Saturday, August 24, 2013
The Gift of Baseball
As I’ve watched the Little League World Series over the last week or so I’ve reflected a lot on my own relationship with the great game of baseball. As we watch the Series play out in Williamsport, PA, it’s easy to draw on the all the old lessons about teamwork, good sportsmanship, and even learning to lose. But those great lessons aren’t really unique to baseball. In fact these sorts of themes are repeated so often that I wonder if they don’t become somewhat cliché. I wonder if we say them so many times as adults that the kids stop listening. Yet as I watched the back and forth battle between Westport, CT and Sammamish, WA on August 13, as I saw the will to win in both teams and the true sportsmanship in both the overjoyed victory and the crushing defeat, it was obvious that those lessons are being taken to heart. This is a special game.
For me it started when I was a boy of six. I played my first season of T-ball with a hand-me-down glove from one of my mother’s cousins. I was a small kid, skinny, and a terrible runner. At school I was always the last picked for everything. In that first season of T-ball things didn’t get much better. It was the beginning of two or three seasons of stints in right field.
Two great things happened in that first season though. For the first time ever I was on a team, and a winning team at that. This was huge. I was not a strong player and I was picked on a bit by the older ,more talented boys, but I got to play and I got to be a part of something I could never have done on my own. Of course every team sport teaches teamwork and it could be argued that some make a kid feel even more a part of a team because the positions don’t stand out so obviously in an offensive line or a group of soccer midfielders. In baseball, where you play is immediately obvious and you are immediately accountable. It is a team sport that sharpens rather than dilutes the individual, not just for superstar performance, but for their overall contribution to the team. Is it any wonder that this is the Great American Pass Time?
The other great experience was that I got better. I swung the bat more, I threw and caught more, I ran more and with every practice and game I got a little better. I liked getting better. I liked it so much I would take my second-hand glove and a tennis ball and bounce that ball off the back of my house for hours almost every day. I learned that depending on how I threw the ball I could make it come back as anything: line drive, grounder, one-hopper , or pop fly. I started out just trying to catch ten in a row, then twenty, then fifty. I made the catches harder on myself by making the ball come back further from my starting spot or come back faster. Of course to do that my throwing accuracy had to improve. Ultimately I played whole World Series out against the back wall of my house every afternoon for months. I got good, really good, over just a couple of seasons. More importantly, as I got better I believed more in my self. I believed that I, as an individual, had something worth contributing to a team and to other people. This is a belief I have carried with me as an athlete, professional, father, coach, and author.
After that, on any day that was warm and dry enough, and on which I didn’t have practice or a game, I was on my bike. And my mother’s cousin’s old glove was hanging from my handlebars as I rode far and wide looking for someone to throw, to catch, to hit with. I wanted to share baseball everywhere I went and I did. I was still skinny and not so tall, but I had learned the skills of the game and more importantly I had learned that I could be more than just what was given to me.
In time I would become an outstanding catcher and center fielder, I would throw more runners out at second than any catcher in my district and in one season in Junior High I hit over .700. I never hit six feet tall, I stayed skinny almost all the way through high school, and I was never a Presidential Fitness Award winner. I just learned the skills and did them the right way.
Baseball didn’t care that I wasn’t big. It just required me to put my heart into it and to practice and play with passion. As a coach and a fan of youth baseball I’ve seen the smallest kids on the field stand head and shoulders above everyone, as players and as leaders, time and again. Some people refer to a sport as a “love” or a “friend” but I see baseball as a teacher and constant reminder that we can be more than what we are given and that sometimes, something as unassuming as a worn out, second hand glove, hanging from bicycle handlebars is a gift that lasts long after it has been lost or passed on to the next generation.