Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.
– Babe Ruth, Major League Baseball player
When my son Jacob began playing tee ball in first grade, I never attended a single game that season. Don’t get me wrong. I was a long-time baseball fan since before high school – this dates me, but my favorite player was Carlton Fisk of the Boston Red Sox in the 1970s – and I have been a San Francisco Giants fan since moving to the Bay Area in 1990. But I wasn’t ready to join the ranks of parents who spent their weekends at their children’s sporting events. I didn’t want to give up my weekends. Fast forward two years. In third grade, he showed skills and a love for the game, which reawakened my love for the game. Fast forward four more years, after David has been coaching Jacob’s teams and managed one of the league division’s summer all-star teams for two years. David now manages Jacob’s travel team, the Hornets, who play in tournaments every other weekend.
Baseball is life
They say baseball is life, and if you love the game you understand why. Team sports teach kids how to work together towards a goal, instead of as individuals. Every player on the field has a role in every play; the moment the pitcher is in the wind-up, the other eight players are moving (or should be moving) in anticipation of the ball coming to them. I’ve heard David tell all the kids on the field, “The ball’s coming to you!” (Years earlier, David once told Jacob that when he was playing the outfield as a kid, he always wanted the ball to be hit to him. That was fire in the belly.) If the ball isn’t hit to them, they should be moving, either to where the ball is or to the next play, covering the bases or the immediate areas to back up their teammates. You should always have your teammate’s back.
Moms in the stands
Like most moms, I wanted my son to do his best and to suck it up when he made an error, but, of course, he wasn’t supposed to make any errors. During summer ball after third grade, Jacob had meltdowns when he made an error. He took himself out of the game by stomping around in the outfield or defiantly putting his arms to the side in right field, basically giving up while his team was in play. I was aghast – horrified – and angry. David had long talks with him about not letting his team down. It was one thing to beat yourself up and quit, but you can’t shortchange your team. (We used to call him the master of self-flagellation, a trait no doubt he had gotten from me but had taken to new heights.)
He still gets upset when he’s pitching and not getting the support defensively or when he’s still thinking about his called-strike-three at bat to end the inning before. I can see it in his body language – the slumped shoulders, the hard blinking to keep the tears at bay – but he isn’t melting down to the point of being useless to his teammates. That comes from slow-growth maturity. And as painful as it was and still is for me, his mom, to watch from the stands, I realize that he is learning on a stage – the baseball field, in front of coaches, teammates, and families – which is something that I, as a painfully shy child, could not imagine.
When he moved up from the Pinto level (grassy infield and squishy ball) to the Mustang level (dirt infield and hard ball), he worked himself out of the position of shortstop, which he had played with such fierceness and command the year before. He confessed to his fear of the ball, which greatly disappointed me. I kept telling him he just needed to overcome his fear. Although he has embraced centerfield, overcoming fear is still an important life lesson.
I never realized that I was risk-averse, too, when it came to youth baseball. If Jacob pitched two great innings in a game, I wanted him to come out after that inning, not only to preserve an unblemished pitching effort but also to have him leave the mound with more confidence. If the team was winning or in a tight game in the latter innings, some of us moms in the stands would hold our breath, wondering if our son was going to pitch, and then breathe a sigh of relief when our son didn’t trot to the mound and pick up the ball.
Last year, in one of the tournament games he pitched a great two innings and in the process threw very few pitches. His team was ahead and it was the other team’s last chance to overcome the Hornets. Jacob overthrew the ball, trying to strike out the side in the bottom of the sixth. He walked batters and gave up hits. Soon the lead shifted and the other team won. Jacob was devastated. I was devastated, too. But the other emotion that coursed through me was anger. How could David let him pitch that third inning, when two is the modus operandi? Why push his limit? Why, to be more pointed, ruin the great two innings he had just pitched? David’s response: He pitched well those two innings and threw 19 pitches total, so they put him out there again, expecting the same stellar results. He has to learn how to handle the pressure, David concluded. I didn’t agree with the reasoning. The season ended with me still believing a new pitcher should have been inserted.
A New season
In a recent tournament in Sunnyale, one of our Hornets moms, Yoko, told me she accepts that we can’t control many things in life and has developed a Zen mentality for everything, including youth baseball. She sings the Kelly Clarkson song, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger,” to her son and daughter. In that same tournament, in their first game, Jacob had pitched well in his first inning, and although he pitched well his second inning, the opposing team tied the game. I didn’t expect to see him come out for the “sudden death” extra inning, but he was sent back to the mound for a third inning because he had a low pitch count and he had pitched well overall.
In sudden death, the opposing team gets to determine where in their line-up they want to start their inning, with runners already at first and second. Jacob overthrew a pitch or two before collecting himself to record the first two outs. Then he gave up the game-winning single. Jacob walked off the mound, devastated and crying. I was disappointed for him. But this time around, I was surprisingly calm. I finally understand – in a way that he doesn’t yet – that adversity and defeat build character, even as it hurts mightily now, even as it hurts us parents to see our children this way. I bit my lip and watched David talk to him, as Jacob’s shoulders heaved up and down. David later told me he was telling Jacob that he noticed him overthrowing, then taking a deep breath and composing himself for the next pitch. He told Jacob that his response on the mound was a huge step – regardless of the outcome – because last year he couldn’t regain his composure. That was David’s takeaway. My takeaway was that it’s not about preserving the perfect, it’s about becoming a stronger player and a stronger person. And a wiser mom.