Playoff Week: Let The Drama Begin

Enter Cages Picture

“I sit here so if I hear screaming and see that no one is on base, I know that I need to go over to that field,” the baseball director advised the assembled group of teenage umpires last night. “Please call me before you eject a coach.”

They have brought out the big gun umpires now, the recently graduated high school seniors, the tall, bearded, jaded guys back from college. Ladies and gentlemen (and I use those terms loosely), it is playoff week. Gone are the relaxing evening baseball games. Gone are the idyllic images of young boys engaging in America’s pastime on pristine diamonds. These parents are out for blood. Or at least, a trophy or a few braggy pictures they can throw up on Facebook to prove their parenting prowess (stifling a yawn).

My son, being fourteen, is no stranger to drama. He has umpired several games so far this season, but has been vaguely disappointed by the relative calm. I think he was really ready for coaches to question his calls, for parents to yell, for kids to stomp back to the bench in anger. Well, he is starting to get his wish now that there are championships on the line.

A kid ran for first last night and made a turn towards second and was tagged by the first baseman. “He’s OUT!” my son called confidently, smiling to himself, ignoring and secretly relishing the screaming sideline. Another kid barrelled towards second base but the second baseman did not apply the tag. “He’s SAFE! No tag.” Again more rumbling.

The college-aged plate umpire told him before the game, “They know I don’t take any shit.” Inspirational.

He’s behind the plate tonight in an elimination game.

The Kids Are Watching

 

There was a different energy in the air at the game last night.

“He goes inside on me one more time, I’m going out there I swear to God.” my usually mild-mannered son muttered to the catcher through gritted teeth, completely out of character.

Then came the next batter. He is tall and from a distance appears athletic and imposing, but on closer inspection is tentative, awkward, shy. He was immediately and unintentionally plunked by the poorly located pitch of the unskilled craftsman on the mound.

“Charge the mound!!!” the dugout screamed then started a chant “Mann-y! Manny-y! Mann-y!!!” He tucked his head and quietly went to first base, unsure.

Most of us baseball fans understand why Manny Machado chose to retaliate against Yordano Ventura. In fact, many of us begrudgingly celebrate it.

By now we are way, way, way past looking to professional athletes to serve as role models for our young sons. Perhaps it is good for them to see that the best way to confront a bully is to punch him out.

Or…is it?

Stop Trying And Just Enjoy The Game

 

If things are not going to plan, many people have been taught that an appropriate response is to “try harder.” For example, when a career situation is not working out, try harder. If school is a challenge, try harder. If a relationship is on the skids, try harder. If the diet and exercise plan has not been effective, just try harder.

But in baseball, “trying harder” is not always the best solution to a challenging situation. Think of a pitcher. He may start the game clearly in his mental zone – relaxed, laser-focused, hitting his spots, striking batters out almost effortlessly. But the minute he starts to “try harder” to do something – to entice a batter to chase an outside pitch, or to throw as hard as possible – he gets into trouble. It is almost always evident in his body language. Shifting his cap. Deliberately taking then exhaling a deep breath.

The same applies to a hitter. In the first few at-bats, he may stride up to the plate, relaxed and confident with a strong, fluid, free-flowing swing. He’ll appear comfortable making the split-second decision whether to swing or to back off. But once the pressure is on – the game is getting close and there are runners on base – he may start to “want” something. He may swing too hard, causing him to lose balance and pull off the ball. He may start to chase pitches outside that he would normally let go. Even in fielding, the fielder must “try” to go after the ball as aggressively as possible, yet not “try too hard” lest he misses the catch or over-throws.

In youth baseball, it is very common to see a big hitter “want” it too much, especially right after he has just hit a home run. Of course he wants another one right away. Who would’t?

One of my son’s (great) coaches was particularly adept at managing the mental game of baseball. The kids, therefore, played loose and confident, never “trying too hard” to get a strikeout, to get a hit, to make a play or even to win the game (which they did – a lot). I can hear him now calling out to the pitcher: “That’s OK. Remember EVERY PITCH IS A NEW PITCH. Don’t try to make anything happen.”

Just like in baseball, where every pitch is a new pitch, every at-bat is a new at-bat, every inning is a new inning, every game is a new game, and every season is a new season, so it is in life – where every moment is a new moment, every day is a new day, every season is a new season. Just like in baseball, it seems like the more we “try harder” to get something, the more it eludes us.

