Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Everything I Know About Life I Learned on the Baseball Field

My son ran towards the plate and then stopped suddenly. He adjusted his helmet and gripped his bat tightly, the only indication that he was feeling the pressure. It was the last inning, bases loaded, two outs. He took two deep breaths and stepped into the batter’s box.

Hudson spent the majority of this little league season fighting against playing, usually quite dramatically, and yet my wife and I insisted- he made a commitment and had to see it through. He is one of the youngest kids in a league of skilled players, and he was seeing limited playing time as a result. It was torture to watch him navigate the emotions I remember so vividly- the fear of failure, the pain of ridicule, the self-doubt. Yet there are lessons to be learned in those struggles, so we insisted.

Halfway through the season, something shifted. He got a few hits, had some success in the field, and started asking me to throw him batting practice in the morning. The basketball that had been glued to his hip for months disappeared, and it was replaced with a baseball mitt. For me, it was pure bliss. As a former college player, having a catch with my child is about as close to Nirvana as I can imagine.

So as he stepped into the batter’s box, I hoped he would remember what we had practiced- weight back, bat off the shoulder, watch the ball. He was so close to where I was standing that I could just call out to him, remind him of the mechanics or give him words of encouragement. But this was his moment, his challenge. I said nothing. He swung three times, tentatively, and the game was over. The helmet hid his face, but his body couldn’t hide his pain.

On the drive home he was hysterical, determined to never play baseball again, and he wouldn’t hear anything we said. We tried to talk about getting back up after you fall down and the pride we felt in his effort, but he heard nothing.

I learned two immensely valuable lessons through baseball- repetition and resilience. If you work hard enough and refuse to quit or be discouraged by failure, you will succeed. It’s a simple formula, one that has guided me throughout my life. I realized that words were not helping Hudson learn these same lessons, so I turned the car around.

“What are you doing?” he mumbled through tears.

“I’m taking you back to the field.”

“What? No, Dad, really. Please,” he pleaded desperately.

I parked the car. Hudson was apoplectic. He had no choice but to follow me, but I couldn’t make him swing. So he stood at the plate, defeated, gloomy. Refusing to take the bat off his shoulder. I threw pitches. He glared at me. It was a stand off, one I realized could go terribly wrong. He may see this as bullying, or rubbing salt into his wounds, and shut down completely.

“I can’t do it. I’m terrible. I’m the worst one on the team,” he screamed.

I wanted to give him a hug, of course, and absorb his pain. “Don’t get angry at yourself. Be angry at the ball,” I said instead.

Something clicked. His eyes flared, and he swung hard at the next pitch. He sent it deep into the outfield. His tension relaxed, just a bit. He swung hard again, and sent another one flying. I looked at him. He smiled. We stayed for an hour, and the next morning he woke me up early for batting practice.

On Saturday, Hudson played in the last game of the regular season. He came up to bat again with two outs in the last inning. They were down by one with a runner in scoring position. The pitcher was the best in the league. Hudson took another deep breath and stepped into the box. This time his swings were aggressive and confident. He fouled three pitches hard, and it came down to the last strike of the season. The pitcher reared back and threw a bullet…. right into Hudson’s leg.

He took two steps towards first base and then collapsed in pain. As the coaches gathered around him and the players all took a knee, I said to my wife, “At least we only need ice this time.”