My 12-year-old son plays baseball for four — yes, four — different teams. Since he took up the game at age 6, he has worn jerseys emblazoned with the names of any number of red and blue feathered friends, as well as one breed of dog famous for its pronounced underbite. When his travel team recently advanced to the finals of a tournament, my normally less-than-stoic child did not complain once about playing three games in the course of one day.
All of this seriousness of purpose regarding a youth sport surprises me, as my siblings and I grew up playing piano and populating a string quartet. I remain utterly uncoordinated, terrified of being hit by any object — round or otherwise — and a bit perplexed by certain sports terms. To my untrained ears, “neighborhood play” sounds like a local theater production, and “infield fly rules” conjure images of winged insects.
So, needless to say, I was surprised to become a parent of a child who doesn’t just tolerate playing inning after inning of baseball in freezing cold weather — he loves it. He derives intense joy from scampering out to a muddy field, hearing the smack of the ball against his bat, and stretching his body out from first base in what resembles an acrobatic split.
Since both of my sons started their little league “careers,” I have learned some things, at least, about the rituals and practices of the game. What stands out for me — aside from the bravery and faith demonstrated by the parents of the catcher, squatting just inches from the wildly swinging bats of reckless children — is the amount of passionate advice, solicited or otherwise, the kids on the field contend with.
Much like we adults deal with a barrage of well-meaning advice — “Having a third child will upend your life,” or, “With such a late birthday, you should hold back your kid from kindergarten” — one of the first lessons these kids must absorb is how to block the noisy and occasionally contradictory pieces of guidance (“Steal!” “Stay!”).
As these Little Leaguers have to learn, it’s helpful to edit out the noise. They — like us — must focus on the task at hand and heed their own inner voices. They, like us, should listen to a trusted coach or partner, but, ultimately, they must look inside for the answer about whether or not you might be able to make the steal to the next base — or successfully transition to a new stage in life.
A few years ago, my son had a dedicated coach who was like a bat bag filled with golden nuggets of advice. His encyclopedia of aphorisms left the parents amused, charmed, and occasionally baffled. But there were some standouts that really helped our sons navigate the ball field — and they just might help adults find their way through the less manicured fields of life. Here are some:
Whenever a player on my son’s team would stand patiently and refrain from swinging at a ball outside of the strike zone, the coach would compliment the child: “Good eye!” Similarly, in life, we don’t have to — nor should we — swing at every opportunity that comes our direction.
As coach would insist, “don’t swing at junk.” Just because someone asks you to respond to something he or she is pitching, it doesn’t mean we have to. If an opportunity is not right for us we can let it go by. “Wait for your pitch,” the coach would remind the players. Sometimes it takes a tremendous amount of restraint to have the patience to pick our own pitch.
“You Got a Piece of It”
Whenever a young batter hit a foul ball — even if it meant getting a strike — the child’s teammates would cheer, “Hey, you got a piece of it, now get the rest of it!” Not every contact with the ball is productive — once, my son managed to hit the ball at such a peculiar angle that it fouled off of his shoulder — but didn’t matter to the coach.
To him, any contact was a plus. Eyes and hands were working together, and now it was just a matter of finesse and timing to get the ball in the correct direction. Even a strike merited a “good job!” As adults and parents, we can be very hard on ourselves. We only think we deserve praise or a pat on the back for a job perfectly executed. Sometimes, we need to foul out a few times before we can really hit something with power and intention.
“You’re a Hitter”
When the players were standing at home plate, ready to take a swing from pitchers who were supposedly born in the same general epoch but looked old enough to have driven themselves to the game, the coach would inevitably call out, “You’re a hitter, you’re a hitter!”
Sometimes, we non-baseball playing humans could use some of that confidence, too. When things are tough, I remind myself that I’m a hitter. I can handle the pitches regarding real-life versions of breaking balls, fastballs, and changeups.
“You’re Ready Baseball Every Time”
Perhaps my favorite quotation from my son’s former coach was this pearl that he would share with the kids when they took their fielding positions. We don’t know what’s going to come our way, and we can’t control everything that is about to happen. Sometimes the best we can be is “ready baseball every time” — which to me might make more sense if it was “baseball ready every time,” though as I’ve already explained, I’m no expert when it comes to sports — meaning, let’s be open and ready for any experience that comes our way. And sometimes that’s enough.