I don’t love baseball. And I feel bad about that. Some of the finest people I know — people who are undeniably more advanced human beings than I am — are wild for the game. They love that it’s not timed, but rather over when it’s over; that it lets players of every shape and size be superstars; and that the object is more complicated than just putting a ball into a net, over a line, or through a hoop.
The closest I ever come to loving baseball was a brief tenderness I had for its distinctive snacks. It was 1981, and Fernando Valenzuela was pitching for Los Angeles, Steve Garvey was playing first base, and I was mowing Dodger Dogs, Cracker Jacks, and ice cream on the blistering Loge level.
Back then, I was a kid watching grown-ups play baseball. Recently I’ve revisited the sport as a grown-up watching kids play it, in Little League. But the new perspective hasn’t deepened my appreciation for our national pastime. In fact, it’s made me dread it.
Each time a kid gets up to bat and strikes out — my son or someone else’s, on our team or the opposing one, doesn’t matter — it positively guts me. Hollows out my stomach like an inverted baseball cap or a stadium peanut being popped from its salty shell.
Swing, miss! … Adjust stance. … Swing, miss! … Adjust grip. … Swing, miss! … Adjust self-image.
It’s the awkward silences. The pained “You got this one, kiddo” or “Shake it off, son” lobbed from the stands. The dejected shuffle back to the dugout — shoulders slumped, head bowed. I can’t take it, I tell you. I look away, but I want to siphon the shame right out of their little dirt-dusted bodies, hurl it to the ground, and beat it with the nearest bat. Or flog it with a long, skinny Dodger Dog.
Yeah, you heard me. I want to be crazy like that.
I recognize that without failure there can be no success — but this is public failure. Sometimes repeated and sustained public failure.
“We have a little guy on our team who sobs every time he strikes out — which is all the time,” says a mom I know. “It breaks my heart.”
Friends assure me the experience is good for kids, that it prepares them for “striking out” in life — which we all do, and often.
“It’s about practice, patience, and perseverance, which are important things about life to learn young,” insists my cousin, who played ball growing up and survived to become a doctor. “That, and not everyone can be the best at everything all the time.”
It turns out that even Hall of Famers fail to make a hit 70 percent of the time, but the statistic doesn’t soothe me. Why are we asking 8-year-olds to do the near impossible and to do it in front of dozens of spectating strangers who long to cheer a hit — even a small one?
It took my friend Sarah Sinclair, one of those highly developed humans I told you about, to … ahem … drive the point home for me.
She steps up to the plate.
“Baseball is a sport centered on courtesy, integrity, perseverance, tradition, loyalty, and strategy,” she says, noting that her own son saw countless whiffs as a boy. “I cringed with every strike but soon realized he was getting so much more out of it than what I saw from the bleachers.”
“He still says that walk back to the dugout is the longest walk in the world — but if you can handle that, you can handle any criticism or challenge. He graduates college this month, and I know the lessons he learned on the baseball field helped him accomplish all he has done. And all he will do.”
And put it on the board, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a goner.