Some people take a little bit longer to understand things than others. Maybe they are like the people who disrupt the baseball game by walking through the field because they can’t see the players. Maybe they’ve never chased a crazy dream or thought in their life. Or maybe they just aren’t sports fans. Regardless, some people just require a little more of a detailed explanation.
I think that she was one of “those” kinds of people. At least, that was the impression I got when she asked, “What’s the big deal about baseball? Aren’t you just wasting your time with kids’ games when there are more important things you could be doing? You are fully aware of the grave injustices around the world—from trafficking to poverty to orphans—and yet silly baseball consumes you. Why baseball?”
Me, I take a long time to find my answer to a question. One time a friend asked for some advice regarding a particularly odd and precarious situation. It took me more than a week to get back to him. My first response to the question-asking-female was a random blathering about going to a game with Mom and Dad and dreaming of playing ball for the Royals for the majority of my childhood. I want a second chance to answer that question.
Buck O’Neil said it best, “Nothing better than baseball for kids. Teaches them all the lessons.”
To this day, I can see the faces of every one of my baseball coaches, from second grade through high school, even though a few names have been lost in the trenches of my memory. Those coaches gave of their time and themselves trying to get my feet in position to turn a double play or think through a series of pitches beforehand. The following are some of the lessons that come through the hours spent with these coaches.
Baseball is a game of character. In baseball there are ample opportunities to cheat, whether it’s doctoring the ball as a pitcher or placing too much pine tar on the bat. We now live in the steroid era, where players are tempted to supplement their natural abilities through illegal means. The question becomes, do you do anything just to win, or do you abide by the rules? What do you do when no one else is looking? If you could get away with it, would you do it? Mike Sweeney and Jeremy Affeldt are just two of the guys who come to mind immediately as players who understand that, because of their abilities, they are role models. They live and play with intensity and with character, setting a good example for the next generation.
Baseball is a game defined by failure. No one has perfect seasons. You will strike out. You will commit an error. You will lose games. Umpires will blow a call. How do you react when you face failure? Do you allow failure to define who you are, or do you choose to try again? Failure is just an opportunity to learn, to make an adjustment. Some players inherently understand that, quickly seeking the wisdom and guidance of older players and coaches. Some players try to go at it all alone and end up isolating themselves from the very ones who could help.
Baseball is a game of relationships. It is impossible to play alone. It requires doing your part to the best of your ability and trusting those around you to do the same. There is very little that just one person can control in a game. It takes the combined effort of all the players on the field, those in the bullpen, and those on the bench to succeed and compete. The relationships that are forged on the field often last for a lifetime. (This is true of many sports.)
There is a place for everyone on the field (isn’t this the lesson from The Sandlot?). Baseball does not discriminate against height or build. Eddie Gaedel did his job and earned a walk. Jon Rauch is tall enough to play center for any basketball team. Regardless of ability, you can find a place for them to play. As the song says, “Here in right field, it’s important you know. You gotta know how to catch, you gotta know how to throw…”
Finally, baseball is a glimpse of eternity. There is no time constraint in the game, meaning that a tied game could last forever (The Iowa Baseball Confederacy). There is no need to hurry or rush. Baseball creates space for spectator and player alike to step outside of time and into forever.
One spring afternoon, I was the scheduled pitcher for the JV game, which started shortly after the conclusion of the varsity game. In the final innings of the varsity game, the starting catcher for my school, Brian, suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital. Brian was also “my” catcher. Coach had Brian working with me to teach me a thing or two about pitching.
Immediately, Coach forfeited our game. He then pulled both teams aside and said, “There’s no point in playing if your heart’s not in it, and right now, our hearts are with Brian.” That was the first time I cried as a player on the diamond.
My daughters, thankfully, are very gracious to me and my baseball obsession. I was recently watching TV while wearing my glove and tossing a ball softly into it, practicing gripping different pitches. My youngest asked, “When do we get to go back to another Royals’ game?”
I answered, “Not soon enough, kiddo, not soon enough.”
Last year, I read dozens of baseball books—biographies and autobiographies and fiction accounts as well. Each book shared beautiful truths and lessons of life learned from this game that can be taught in a matter of minutes.
Because baseball provides a lens through which I see and understand the good and beautiful and utterly bizarre world in which we live.
I think the real question should be, “Why curling?”