So, maybe the answer is to stop trying and just start enjoying the game.

Stream of Consciousness

I may or may not have warned you of my perfectionist tendencies and how this can often be just a very advanced form of procrastination. I have deceived myself into the idea that every post here should really  be some earth-shaking, riveting commentary on the (discussed for centuries) topic of baseball. I worry about things like research and grammar and spelling and sentence structure. Until today where you have found me between a practice, a game and my son’s umpiring another game that starts in fifteen minutes. My husband just said “Hon,we are going to leave in about five minutes…right after the New York Giants make their pick!” I think there is some sort of draft going on for some other sport of which I have little interest.

I have been pondering the irony of owning a baseball blog and then having so little time to write on it because I am either watching baseball, reading about baseball, cleaning baseball uniforms and equipment, packing for baseball, driving to baseball, picking up from baseball, waiting for baseball to start, waiting for baseball to end, analyzing what just happened in baseball and what might happen tomorrow in baseball.

Breathe. Or don’t breathe. Just drive. Just throw the stuff in the back. Just ignore the parent who yelled “Hey! Is blue your SON? That ball went FOUL!” (More on that later). Make note of ridiculous behaviors to document here at a later time. Forget grammar and writing and any form of sanity. I have to leave for the game.

Talk Softly, But Carry a Big Stick?

Last night  my son completed the umpire training program and he may now officially serve as an umpire this spring. The baseball director gave some parting advice at the end of the training. He said, “Remember, if someone gets in your face, it is a good idea to speak very quietly in order to calm them down,” and then added, “I did that last year and the guy just walked away and kicked over the Port-A-John.”

It is going to be an interesting season.

Umpire Training Has Begun

The arduous process of training fourteen-year-old umpires has begun. The trainers have condensed sixteen hours of training into eight intense sessions taking place every Friday night in the elementary school building. The fields are just outside their window, dark at this time of night, with a few piles of dirty snow still standing defiant against the impending Spring. Given the warm weather forecast, they won’t make it past this week.

The guys at this training are serious, speaking in hushed tones. “Have any of you been in the championship?” the baseball director asked the group. My son raised his hand and said “twice” recalling the two epic, grinding games that resulted in two of the trophies on his shelf. A few members of the rival team in the room shot him a dirty look. They remember.

He is taking notes that are more detailed than any he has ever taken for a class in school. He has drawn stars next to things like”infield fly in effect here” and has underlined things like “don’t forget to say have a good game, coaches.”

“They told us that if the parents say anything rude to us, that we should not say anything at all back.” Good advice.

The teacher was wearing a T-shirt that sums up what he will really need to know once he gets behind the plate. It read:“Rule number one: I am Judge, Jury and Executioner.”

He should definitely make a note of that.

Baseball Lessons for Life

It was so hot one day that a team waiting for the next game in the tournament removed their shirts and sat in a group in the shade of a pine tree. “Oh my God, they took of their shirts,” I said to one of the Moms who spun around but was quickly disappointed to see the scrawny chests of a group of 11-year old boys. “Ohhhhh” she said, laughing “I didn’t think you meant THEM.” Smile. I was cowering from the sun behind a tiny beach umbrella that I had fastened to my chair. My husband was leaning against the fence, melting. Someone noticed and called out “Do you need anything?” to which he replied “Yes. One more out.” A spectator was whipping around a soaked towel sending refreshing droplets of ice water all over the crowd.

“Come on EASY OUT here!” a parent yelled.”Just play catch with him. Throw it right there into his glove!” yelled another, stating the obvious. “Hey GET YER ELBOW UP BOY!” “Hey, you are COLLAPSING HERE!” “Just like in the batting cage! Come ON!” “This pitcher has nothing, you got this!”No EXCUSES.” “They do NOT RESPECT YOU out there!” “UN-believable.” Eye roll concealed behind sunglasses.

Suddenly, an errant fly ball seemed to seek out and find the most vulnerable target: the cheekbone of the seven-year old sister of one of the players who was practicing ballet pirouttes a bit too close to the foul line. Fortunately, she was OK, but her love of baseball seemed to wane after that.

