Recently, I paced the sidelines of a baseball field in Lansdowne, waiting for one more 10-year-old wearing a Roland Park Travel Team uniform to appear on the horizon. If a player did not show up quickly, Roland Park, my son's team, would not have nine players. It would forfeit the game to a team from Towsontowne, and would be eliminated from the Lansdowne Riverview Recreation Council Tournament.
The coach of Roland Park, Brent Hoffman, pulled out the team roster as Susan Corden, a mother of a player already at the field, punched a cellular phone trying to summon one more player to Lansdowne. Minutes before the umpire would declare the forfeit, a car pulled up to the field, and Justin, the ninth player, popped out. His teammates gave him a hero's welcome. His mother explained she had been stuck for more than an hour in a massive Beltway traffic jam.
This dramatic appearance was one of the highlights of my first season as the parent of a travel team player. It is a saga familiar to parents throughout the Baltimore metropolitan area. My kid was on a baseball travel team for 9- and 10-year-olds, but there are travel teams around Baltimore for kids from 7 to 17, and the teams play everything from soccer to hockey. Travel teams are for kids who want to play more games than the regular, common-sense season has to offer. The parents of travel team kids must be willing to give up their weekends and to drive great distances. A travel team, as the name implies, moves around. But as I discovered, being a travel team parent teaches you things, especially about local geography. You learn, for example, that when you are headed to Rockburn Branch Park in Howard County to play the Elkridge teams, a good way to remember when you turn off Baltimore Washington Boulevard is to notice when you pass the bar with all the motorcycles parked out front. After you pass the biker bar, turn right at the stop light. It is about 10 minutes from biker bar to baseball park.
In Pikesville, you learn that even if you are knocked out of a weekend tournament quickly, losing to teams from Woodlawn and Carroll Manor, you can revive your spirits with a pastrami sandwich and hot dog from the nearby Edmart Delicatessen.
In Lansdowne, you learn that Nalley's convenience store on Hollins Ferry Road is a good place to take the team for post-game snowballs.
You learn that when your travel team is losing, the demanding schedule can be a grind. But when things start to click, as they did recently for my son's team in playing in Lansdowne, moods brighten. Will, the shortstop, started carrying a four-leaf clover. Stan, an outfielder, found a "lucky" piece of metal and carried it to every game so his teammates Dylan, Elijah, Chase, Scott, Amy, Ethan, Justin, Michael, Dustin and Aaron could rub it for good fortune. Stuart and Luke, who had been away at camp for the early rounds of the tournament and couldn't play in the final games, showed up anyway to cheer.
Some of the parents behaved in superstitious ways as well. Andre Weitzman, the third base coach, refused to let his wife wash the "lucky" shorts he wore to the games. Jeff Corden and I reached an agreement on how we would rotate stints as first base coach. If our team had the lead, the guy coaching first base would not be replaced.
The hardest thing a travel team parent has to learn, I think, is how to keep the game in perspective. As kids played for the 9-10 championship, I looked around the fields at Lansdowne and saw teams of older kids playing for other championships. (Later, I learned the winners were Severna Park in the 15-17 age group, Linthicum-Ferndale in 13-14, Towsontowne in 11-12 and Lake Shore in the 7-8 age group.)
Seeing these games gave me some sense that there was life beyond this game. But I was tense in the final inning when Roland Park led Towson 9-4. There were two outs. Towson loaded the bases. The Towson batter took a mighty swing and sent the ball spinning toward the first baseman, my son. I grimaced. A similar hit in an earlier game had bounced past him. If this one got past him, it would be trouble.
The kid snagged it and stepped on first base. The team that had come within minutes of ending its season with a forfeit had gone on to become tournament champs. To paraphrase Orioles announcer Chuck Thompson, "Ain't the snowballs cold."