Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sometimes There is No Bad Guy, Just a Bad Game

The end has come to one of the most rewarding summer activities of my life.  My wife and I undertook the challenge of coaching both my sons as they played pee-wee baseball together this year.  Our top priority from the start was to help every kid on the team gain confidence and learn how to play the game while still having fun.  The winning, we figured, would follow.

In fact, we planned to have the winning follow a long time after the beginning of the season.  Our league placed us in the unique position of making the playoffs no matter what our record.  On top of that, all six teams would be randomly seeded, so we had just as much chance of earning a first round bye as any other team.

So the season rolled on and we piled up losses like Rush Limbaugh stockpiles oxycodone.  I reckoned that we would take winning more seriously once the playoffs arrived and that if we didn’t manage to turn things around then, at least the kids would be used to losing and take it in stride.

What happened in our first playoff game made me feel like a genius.

Pitted against what was arguably the best team in the league, our kids played their hearts out and won by the score of 6-2.  It was one of those moments where all the planning and strategic development you make over the course of months pays off just as you hoped it would.  They come so rarely.

After the game, I looked at all the happy little faces in their dirty little uniforms.  Their joy was apparent and I wished I could explain the joy I felt at the same time.  It was the joy that only a parent who was treated like he had no idea what he was talking about and was proven right in the end could understand.  I was confident that one day, when they had children of their own, they would experience it themselves and know true joy.

But baseball requires a short memory and two days later, we were facing another team in another playoff game.  The winner would move on to the championship, the loser would end their season.

Call it nerves.  Call it overconfidence.  Call it a post-victory let down.  Whatever you call it, the outcome was far different that day.  We just didn’t have it.

But losing the game is not the thing that will stick with me about our season’s final battle.  What will haunt me is a decision I made during the contest.  It was a decision similar to ones I had made all year and which had paid off, but on this day it backfired.

One of our better yet still developing pitchers took the mound.  We had the lead at the time.  Six batters into his inning, we no longer had the lead.  I watched as the young hurler began to cry.  My wife and I both went out to talk to him and I tried my best to instill confidence in him.  It was a pep talk I was certain would click as it had in the past.  But it didn’t.  The pressure was too great and after another mound visit, it was clear that one of our young athletes had gone through too much.

I hadn’t pulled a pitcher in the middle of an inning all year.  In fact, after a tough inning, I usually sent that same kid back out to the mound to prove to himself (as he usually did) that it wasn’t the end of the world and he could still pitch fine.  Yet here I was, patting him on the back and leading him to the dugout as one of his peers took the mound.  I knew he was panicked and stricken with grief, feeling as if he had failed his team and I was sick to my stomach, feeling as if I had failed him.  I hoped to build him up and ended up digging him in deeper.

Even now, several days and many repeated it’s-just-a-games later, it still stings.  I wonder to myself, what if I had pulled him at the first sign of stress?  What if my confidence in him that he could overcome the loaded bases and the pressure only piled more pressure on top of him?  I don’t care an ounce about the loss, but I worry about that eight-year-old boy’s psyche.  I fear that I put him through something I could have saved him from.

Now, all I can do is hope.  I hope that he goes on to realize that losing wasn’t the end of the world.  I hope he continues to pitch with confidence.  I hope he goes on to win a championship at some point during his baseball career, because he deserves one.  I hope he goes on to see that my decision that day was based on trust and belief in his abilities.

Hopefully he remembers what I said to all the boys at the end of the game as I thanked them for a memorable season.  Hopefully, he believed me when I said I was proud of them and I loved every minute of watching them play.

Most of all, I hope he gets out there again and plays ball.

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