I casually flicked on the television one evening a couple of weeks ago, turned it to ESPN to catch the baseball scores running on the chyron at the bottom of the screen, and was instantly, emotionally absorbed by the commercial airing at that moment. Simple piano notes echoed in the background as a day in the life of a teenaged girl played out before me: She woke up her siblings and fixed them breakfast; she went to school, carrying her lacrosse stick to class; she washed dishes and took orders at the fast-food restaurant where she works after school; she came home and studied late at night to prepare for the next school day; she delivered to her coach a payment (obviously derived from grinding away at the restaurant) for her lacrosse equipment, meekly announcing “sorry it’s late,”; she practiced with her team and on her own; she entered a game, receiving hearty support from her coach and teammates, and contributed to their success. “Sports Matter” read the graphic on the screen at the commercial’s end, and then the ad provided a website dedicated to raising money for high school athletic teams whose existence is endangered by lack of funds.
I grew up in an era where “organized sports”, other than Little League, didn’t begin until seventh grade. If my buddies and I wanted to play basketball we met at Blair Claflin’s house or at the Kingston School playground, chose up sides, and went at it. If we wanted to play against our arch-rivals, Frank A. Burtsfield elementary, I called one of their guys and we picked a date and time (often having to wait a few minutes for the old ladies chatting on our party line to finish a scintillating conversation about arcane topics like “sciatica”, “Viet Nam” or the latest happenings on “Search for Tomorrow”). We did the same thing during football season, and my days roaming 2nd base and right field on behalf of the Lafayette Bank and Trust team notwithstanding, my closest friends and I also played countless hours of pick-up baseball within the friendly confines of my backyard at 611 Hillcrest Rd. I imagine that a well-trained eye might still detect the presence of faint ruts we created by running the diamond-shaped base path we manufactured over forty years ago. Remembering the sight, sound, and feel of a perfectly hit shot over the fence into the Greenman’s property linger and bring a reflexive smile to my face; memories of line drives that shattered windows (and brought certain unpleasant consequences) linger, too, and elicit a reflexive wince.
Alas, those days are gone. There are far more organized sporting activities than there used to be, and participation begins at significantly younger ages. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this, I think, and sports at every level need to be kept in healthy perspective. Still, organized and not-so-organized sports (can) matter and (can) have a salutary effect on the participants. Organized baseball has had such an effect on the youngest amigo.
Luke loves baseball. During the warmer months we play catch for hours in the street next to our house. Pitch, catch, pitch, catch. Fly balls, ground balls, line drives. Then we often walk or ride our bikes to the nearby softball field for a little batting practice. He is a decent player and improving, but a little erratic, like most 9 year olds. In games his hitting comes and goes as his
brain and body attempt to adjust to the speed and accuracy vagaries of 9 and 10 year old pitchers, vagaries I can’t reproduce for him during our batting practice sessions. And for the first time in his life, he attempted to pitch this year. His performance was mixed (at best), as you might predict, but the social-emotional impact of the past four years in the Greenville Citizens Baseball League has been a towering home run.
How has he grown? His tolerance for imperfection, in himself and others, is developing. Fielding errors or strikeouts brought a momentary slumped shoulder this season, but little else—certainly not the tantrums they once produced. He’s far better at encouraging his teammates than he used to be. He now recognizes that striving to improve is the crucial thing and is beginning to accept that a genuine, strong effort is a worthy goal in its own right. He witnessed older and more talented teammates model for him strong leadership under duress and has benefitted from coaches who’ve demonstrated a strong work ethic and a positive attitude no matter the circumstances. He actually listened (as far as I could tell) to his instructors this year and recovered from a bad performance within minutes instead of hours or even days.
The positive changes have been blessedly obvious for months, but I knew he was definitely turning a corner after a conversation we had in my car after a recent game. He had pitched on this particular evening and couldn’t find the strike zone to save his life. When the game was over he put his equipment in the trunk, entered the car, lowered his head, fastened his seat belt, and announced simply, “I stink.”
“Luke,” I replied, “when I was your age I had a pretty good arm and my coach asked me if I wanted to try pitching. I said ‘no thanks’ and kept playing shortstop. Do you know why?”
He looked up, mildly curious. “No. Why?”
“Because I didn’t have the courage. I didn’t want the pressure that comes from being a pitche
r. I’m proud that you go out there, especially when things aren’t going well, and give it your best. You may or may not ever be much of a pitcher, but at least you’ve tried and you keep trying. That’s pretty terrific.”
“Yeah. Yeah. That’s true,” he agreed, quickly bouncing back. “When we get home can we practice some? I wanna get ready for fall ball.”
For these developments and many others, he has current and past coaches, umpires, teammates, opponents, and parents to thank. So do Krista and I.
Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.