Sometimes I try to get my young guests to predict whether the batter will lay off swinging when the pitch count is 3-1.
I like to share information about the players, too. For example, I made sure Charlie knew that Prince Fielder's dad was a famous ball player. I mentioned how somber Ryan Braun seems as he prepares to enter the batter's box and what a patient batter he is. I also told him Craig Counsell grew up in Whitefish Bay and is just a year younger than Charlie's mother. It's possible, I suggested, that Craig and Charlie's mom had friends in common.
Waiting for Charlie to choose a souvenir was fun. Actually, there wasn't any waiting. Right away he headed for the sponge finger to add to his collection. I thought we were done, until he spotted some stuffed toy sausage racers and chose one for each of his siblings, a nice gesture. When we were at the checkout counter, a pair of batting gloves caught his eye. He had to have them. He really had to.
We both left the store feeling pleased with ourselves. As we headed back to our seats, Charlie grabbed my hand and held it, granting me a gift he'll understand years from now, when he has his own family. With luck, I figured, I may get another year of such a treat, before he decides he's too old.
Charlie's final request came late in the game. "Can I have some?" he asked, pointing down the row to the kid selling cotton candy. I told him to see how much it cost and to come right back. Three dollars was the answer. When I handed him a five-dollar bill, I reminded him to bring back two dollars.
"Thanks, Nana," he said when he returned, a hunk of blue goo clinging to his lip.
"You're welcome," I answered, and then added, "Where's the change?"
"I told him to keep it." He turned back to watch the game.
"You what?" I asked.
"I told him to keep the change." Charlie's broad smile made me laugh. I could tell he'd been dying to say those grown-up words.
"Well," I said, adjusting to the idea of such a grand gesture from an 8-year-old. "You sure made his day."
Charlie shrugged and held up his clump of blue fluff. "He made my day, too."
Losing my ability to be a good loser
Every time my big brother beat me in checkers, Monopoly, poker, Sorry, chess and Clue (which was every time we played those games), I didn't cry or fling poker chips. I didn't sweep the deck of cards off the table or slam Colonel Mustard to the ground. At an early age I learned that little sisters are expected to lose to keep the big brother's attention, and I got pretty good at that.
Since I grew up in a Chicago suburb, my family's team was the Cubs. Day after day, they'd lose, and we got used to it. However, one summer my mother got fed up with her lovable but lousy team and decided to take action. She wrote to the team's owners and warned that she would not buy one more stick of Wrigley's gum until they got a shortstop who could complete a double play by throwing to the first baseman, instead of to the dugout.
I've come a long way since those days, thanks to the great team the Brewers have assembled. Each time I go to Miller Park, I expect my team to win. Last season was grand, and this year the Brewers have had a strong start.
A few weeks ago when our pitchers were missing the zone, and our batters struggled to drive in runs, or even get on base, I struggled, too. I had to remind myself the team was still in first place. Braun and Fielder were steady hitters. Counsell was hot. Mike Cameron, J.J. Hardy and Bill Hall would find their groove again. My chin was up.
And then the Twins swept the series in Minnesota. My optimism imploded like a pricked balloon. After we slipped out of first place for a few days and couldn't win a series at home, I picked at my hangnails and went into a funk. I even began to doubt Trevor Hoffman's ability to ring the Bells.
The opener at Miller Park against the Mets washed away my angst. J.J. was hitting again! Hall had found his swing! Our talented rookie Casey McGehee smacked his first grand slam. My team was back!
As Mark, the fellow who sits in front of me at Miller Park, reminds me: "It's a long season." I have to be patient. I don't have to be a good loser -- just a good fan.
P.S. I confess I enjoy telling Cubs fans that show up at Miller Park how lucky they are each year to have the opportunity to learn to be graceful losers.