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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Life, Baseball and My Son...

The Sandlot...
"He's trying to kill us!" my nine-year-old son said exasperated, after his coach made the team run two laps following their game last weekend, even though they won!

I couldn't help but start laughing.  "No, seriously Dad," he insisted, as we walked towards the car.  He always uses "seriously" now when trying to make a point.  "He's really trying to kill us."

"Buddy, that's what coaches do," I exclaimed.

The coach was upset about their sloppy play, including my son getting picked off second with the old hidden ball trick.

"They break the team down," I continued, "then build them up again.  That's what they do in the army, you know."

"Yeah, but those are soldiers, Dad!  We're kids!"

Good point, but I pressed on, "Buddy, he's trying to build character.  He's old school.  By breaking you down and building you up again, the team grows closer together and you accomplish things that you may not have accomplished otherwise.  Don't you remember the movie, Remember the Titans?"  

"That coach was nothing compared to our coach," he maintained.

"Buddy, that coach made them run until they threw up.... and he wouldn't let them drink water!"

My son is a bit melodramatic.  He gets it from his mom's side of the family, my emotions and my brother's acting aside!

At any rate, in one of his favorite movies, The Sandlot, James Earl Jones' character, Mr. Mertle, a former professional Negro League player, who knew Babe Ruth (Yes, The Sultan of Swat, The King of Crash, The Colossus of Clout, The Great Bambino!) and went blind when he was hit in the head by a fastball (before helmets!), says "Baseball was life!  And I was good at it... real good...."

While I wasn't as good as Mr. Mertle, for the greater part of my existence, from the time I was nine-years-old, like my son, until about ten years ago, when I last played in a men's league at the age of forty-three, baseball was life for me. Although, my wife may argue it still is!

I often tell my kids that baseball is like life and the conversation with my son reminded me of the first line of the best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, which states, "Life is difficult." And, so is baseball, especially when you have a coach yelling at you and making you run when you're already tired!

They say the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball.  A ball coming in at 90-95 miles per hour, gives a hitter about .4 seconds (yes, that's four tenths of a second!) to see the ball, decide whether to swing his bat and connect.  That doesn't even take into account that you have to square the ball with the bat just right and you have to hit it where nobody is standing or can make a play!

Baseball is a game of futility much like life.  For the most part, you have to fail a lot before you succeed. In fact, the best hitters in the game succeed only three out of every ten times at bat.  And, just when you think you have it all figured out, everything goes to pot.

You can be riding high on the hog in a hot hitting streak, feeling like the Geico piglet with his head out the window, holding a pinwheel, and yelling, "Wee, wee, wee," and the next day, you're in a slump and feeling like you're running in place in a pool of mud, pushing a riffle up and down over your head, as someone is wetting you with a garden hose, and you're crying, "I got nowhere else to go.  I got nowhere else to go...," ala Zack Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Now. every time I say, "baseball is like life," my son shoots back, "No it isn't!"

Hope springs eternal; at spring training with the kids....
He doesn't understand what I mean, which is probably lost on my wife and daughters as well, although our oldest is growing in her passion for the game.  Maybe, she'll be a future Doris Kearns Goodwin, writing books and appearing on documentaries discussing her love for the game that her father taught her to love.  

Anyway, what I mean to say is that, while it can be said about other teams sports, baseball, more acutely than possibly anything else, resembles life itself; one, because of it's long and grueling season, which starts in Spring Training in February and ends with the World Series in November. You can have good days and bad days but there's always a chance for redemption tomorrow.  Two, it's deliberate pace and three, it's timelessness; both in duration (a game always lasts until somebody wins) and history, set upon the canopy of American culture.

There's nothing I want more than for my son to first, love God and the Church but then, to love and play baseball, that simple, yet complex, game played on a clay infield diamond surrounded by green grass (Of course, there may be a wife and kids, a vocation and family to consider but baseball can come a close third or fourth!).

However, at this point in his life, it's only a burgeoning interest at best.

After several failed attempts at playing, where he would be interested one day and lukewarm the next, and would then say he didn't want to play anymore, even though I have never pressured him about playing, I decided to take a harder stance, thanks to the help of my parents, who take him to practice, and told him he had to play.

I signed him up to play in a league without knowing a coach or him knowing any teammates.

There were two main reasons.  I don't want him to be one of those kids that stays at home playing video games or Wii all day, which he most definitely could do, if we let him.  And, I wanted him to learn to be part of a team.  Unfortunately, it's a trait that many people lack nowadays.

He played coach-pitch several times with a good friend of mine in different teams but it was obvious that his interest was tepid and I wanted to change the environment to see if it would make a difference.  

He ended up playing for the academy team of the league.  At first, I thought he was going to reject having to go to practice twice a week and playing a game or two on weekends.  To add to my concern, his coach is a bit fiery and animated, which is something he never experienced before.

But, a funny thing happened.  He started making friends, having fun and, while he is still struggling as he learns to play kid-pitch for the first time, and, as you can see, he is not a fan of the coach, he is actually growing in appreciation for the game; from collecting baseball cards, to watching Mets games on TV, to driving his mom and sisters crazy by throwing a rubber ball against his bed and catching it, to asking me to work with him on weekends when he's not playing (like my father did with me) or having me get my catcher's mitt from storage so that he can learn to catch (he's still a bit scrawny for the position and I told him he needed to beef up!).

Baseball takes sacrifice, discipline, humility, mental and physical fortitude, hard work, patience and perseverance.  Then again, anything in life that's worth doing takes sacrifice and hard work as well. But, like anything, it comes down to loving it and having fun.  

Come to think of it, it's a lot like living the Christian life, which is about sacrifice, self-denial and picking up our crosses everyday and following Christ; sometimes, to places we may not want to go, and falling, but getting back up, and in the case of Catholics, going to Confession, picking up our cross again and starting over; all with love and joy in our heart.

My son still has a long way to go in baseball, in life and in his faith but I'm encouraged.  The other day, he made a great catch, dropping to one knee and snatching a line drive to center-field.  It came on the heels of a near meltdown after striking out.

Hopefully, he'll get it and one day, despite thinking his coach is out to kill him (And wanting to channel the Ham Porter from The Sandlot inside him, by saying, "You're killing me Smalls!"), love will prevail...

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