(Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, seen here)
I have to thank my Uncle Tom O’Brien for introducing baseball to me at the age of seven. At least that is as far back as I can remember. I loved to play catch, and field grounders and pop flies with him every day after school and on weekends. He taught me how to use a high leg kick like Roberto Clemente, his idol. At that time in 1977, we still used wood bats in Little League. I remember the feeling of connecting with that baseball; ah the sound. The smells: wood and leather, fresh cut grass and dirt. Complete euphoria. I was hooked.
Oh, man I love this game.
My first glove was a Rawlings, 12-inch Reggie Jackson model with the basket web. The thing that stands out to this day and brings me back to my childhood instantly is the smell of that new leather glove and the glovolium that gave it life. I spent hours rubbing that oil into every crease and wrinkle and knot, shaping the fingers and the web. Popping the ball in and out repeatedly before wrapping it up tight with a belt and shoving it in between my mattress and box spring;the final step to a perfect break-in. A lot of you are smiling right now as you remember doing the same thing. Maybe your Dad ran over it with the car to speed up the break-in process.
Man, I love this game.
Life as a baseball player was all I could imagine from that day forward. Anyone that plays this game most likely started off thinking how great it would be to play this game forever. How many young boys stood up in class when asked: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” answered confidently and matter of factly “I am going to be a Major League Baseball player.”
One of my favorite quotes from my teenage hero Cal Ripken, Jr. is, “You can be a kid for as long as you want when you play baseball.”
At some point along the journey, we realize that this is a young man’s game and unfortunately not everyone gets to play past a certain age. Sometimes it is a decision made by our bodies. Sometimes it is a decision made by our opportunities or lack thereof. Maybe it is a decision made solely on realistic views of our future livelihood. In most cases, the majority lack the ability to compete at the next level along the long, treacherous road to the Bigs.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love other sports too. I played football, basketball, hockey, tennis, golf, you name it. One of the things I feel is lost in kids today is the exploration of other sports. Too many parents are caught up way too early in sports specialization for their kiddos. I am not sure when or how this transpired. Maybe the rapidly rising cost of college mixed with the delusional expectations of parents living vicariously through their kids’ accomplishments. I don’t know. That is a whole other article to be written at a later date.
Baseball might arguably be the most intricate game on the planet. I know it is boring for a lot of people. It has a lot of rules. The superstitions and routines that players have created over decades can be puzzling to many. The number of little things that go on during the course of an inning, let alone a whole game, can confuse the hell out of an avid fan much less the casual onlooker.
Then again, it is the thinking man’s game. Doh!
You can be an average athlete and still excel in baseball if you understand the games that go on within the game. You can have a lot of success regardless of your size and physical attributes. It has been stated that the hardest single thing to do in all sports is to hit a baseball. I won’t get into the science or mechanical specifics that are involved with this extremely arduous task. Essentially, hitting a round object with another round object squarely, at any speed makes for some immediate frustration. For those that have never tried, give it go and see what you think. Even the best fail 70 percent of the time.
Man, I love this game!
The average age of kids that stop competing in this game is about 13-14. Ironically, the same age puberty starts. School, music, video games, other sports and socializing start to take precedence in their everyday life. Those things were fun for me too (maybe not school so much), but nothing was more fun than playing baseball. I suppose at some point in the back of my mind around 17 years old I started to see the proverbial writing on the wall. The realization of actually getting paid to play was starting to dwindle as I prepared for the “real world” and the next chapter of my soon to be adult life.
This game over the years has evolved in many ways from the equipment to the size of the players, to the superhuman acts of athleticism on the field. One thing that remains constant is the dimensions of the playing field. The distances from home plate to the fence vary from park to park, but the base paths and pitching distance have remained the same since the inception of the game. When you let that sink in it is indeed stunning to ponder. As humans we have gotten physically stronger and faster in the past hundred years and yet the ground ball to short and throw to first is still a bang-bang play. The arm strength has evolved with the foot speed or vice versa, depending on how you want to look at it.
Man, I love this game!
We have all heard it a million times that baseball is a game of failure. After hearing legendary college coach Augie Garrido explain it in his point of view, I have changed the way I think about that popular statement today. Augie says that maybe it is a game of opportunity rather than a game of failure. Perhaps we are missing the numerous amount of opportunity that every failure creates for us within the game. Example: that next at-bat after striking out creates an opportunity to possibly win the game in a later inning. Booting that ground ball in the third and then making a diving catch to end the opponents scoring threat in the sixth inning. These are just two examples of looking at it from a different perspective. Failures can create opportunities.
Hmm. I like it. Perception is up to the individual, and your perception is your reality.
Baseball may possibly be the most over-coached, self-esteem destroying game ever invented. What other fields of expertise can you fail three times out of ten and still be considered a success? (See batting average). Coaches around the globe will preach that the game is ninety percent mental yet only spend ten percent of the time on training the mental side. Perfecting mechanics are trumping natural athletic ability and becoming the focus of most inexperienced coaches. The game requires intuition, instincts, physical and mental prowess mixed with a short-term memory to excel pitch by pitch for nine innings or more.
It is an individual, team sport. Essentially pitcher vs. batter. No one person can take full responsibility for the outcome of the game. The team wins, or the team loses. You may have hit the game-winning home run, but it is impossible for you to play all nine defensive positions in order to keep the other team from scoring.
Overcoming fear and self-doubt, pushing limits, staying present and ultimately consistently getting up and dusting off every time you are knocked down. The lessons learned from the competition, adversity, and teamwork has been and always will be a perfect metaphor for life.
Oh, man do I love this game!
Love the Game. Live the Dream.