That was just one day. There have been many days. Some have involved injuries with blood and purple bruises and red brush burns and concussion tests and ice packs and Band-aids.Some have involved parents screaming over the game, over the other team, over their kid, over the state of their marriage. Some days the balls flew off the bats and guys crossed the plate, kicking up a cloud of dust, one run, two runs, three runs in a row. Some days our boys hoisted shiny gold trophies and smiled for the cameras. Other days their team name was at the bottom. The tournament record 0-6 as we walked silently back to our cars. Some days were so cold that the field seemed to crack and the damp early Spring wind stabbed sharply through thick winter coats. Some were so hot that you could see the heat rise up from the infield in a clear zig-zag shimmer. Some days I was starving, thirsty, exhausted, frustrated, anxious and sunburned waiting to record that final out, only to hear “Ball four take your base.” Expletive under my breath.

As much as I love baseball, there were days that I thought “Why are we here?”

But then, I know why.

Not just to “win” (although I will admit, winning is a lot more fun than losing)

Not just to “have fun.”

But for my son to learn the invaluable life lessons offered through playing the game of baseball.

Lessons like:

How to work with others on a team towards a common goal.

How to use a strong work ethic to improve one’s skills.

How focused effort can create concrete results.

How to handle high-pressure and stressful situations.

How to handle failure, disappointment and defeat.

How to be humble and gracious in victory.

How to tune out negative comments and negative people.

How to keep emotions in check.

How to tap the strength to push through challenges.

How others opinions do not define who you are.

How there really is an objective reality that is not subject to individual interpretation.

How you must make your own name, instead of only following in the footsteps of others.

How we don’t always get what we want or think we deserve.

How to respectfully disagree with others who may have a different point-of-view.

How to learn to plan and anticipate.

How to read people.

How to adjust to quickly-changing circumstances.

How to have patience.

How to match your behavior to rules of etiquette.

How to know when to take risks (and when not to).

How to persevere through frustration, injury or loss.

Mastering these skills is so much bigger than learning to hit, throw, catch and field. And best of all, they last a lifetime.

That’s why we are out here.

To Succeed We Must Fail

A kid was in the batting cage tonight crushing balls off a tee. He had a great looking, very powerful swing, especially for a kid his age. I liked watching him. He really had something. It was clear that he had spent a lot of time and effort perfecting this skill and it was exciting to see him in flow, enjoying the fruits of his labor.

As always, an adult running their trap shook me from my baseball reverie. “THAT’S AN EXPENSIVE SWING THERE.” his mother said, loud enough so that everyone could hear. Translation: I paid for this so I expect a return. Until she spoke, it wasn’t about her at all or how much she paid. Focused and entranced in his hard-earned excellence, it was all about him and the ball. It was just pure love.

A question crossed my mind that I wouldn’t dare say out loud. “What are you going to do when he fails?” Because the one thing that all ballplayers have in common is that they experience some type of failure.

Now, we all took 6th grade math, so I won’t have to spell out to anyone, especially in this forum, how in baseball a (very respected) .300 batting average means that the batter does not get a hit 70% of the time. In what other endeavor besides baseball would someone be proud to say that they are 30% successful?

One of my favorite sportswriters George Vecsey wrote that baseball is “a sport that acknowledges daily failure.” Emphasis perhaps, on the word “acknowledges.” It is not to be feared or denied, but just an accepted part of the game. The dictionary synonyms for the word “acknowledge” are: admit, accept, grant, allow, concede, accede to, confess, own and recognize. Admit it. Accept it. Allow it, and best of all – Own failure. Living with failure is never comfortable, but to play baseball at all, accepting and overcoming failure is a daily requirement.

Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball teaches us that in order to achieve any success in life, you have to put up with a lot of futility. It teaches us that even when you do have a success, it can be fleeting. It teaches us that in pursuing any goal that you have to endure thousands of negative experiences before you actually achieve that goal. It teaches us that you can’t walk away or give up when you fail, but that you must continue to work the process to reach success.

The great Mickey Mantle said:

During my 18 years I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I struck out about 1700 times and walked maybe 1800 times. You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 at bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting the ball.” — Mickey Mantle, 1970 —

While every baseball parent feels that intoxicating surge of pride when his or her son gets a big hit, most parents seem to want it and expect it every single time he is at bat (uh, yes, including me). Especially those who have invested a great deal of time and money into training. We inadvertently then transfer this expectation on to the kid, who in “trying” to get that big hit in each at-bat only encounters more futility. The longer one hangs around baseball, though, you end up learning, sometimes the hard way, to just expect, embrace, anticipate, accept and acknowledge that there will be failure. Only by enduring those failures with grace can one ever persevere through the monumental efforts required to achieve any success in baseball – or in life.

