You played in your third little league game today. In your previous two games, you struck out and then grounded out in your only at-bats. But progress was there and the coaches (of which I am one) have noticed how hard you have been working since the start of the season. Back when you couldn’t catch, or throw and could barely hit. But 8 weeks later, and you’re making progress and the coaches moved you up in the batting order. Today you hit second. And as I watched you from the dugout in your first at-bat, you watched two balls go by that were called for strikes. Then you swung and missed at the third pitch for strike three.
You jogged back to the dugout and your eyes met mine. “Hey, Buddy. You gotta swing the bat on those good pitches.” I tell you. I think it’s helpful advice but I can tell you hear it as criticism. You rest your helmeted head against my stomach and I can’t see your face. I move you away to arms-length so I can see your eyes and when they meet mine again, tears start to flow from them and stream down your dirt-smudged face.
“Oh, it’s okay, Buddy.” I say. I kneel down and give you a hug in front of your teammates. You don’t say anything but I can see the disappointment in your eyes. “Hey. It’s okay if you strike out. Everyone does it. I’m proud of you no matter what. Just try your hardest, okay?” We’ve talked a lot about effort and how important it is to do your best but I can see the doubt in your eyes right now. As if it’s being tested – as if my approval and my love depend on how whether you hit the ball or not. I hug you tight and tell you once more that it’s okay. The inning is over and it’s time to go out to the field. You grab your hat and glove and trot out to second base and my heart hurts for you as you paw at the dirt and take ground balls tossed from the first baseman.
I hurt and I’m conflicted because I have been very careful to frame baseball as something that is for fun and that the only thing I want from you is to try your hardest and learn as much as you can. We’ve talked a lot about this but now it’s being tested.
Luckily, our pitcher makes quick work of the opposing hitters and before we know it, you are back in the dugout. Soon, it’s your turn to bat. I wonder how you will respond but even before we can really see, you get hit on the leg by the pitch and are awarded first base. In retrospect, it’s probably the best thing that could happen. You were on the bases for the first time this season and you eventually came around to score. You were part of the game.
Your third at-bat was with the game well in hand. We were ahead 9 to 1 and there wasn’t a lot of pressure on anyone. There was one out and a runner on third. The opposing pitcher couldn’t find the strike zone and soon, as your league allows, it was the coach’s turn to pitch to you. That coach was me. I trotted out to the mound and I think I was more nervous than you. I only get four pitches and my first three were awful (one was even behind you!). On that fourth and final pitch, though, it was just like you and I at the park near our home. I tossed it in there you hit it into the ground towards the third baseman. The runner on third broke for the plate and you raced towards first. When it was all said and done, you had your first hit, your first RBI and your first big smile while standing on first base.
After the game, in a moment when it was just the two of us, I got down on my knee and I said, “I’m really proud of you, Buddy. After your first at-bat you were feeling terrible but you shook that off and came back and scored a run, got a hit and even made a nice play at second base. I’m really proud of you and I loved watching you play today.”
He looked at me and smiled and nodded. We embraced briefly. I pulled away again and looked into his eyes and said, “I’m really proud that you were able to shake off that strike out today. Sometimes, things don’t go the way we want them to and what we do next is what’s really important. Remember that, okay?” You nodded and smiled and we walked off towards the families waiting for us.
I’m not sure if this day will be a seminal moment but it was everything I was hoping sports would be. Sports are so much more than winning and losing. They are about overcoming failure and learning that failure doesn’t define us any more than success does. How we respond to adversity and disappointment means everything. And I’m glad I was there to help you learn that lesson. You failed. But then you didn’t.