It was your first practice, things will get better
Everyone else has been playing for years, of course they’re better than you
Stop stressing. It’s just a game. Games are supposed to be fun.
Finish the season, and if you don't want to sign up next year, then fine.
I said all the “right” things as we drove home from that first baseball practice, but as much as I hate to admit it, watching my son flounder on the field was embarrassing. I felt bad for him, but I was also personally ashamed and irrationally irritated. I’m not a jock in any shape or form, nor do I need to live vicariously through his actions, I just wanted him to do well to feel good about himself - but - it was frustrating for me to see him fail. And although I’m not one of those jerky dads yelling “encouragement” from the stands, in some ways, my silent judgement was even worse.
I knew deciding to start Little League baseball at age 12 at the LL Majors level, where all the other kids were perfecting skills started back in tee ball, was going to be rough, but, after a fun foray in the relatively relaxed Fall Ball, my son went to that first practice expecting The Sandlot, but left feeling blind-sided.
He didn’t say much about it over the following few days, but twenty minutes before the next practice, there were tears and complaints about not wanting to play anymore. My wife and I had to work hard to convince him to get his gear on and go, which, to his credit, he did. I doubt it was due to anything we said, as neither of us watch many sports movies, so didn't have much to say motivationally. All we said was he made a commitment to the team and they were counting on him, and that he didn't want to be the kid in the hall who “used to be on my team.”
What wasn’t said was that quitting gets exponentially easier each time you do it, and should be used sparingly. I believe that each time you quit or give up on something, your definition of what’s “too hard” gets looser and looser, until you start to lose confidence in yourself to do even simple things. Confidence doesn't come from winning, it comes from recognizing that failing isn't the end of the world. Those that quit before they have a chance to succeed or fail don’t get to experience either, and end up afraid of both.
Obviously, that’s a lot for a 12-year old to process, so we just stuck with the whole, “you made a commitment” thing. There were no threats or promises or bribes. It was time for practice, and therefore time to go. End of story. I asked if he wanted me to stay for the whole practice, rather than do laps around the soccer field, and he said yes. With that settled, we set off to the field.
I’m not sure who was more stressed that day, him or me. Every time the ball was hit in his direction or thrown to him (or at him while batting), my heart would stop. But it also swelled as I watched him giving it his best, listening to the coaches, adjusting his approach, and ignoring the rolled eyes and sighs of his teammates. I couldn’t even fault them for it, as I get equally frustrated when I’ve got places to be and the person in front of me doesn't know what they’re doing. They were actually pretty understanding and patient, all things considered, but they were also kids, and can only hold back so much, so my hopes quickly shifted from Do Well to Don’t Mess Up! And for the most part, he didn’t.
Not messing up gave him enough confidence to go back to the third practice without complaint, other than him admitting to being nervous. As was I. Again, I stuck around for the whole time, getting pointers from the other dads and mentally taking notes on what we could work on at home.
Charge the ball!
Get that bat head up!
You’re swinging too early
You’re swinging too late
I soon found it is so much easier to say such things than actually do them. I’d bounce grounders towards him and give advice on what he should have done differently on the ones that got by, then he’d throw them back to me and they’d go right through my legs. I know you're supposed to crouch and center your body so if the ball takes an unexpected hop, it will bounce off your chest, or some even more vulnerable body part, and drop in front of you, but ouch! Who would willingly do that?
I’d toss pop ups and critique his form, yet dropped half the ones tossed my way. And even with the glove on, some hurt my hand. I called out adjustments to his batting stance, but when I tried to mimic the coaches by hitting balls to the outfield for him to catch, I’d swing and miss every other time. I blamed it on being old. I claimed I wasn't giving 100% because I wasn't the one who needed the practice. But in reality, baseball is hard!
And that’s just the mechanics, the physical stuff. Come Game Day, when he has to add all the situational stuff, it gets crazy. The poor kid is out in Left Field putting all his energy into just catching or fielding the damn ball, but he also needs to know where and who to throw it to while listening for cues like Cut Two! Or Straight Through! At the plate, he’s focused on just making contact with the ball (and not vice versa!), but also has to keep track of balls and strikes while also watching the coach for bunt and hit signs. And if he does ever reach base, either via a hit or more likely a walk, he needs to know how many outs there are while keeping one eye on the third base coach for steal signs and the other on the pitcher, and somehow also watch his lead, track balls hit into the outfield, and then decide if he should stay on base, tag up, slide...
It’s starting to come together
That’s how you do it!
Just make contact
Practices were soon replaced by games, but unlike soccer, where an incorrect throw-in results in a chance to try again, and offsides calls are explained the first time they occur before they start blowing the whistle for real, here there were no do-overs. For my son, it was out of the frying pan and into the pressure cooker. But the kid is a trooper. He honestly wasn't doing much better from a stats perspective, but he was doing so much to get better that even the kids on the field and people in the stands were taking notice. The outfield wasn’t backing up when he stepped to the plate, but there were calls of encouragement and supportive comments coming from the dugout. A strong swing that resulted in a foul tip that went up and over the backstop elicited a legit cheer. He was gaining confidence, so much so that after games where he didn't get much playing time, he’d complain about not getting more at bats or balls hit in his direction.
