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.