Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Boys and Baseball

What is it about boys and baseball? I’m not talking about the kids running the bases. I’m talking about the big boys doing the coaching. There’s something about this sport that brings out previously undisplayed passions. Watching these men coach and listening to them give rousing Go-get-‘em speeches in the dugout almost always shines a light on a side of these men I never imagined. These are guys who are quietly friendly and politically polite whenever I encounter them in the hallways on Back to School Night. Even at parties, these same men happily guzzle beer, but rarely raise their voices. We make conversation about the weather, township politics, even gardening, but their eyes do not light up like they do when a ten-year-old catches a pop fly or steals second.

Every fall the e-mails begin making the rounds begging for a soccer coach. Considering the
fact that soccer is the suburban sport of choice, you’d expect to find plenty of willing coaches. Not so. My poor hubby gets guilted in to coaching almost every year even though he didn’t play soccer (he’s a lacrosse man) and travels so much he misses at least a third of the season. But when baseball season rolls around, everyone wants to coach. There are hitting coaches and pitching coaches and catching coaches galore. And these guys are experts at least in their confidence if not their ability.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a complaint or lament as much as it is a simple observation. Men love baseball. In fact, they love it so much it can reduce them to children. They argue and complain and bitch about league leadership, opposing coaches, subpar umpires, and occasionally overly enthusiastic mothers. The theatrics and drama on occasion leave me speechless while I silently think, “They’re acting like a bunch of women!” They quit the league and start their own as often as Southern Baptists in Georgia. The sport transforms them from mild mannered model citizens to zealots in search of their field of dreams. Bottomline is that it can make them nuts. Which makes the ten-year-olds running the bases sometimes look like the adults out there.

But as I said, I’m not complaining. I appreciate passion and commitment. And these men have those two things in disproportionately huge numbers. I love to see a person who believes in what they’re doing. It’s inspiring. Especially when what they’re doing is for the kids. I’m offering the benefit of the doubt on this one because most times I don’t understand the issues at stake or the level of disagreement or pettiness that can overflow like the Susquehanna.

I don’t know how much of the craziness the kids pick up on. For the most part, they simply want to play ball. I know my kid loves the game and grins ear to ear when he comes across the plate. He can deconstruct each play in which he touched the ball, explaining it to me like a patient preschool teacher. When I watch him in the outfield I’m amazed that he knows exactly where to move depending on factors like which bases hold runners, what kind of batter is at the plate, and where the ball goes when it’s hit. It’s certainly more detail than I could juggle. I keep track of the balls and strikes, outs and runs on an app on my phone. Without it I’d be lost, yet these men that crowd the dugout can replay every pitch. It’s a wonder.

One of my favorite aspects of baseball is the necessity of “backing up” the other players. The right fielder backs up the first baseman. The second baseman backs up the pitcher. The pitcher backs up the catcher. The left-fielder backs up the third baseman. I’m enamored with the concept that backing up someone is not your job because that person is bad at his job or weak with his skills. It’s simply because none of us are perfect. Sometimes the ball gets through, and sometimes you can’t hold on to a hard hit. What a beautiful life lesson. We need to back each other up. And we need to be backed up. Not only does the concept of backing up each other cement a team, many times it is the difference between winning and losing.

Another valuable lesson that baseball teaches is that if you don’t swing, you can’t get a hit. If you strike out swinging, at least you tried. No one gets a hit every time, and the boys who get the big hits strike out plenty. To strike out swinging is nothing to be ashamed about. Life is all about taking a swing. If you sit on the bench or stand still at the plate, you won’t get anywhere in baseball or life. It’s quite the metaphor.

I hope that when my son graduates from Little League, he takes with him many of the lessons he’s learned there. I hope he always has the courage to take a swing and I hope he always has the strength to back up the people around him. And I truly hope there will always be someone out there to back him up.

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