And the best part was, just as he was settling in, Karma came after MY ass! Even though I was frequently telling him how proud I was of him for sticking it out and putting himself out there, I still had a debt to pay for my initial irritation and unreasonable expectations at that first practice. So one early Saturday morning, while he was with his coach learning signs, I was literally hanging signs. Two dozen big, heavy, full sheets of 3/4 inch plywood painted with sponsors’ logos that had to be hauled out from storage to center field and hung along the fence line by me, the one parent volunteer who showed up that day to help the league manager.
Before the third game, the coach came over to the bleachers and announced people were needed to man the concession stand. I assumed there was a group of trained parents with prior experience who would step up, but none did, leaving my wife and I to do it. I had never even bought a snack from the stand, never mind gone inside to run it! But suddenly I was in there, along with a flat grill, deep fryer, commercial coffee brewer, fridge full of eggs, burgers, and hotdogs, a freezer stuffed with mozzarella sticks and french fries, and no idea how to do anything except microwave popcorn...but no idea how much it cost or how to ring it up!
I need three burgers!
Where’s the mustard? The ketchup?
Oh, and three Powerades and a Blow Pop and gummy bears.
Speed it up, dude! My kids at bat.
I could hear myself telling my son, “Charge the ball!” like it should be a simple thing, and now I was faced with similarly simple things, and totally stressed. How much do I charge for a soda? And does that include deposit? What do the hot dogs get served on? Do I hand them the ketchup packets or simply place the bin outside the shack? Which key opens the register? Is the fryer even on? How long do mozzarella sticks take? I was way out of my comfort zone, made even worse by the fact that people were counting on me to get the job done, and any screw ups would be instantly apparent. which made me think of my son, who was out there worrying about dropping pop flies in the outfield while I worried about dropping french fries in hot oil.
My wallet was also taking a beating. While I never mentioned money as a factor for him not quitting, it did flash through my mind that the $300 registration fee was a lot to pay for one practice. But once he agreed to stick it out, I found myself shelling out even more for more and more stuff. We bought batting tees and training tools to help improve his swing, ordered extra uniforms, paid for a private session with a trainer, and started using the batting cages...where one day I took a literal beating!
I thought I had prepaid for a cage with a pitching machine, but when we got there, it was just a cage with an L-screen and a bucket of balls. I get nervous when I’m out of my comfort zone, so rather than seek out an attendant, I decided to just pitch to the kid. As I also mentioned earlier, I am not an athlete! My first 20 “pitches” were low, barely making it over the plate. The rest were way outside. Before I knew it, the bucket was empty and the kid had not even made contact, the difference being, this time it was because I sucked!
We collected the balls and tried again. This time, I noticed a dad, with nothing better to do while his kid was in the real cage, was watching me. And that got me extra stressed. I was already feeling like a failure, but now, I was a public failure, which did not improve my pitching. Stop stressing. It’s just a game. Game’s are supposed to be fun, I heard myself telling my son. But this was NOT fun.
I finally figured it out by the fourth bucket, and the kid was hitting line drives into the upper nets, at one point hitting 27 in a row! We left feeling pretty good about ourselves...for about an hour, when my arm basically fell off of my shoulder. I did the math, and five buckets of 30 balls is 150 pitches, which is precisely 149 more than my max pitch count. For the following days, my neck was sore and my right arm useless. But the next game was when the kid hit the ball up and over the backstop, so it was all worth it.
Bend your knees
Wait for your pitch...
Take your base
It’s midway through the season before the kid finally gets on base, courtesy of a wild pitcher. And even that was an adventure, as the boy went from 3-0 to a full count before getting walked. Regardless, there he was, on first base. Metaphorically and literally...and I do mean literally, as he was attached to first base. All the other kids take leads, bop back and forth off the bag to distract the pitcher, fake like they're going to steal, etc. but my son had his cleat firmly planted like a pivot foot in basketball. We had both been so fixated on getting ON base, we never really talked about what to do next. But before there was much time to think about it, a loud crack of the bat sent him scuttling to second and he’s safe! Another walked batter advances him to third, and a hit batter sends him jogging home with a huge smile on his face. It wasn't the most Hollywood of endings, but scoring that run and finally being able to contribute to the team was a great moment for Eli Wood.
Time will tell if there will be more such moments. Maybe more tears. Maybe more smiles. Probably both. What I do know is my son’s foray into baseball has been building character and crushing spirits for both of us. I don’t care if he goes on to hit the game-winning home run in the play-offs, I could not be prouder of him than I am right now. Having the courage to take the field in a demanding world of unknown expectations and unfamiliar surroundings with undeveloped skills, while everyone else seems to know what they are doing, is incredibly brave.
I know the skills and drills practiced and learned this season won’t come in all that handy in the real world, but knowing that he persevered and didn't quit will serve him well for the rest of his life. My friend, Rodney Walther, summed it up best in his novel, Broken Laces: "Whether playing baseball, coaching kids, or raising a son...don’t settle for making contact. Make impact."