One of my favorite commentaries on failure comes from someone not exactly known for his baseball career. As a minor leaguer with the Chicago White Sox organization in 1994, he batted .202. He also played for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the 1994 Arizona Fall League batting .252. To me, his message says it all.

Hey Blue

 

“This ish my final warnnning to all of yeeewww parents.” the umpire sneered at our sideline, swaying and visibly drunk. The parents were being typically irritating, especially so to a drunk. Screaming out commentary at every pitch and vocally questioning every single call. One mom, a pretty blonde and prominent local surgeon who is usually very mild-mannered jumped up and started to enter the field in protest. A few of us pulled her back as she screamed”HEYYYY! MY SON IS SAFE THERE ARE YOU FU%@#%**@%T# BLIND?” I am often fascinated by what baseball can do to the most reserved, classiest people among us. No, dear. He was not “technically” blind. He’s was just hammered and looking to earn a quick $50 bucks by umpiring a 10 year old baseball game. He was a brave, brave man indeed. What sane person would willingly enter the ego-soaked jungle of a youth baseball game? Perhaps the man had a point being drunk on arrival.

“NO NO NO NO NO!!! That is compleeeeeettttee bulllllshhhitttt.” the Dad coach implored to another home plate umpire who was all of fifteen years old. “It’s my call.” the kid said back simply and succinctly (I like that kid) but the Dad kept pleading and whining in the fading evening sunlight. Dude. Wrap it up. Its Wednesday night and the sun is setting on this meaningless game of eight year olds. Really.

“Well, I got thinking about it, and I think I need to change my call.” another hapless fool umpire said to a group of rabid baseball parents. Oh. Did someone mistakenly tell him you can show humanity and frailty in this very treacherous situation? “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU GOT THINKING ABOUT IT? THAT’S RIDICULOUSSSSSS!!!!” several of the parents screamed. It meant he got thinking about it. God forbid a man thinks and possibly admits… a mistake. Reminder – while everyone strives and rightly expects to follow the rules of the game to the letter, we are not affecting the stats of pro ball millionaires here. Most of these players are fourth graders missing teeth. (Come to think of it so are some of the the umpires, but I digress).

A few of them I really liked. Like the one who within ten minutes into the first inning tossed our (former, with good reason trust me) coach out of a tournament for mouthing off. “Out.” he said as the coach stalked away and stood within viewing distance of the field. “No. OUT of the facility.” that umpire said. Unlike me, that umpire knew to get rid of that guy as soon as possible.

And my personal favorite:

“Scorekeeper!” he’d call out professionally. “That’s me.” I said and walked over. “I will be confirming the count and the score  with you throughout the game and I will assume that you will confirm the same with the other team.” “Of course, sir.” I said back. “And what kind of tea are you drinking there?” he asked. “Chai,sir.” I replied. “I prefer Earl Grey.” he said smiling and walking behind home base to neatly brush off the plate and conduct a perfectly called youth game.

Now that my son is fourteen he is eligible for the umpire training program in our league. “Mom, I really want to be an umpire.” he said yesterday.

Well that ought to provide some good material this spring…

Line It Up

“Line it up!,” and with those three simple words, it is over.

They have been out here since April 1st. Eight long months. It started as it always does. Awkward. Quirky. Rusty pitchers trying to throw from a frozen clay mound to catchers crouched against the chilly breeze on creaky knees. Those hard early spring baseballs slipping through the legs of  the  first baseman and sailing past the head of the third baseman. The usually feared hitters swinging violently through the air at missed pitches.

Then the sun came and the around-the-horn drill was clean, neat, 5-4-3 and back. Balls were hit and caught and thrown with ease and grace. They knew one another again. From there it became an unending blur of car trips and bags and water bottles and sunglasses and score books and sharp pencils and sweat and joy and tears.

Every day there has been a pair of mud-encrusted grey baseball pants on the floor of the laundry room. But today, I hesitated before I rinsed. This will be the last time for a long time. These pants probably won’t even fit him next year. Is there a way to – hold on to it? No.

One shot of Oxi Clean – and it’s gone. Until next spring.