From Little League to College to Heartbreak: Our Baseball Journey

As with anything, our relationship started off innocently enough. You were just another activity thrown in to help round out our days between kindergarten carpool and dinnertime, a way to burn some energy on a grass field under the eye of someone else, giving the parents a much-needed break for an hour. Sure, it wasn’t baseball in the truest sense; no one really expected their kid to come away with the ability to actually make square contact with the ball for a line drive up the middle, or throw a runner out at first from third base.

But we all bought in: buying that first tiny baseball glove, the stiff leather shaped not unlike a small turtle, the little gray baseball pants (with stirrups! So cute!), and best of all, the team names. Our t-ball league took team names straight out of minor league baseball, and how fun was it to be a Mudcat, or even a Rockhound, howling together in every team huddle?

When my son discovered pitching he became enamored of baseball. (Photo credit: Betsy Hegan)

We wanted our boys to try different sports

Even when the shortstop made dirt angels in the middle of the game, we all laughed it off. You were just another sport that filled our days until summer swim team started, followed by soccer in the fall. We all said that we wanted our kids to try everything, experience all the sports and activities, see what stuck. 

Admittedly, you were the sport more often tossed aside than some of the others. ‘It’s too boring,’ a lot of kids said, tired of being hot and itchy in the grass, waiting for an errant ball to come their way. But every fall and spring, my boys begged me to sign them up. As they got older, you started to take shape.

My boys fell in love with pitching

Machine pitch baseball gave way to actual arms pitching, and my boys were hooked. They loved to stand on that mound, faces screwed in concentration. They loved the eye black smeared across their cheeks, the post-game ices that turned their tongues blue, the baseball pants that could never quite get clean after just one game, their dirt-stained knees worn like a badge of honor.

The boys got bigger, their arms stronger, their pitching more intentional. The sound of the ball landing in a perfect THWACK in the catcher’s mitt became the swan song of our Saturday mornings.

First we were just dabbling but then baseball became a huge focus in our lives (Photo credit: Betsy Hegan)

Our vacations became trips to baseball tournaments

By the time the boys became teenagers, you took over our lives. Our vacations turned from just being our family of 4 to travelling with 13 other families. We spent countless hours in the car going from one tournament to the next, hitting every small town in the southeast, sweating endlessly under skies turned white with heat. Of course the games that went into extra innings always took place when it was above 92 degrees, and there were not enough electrolytes or towels to satiate.

But even as we complained to moms of indoor sport athletes (a temperature-controlled gym? With a shot clock to ensure that the game didn’t last forever? Heaven!), we secretly loved all of it. When my boys were on the mound with bases loaded and two outs, focus more intense than a surgeon, my pride was like the Grinch’s heart, expanding 3 sizes too big to break the metal frame around it. 

My kids got scholarships to play baseball in college

And it paid off: college scholarships, a promise that our place in the stands would not end after high school graduation. National Signing Day. Official school visits with coaches. Meeting new teammates and their families who, like us, had spent the better part of the last 12 years on fields and dugouts and batting cages.

We felt proud, of course, but also so lucky. Our boys would get to continue playing, and we got to keep watching. I wore the Pitcher Mom badge like a medal, forged from sweat, eye black and Gatorade. We taught our boys to be humble, to appreciate what they had earned. We told them that as long as they loved playing, we would be there in the stands. And it was amazing. 

Then injuries started to sideline my kids

Until it wasn’t. My younger son first suffered a shoulder injury, then an elbow tendon tear that required surgery and 12 months of rehab and recovery. The pressure to come back healthy and prove his worth on the college roster became a constant in my son’s life. Forced to red shirt his freshman year, my once confident kid started to question himself. I watched as his self-worth and happiness began to live and die on how his arm felt on any given day, and on the feedback he was (or wasn’t) getting from his coaches.

He loved his teammates, and all of the camaraderie that came with being a part of an elite squad of athletes, but it was a constant roller coaster. Even when he was pitching well, anxiety still crept in—did the coaches notice the successes? Did they see all the extra hours in the gym and in the bullpen? And more importantly, how long would the good last?

As a parent, I wanted to tell them that it didn’t matter, that college is meant to be fun. But the worries I had as a 19-year-old were nothing compared to what these athletes carried on their shoulders; the pressure seemed insurmountable at times.

The game my son loved became a source of anxiety

Each MRI and PT session served as a reminder that my son’s arm, and then his happiness, was as precarious as glass. The proverbial shoe was always just too close to dropping to stay comfortable. It broke my heart to see a game that once brought so much joy now carried a weight so heavy that I constantly worried about it crushing him.

The shoe inevitably did drop. The healed elbow took a backseat to the emergence of the old shoulder injury. Doubt, anxiety, dropping velocity in his pitches . . . the tune of the sport in my son’s head that once lulled him to sleep now kept him awake at night with worry. The decision to stop playing was made for him in a meeting with the coaches, just 4 days before Thanksgiving his sophomore year.

The end of my son’s baseball playing days was devastating

I wish I could say that this love letter to you was without complication. I wish I would have known when my boys were small that, by growing to mean so much to our family over the years, you would break our hearts that much more when you abruptly left.

I wish I had the right words to console a devastated son who once fit so easily in my lap and now hovers a solid 7 inches over me, but needed to be hugged by his mom when he learned his baseball days were over.

I can’t say that I regret allowing you to take over our lives for so long, but I wish things had ended differently, more by my son’s own choosing. No one prepared me for the way that you morphed so slowly from a game we loved to one that was filled with conflicted emotion. So maybe this isn’t a love letter to baseball, after all, but to the moms everywhere who watch their kids grow and cry and succeed and hurt and shine, over and over again, in the name of sport.

I won’t ever be sorry for the sport in our lives, so long as my son knows that he makes me proud in a hundred different ways, and not a single one of them is because of baseball.

More Great Reading:

Who Am I If I’m Not a ‘Sports Mom’ Anymore?

About Betsy Rathburn Hegan

Betsy Rathburn Hegan’s writing has included 3rd grade short stories, college literary magazine essays, freelance editorial work and finely crafted emails to her children’s teachers in middle school. A midwesterner at heart, Betsy lives in Jacksonville, FL with her husband, adorable dog, and (occasionally) two boys who attend colleges further away than she would like.

Read more posts by Betsy

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