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Sunday, April 01, 2007


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I've written several comments and seem unable to articulate how this makes me feel. This will have to do. I have both deep appreciation and utter disdain for the mythology of organized sports.

Team sports, even now, are mostly a guy thing and they certainly were sort of an afterthought for girls before Title 9. Although my parents encouraged me and trucked me around to lessons and practices, I never really excelled at either softball or basketball. I was not without athletic talent, but it just never gelled. Not enough drive, not enough natural gifts, surely, but also,in my mind, not enough coaching.

My dad devoted time to teaching basic skills, but as I joined teams as an average, (or not even) player, I rarely got better.
The coaches' energy often went into teaching the stars to win, instead of teaching the rest of us to play. Now, I clearly understand that my own rebellious (dare I say contrary) nature was a factor. I also know that winning is the goal and no one, even the benchwarmers, likes to lose. But isn't it about playing the game, too?

As an adult, I saw similar situations. I'm talking rec leagues here, where the coach's job wasn't exactly at stake. And when it is, at the high school level, ugh.

I have watched coaches inspire my sons and seen others that modeled behaviors contrary to my own values. In our culture, there's not much about sports that hasn't been explored.

How cool, though, as this post shows, that sometimes it's not about the lessons sports offers, it's about the things we choose to take away for ourselves.


I played LL for only one year. My team, the Pirates(!), took the city championship as part of an undefeated season (my parents still have the trophy at their house). I learned to quit while on top.

But I can identify with the Sloopage on one point, which is that it is possible to learn something rather life-altering in these crazy sports that likely would not have been said to me in any other situation, or taken as seriously by me in any other context. If sports is the greatest source of cliches in culture, then what keeps those cliches active is that, in the moment itself and in the player's own mind, they never seem as such.

The first time I was at the plate in a real, fast-pitch game, I struck out. This was a shock to me, as I had been a very good hitter in practice. At the plate, however, on opening day, I swung at three straight balls that were so wildly over my head that I would have needed a step-ladder to jump off of in order to come close to hitting them. Three pitches in a row, each unhittable, and I swung at them like a grandfather trying to get a frisbee out of a tree with a rake.

I couldn't believe it. I struck out, and in an embarrassing way. Worse, I knew that kid was a lousy pitcher, but I'd just showed I was a lousier hitter. The ump must have seen the look on my face, as he leaned over -- after barking "Yer out!" -- and said, "You don't have to swing at them all, son."

Sometimes advice just makes sense the moment you hear it. And it isn't just that it applies to a particular task, but that it seems as though it is the missing gear in an elaborate clockwork. It's a gift; not just because it helps you to do something better, but because it breaks through a stubbornness in your own mind and creates an instant kinship and calm. The moment he said that, everything clicked. I still swung at some bad pitches, but not at all of them. And I found my swing and had a really good season. It's advice that I hold valuable still today.

The end of that miracle season started me on a better path. I remember it vividly, like a movie. In the last inning of the championship game, I was batter up. We were down one run, and I had a teammate on 2nd. This is the situation every ballplayer prays for. My side was aching, and a little blood had seeped through my uniform (the result of an old wound inflicted by an insane fan from my dark, naive past). "The Judge" was squinting at me through the blinds of his owner's box. He expected me to fail, but did not count on the fact that some ballplayers do indeed learn from their mistakes. I had worked so hard to get to this moment, after all those years, sacrificing even my beloved, hand-made bat along the way. The pitcher was a true goliath, strangely recognizable to me as a former version of myself. Was he pitching baseballs, or hurling lightening? I dug deep as he started his motion, splitting my sides but praying not to split the bat, and hit his next pitch so squarely that the crack of wood against leather may as well have signaled war. Time slowed down. The ball, impervious to gravity's claim, soared into the lights atop the stands. Why the county electrician had decided to put all those lights on a single circuit, I'll never know, but the explosion caused by each light row shorting-out in turn as I jogged the bases made it seem as though the stars themselves were falling from the night sky onto my shoulders.

The season was over; we were champions. I quit baseball for good. I moved back to my parents' old farm, where I grew wheat and raised Glenn Close's kid.

We ate a lot of boiled rabbit.

That's what Little League Baseball did for me.


Personally, I hope that in my dottage I will live near a recreation center, because I will sit and watch kids play ball and that will be that.

When kids play ball, anything can happen, along with the obvious "Ah-ha!" moments. You really see this when you follow a team through multiple seasons and watch various kids "get it" at different points, but you can also see little things click just by going to random games.

I'd much rather watch youth baseball -- and I mean elementary school age -- than MLB. Youth basketball is -- unfortunately -- confined to really crappy gyms and isn't as much fun to watch. But I would watch youth football any Wednesday night (football has a weekly progression here: Tuesdays are for kids below 7th grade; Wednesdays are for middle school varsity and JV; on Thursday nights the high school B-team and JV squads mix it up; Friday is the varsity; Saturday college, and Sunday, Bears).

Professional sports has Cinderella stories, but no pro team has ever gone winless in the regular season and then won the post-season tournament to take the town title. The Cairo Middle School Comets varsity team did that in 2003. I fully intend to write a novel about that season and those kids, because they were amazing.

And they didn't even have a shoe contract.


very nicely written, boss! and why i continue to love you, abet from afar - you know that you can never know exactly when, where or how consciousness will slip into hyperdrive and leave you deposited somewhere unimaginable and inspiring.

steve   lancaster

my son forrest played west asheville little leauge I thought he played pretty good IF anyone remembers add a comment HE had some of the best coaches there were coach dave was one of the top coaches

Jeff Mcwhirt

Hey Steve lancaster i played west asheville baseball to i'm 26 now but i remember your son forrest he was a good ball player i helped mark parton coach forrest and the other kids some how is forrest doing.Well if you get this tell forrest i said hello.

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