All we’ve ever wanted for our son is the chance for him to take his swings.
Literally and figuratively.
Five years ago, our son Maximilian was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. After the initial shock of the diagnosis wore off — and our tears were dry — my wife and I made a promise to ourselves, and our tiny son, that we were going to do everything within our power to ensure he was able to do all the same things as “typical” kids.
We would be his voice when he could not speak — something he would not learn to do until he was 4 — and we were more than willing to fight for him when he wasn’t being given a fair chance to compete on a level playing field, but ultimately, he would have to learn to succeed on his own.
While we were more than willing to drive him to the baseball diamond and put the bat in his hands, ultimately getting a hit — or striking out — was up to him.
And — despite the daily battles he has to face and the challenges he has had to overcome — Max has made magical things happen on a daily basis … not because we are going it for him, but because of his own spirit and drive. He just completed his first grade year, getting excellent grades and making friends along the way.
He is an amazing young boy with a quick wit and a permanent smile plastered across his face. He doesn’t know the meaning of the word hate, has a kind heart and his compassionate and friendly to everyone he meets.
He’s been given every opportunity possible — and hit them all out of the park.
So it only seemed natural two years ago, when Max became old enough, that we sign him up to play Troy Junior Baseball. It is, afterall, the Great American Pastime, right? It’s what has bonded fathers and sons for more than a century. If other kids were going to get their chance, so was our son.
Perhaps predictably, Max has had his struggles the past two years. He can’t catch or throw as well as many of the other kids in the league. He doesn’t run the bases nearly as fast as the other kids on his team. He’s easily distracted when playing the field (although, having coached Max’s teams the past two years and seen plenty of other kids building dirt mounds on the infield and picking dandelions in the outfield, I’m not sure I can blame that on the autism).
Hitting, in particular, has been a challenge for Max. He was unable to hit a pitch at all last season — although he did fine when allowed to hit off the tee — and, just by watching his swing, it became obvious pretty quickly he had some barriers and obstacles in his way that other kids simply didn’t have to face.
Not that any of Max’s difficulties were for lack of effort, mind you. Max has been, quite possibly, the most enthusiastic player on his team the past two seasons. He can’t wait to put on his uniform on game days and goes racing from the car to the diamond once we arrive. He never complains about playing time, always cheers on his teammates and — most important of all — never stops smiling.
For all that effort — and all that unbridled joy — however, the hits never came for Max. He was unable to hit a pitched ball last season and couldn’t put the aluminum on the ball this year, either. As his coach and his father, all I wanted was for Max to finally connect with one, so the hardest-working player on the team could finally feel the same joy as all the other kids when he smacked a base hit.
He deserved a hit. He’d earned a hit.
But I couldn’t do it for him. I could put the bat in his hand — and myself and his grandfather could practice hitting in the back yard for hours — but ultimately, Max had to do it for himself.
Which, last Saturday, he did.
With only a few games left to play this season, I delivered a pitch that Max was able to get ahold of, smoking a sharp grounder down the first base line. Max had finally done it.
And he’d done it on his own.
I could see the smile on Max’s face as he ran down the first base line — mostly likely because I was right next to him. There was no way I was going to let him get to first base without me being there to greet him with a hug. Tears filled my eyes as I wrapped my arms around that amazing little boy.
I don’t think I was the only one caught up in the moment, however. In all the years I’ve spent at the Mark Knoop Baseball Complex, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a crowd quite so raucous. Max had struck a blow, seemingly, for everyone.
All he needed was a chance.