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In my former life as a high school teacher I was a coach. For 10 years I coached baseball at every level—freshman, junior varsity, and finally varsity. I wasn’t the greatest coach in the world, but I wasn’t the worst either. We won some big games and lost some heart breakers. There’s one game in particular that I still shudder to think about…we won’t even go there. Coaching is hard work; there are so many people to try to keep happy. Baseball, in particular, is harder than it seems. People who follow the game closely know that it’s complex; there are so many things to think about…so many moving parts. Players need to know where to go with the ball before its hit; they need to know the “situation”. I can’t tell you how many practices I’d put runners on base, ask everyone where they’re going with the ball, and then hit it to see if they remembered to do it. There’s dropped third strikes, infield fly rules, 1st and 3rd situations, double steals, pick off moves, and bunting with two strikes. There’s positioning the fielders for each situation, each batter, every pitcher. I’m convinced that there is no other sport in which fortunes can turn on a few inches or feet. The thing with baseball is there’s no clock. In basketball if you have a good-sized lead with a minute left there’s not much you can do, and it’s nearly impossible to blow it. But with baseball? You can be down to your last strike and still pull it out. Believe me… I know both sides of that one. It’s an exhilarating and spirit crushing game all at the same time, which is why I love it.
This summer I’m coaching again. 5th grade boys baseball—my son’s team. We put a team together at the last-minute because our town cut the 5th grade rec. ball. We started out well—winning our first game—but its been rough since. For most of them its the first time they’ve had to pitch, and the first time they’ve seen live pitching from a pitcher trying to strike them out. You can imagine the number of balls that go to the back stop; the number of 5 run leads that evaporate in a flood of walked batters and errors. Overall, they’re getting better. They are figuring out where to go with the ball, their bats are coming around, and the pitching… well the pitching still needs some work.
Coaching 5th grade baseball this summer has reminded me about the beauty of the game and why I think every kid, boys and girls, should play. It’s a game that teaches us that failure is inevitable and that life is about learning to deal with it the best we can. You will strike out; you will make an error. You will give up the game ending walk or hit. It’s not a question of “Will I fail?”—the proper question is “How will you respond when you do?” It’s a hard lesson for 5th graders to learn, especially 5th graders who are used to being told they’re awesome and that they can do ANYTHING if they put their mind to it. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but no you can’t. There are times when, try as you may, you still go down swinging. The walk from home plate to the dugout during these moments are the loneliest of walks. Everyone it looking at you, everyone is telling you something you probably already know, and all you can do is hold your head high and hustle back.
I tell my players all the time that baseball is one of the few games where you will fail 2 out of 3 times and make it into the hall of fame. I spend a lot of time out on the mound telling them to take a deep breath, block out everyone else, and just play catch with the catcher. This past week my son, in his second time pitching ever, nearly broke a kid’s nose. He bloodied it, but the kid returned, and sure enough, my son hit him again. The wheels fell off… he walked a few more batters and I pulled him out. In the dugout I could see he had tears in his eyes, but I couldn’t tell what he was upset about, the fact that he couldn’t throw strikes, or that he hit the kid twice. I know the saying… but on our 5th grade team there IS crying in baseball and that’s ok. Just like life… we’re all trying to figure it out—what we’re good at, what position to play, and whether or not we even want to be on the team. Tears are just fine. More important, however, is wiping them from our eyes and getting back out on the mound for another go around. That’s the beauty of baseball.