Baseball and Better Days

The ball rolls slowly to the left of the mound.
 
The pitcher lunges toward it, gracefully scooping it off of the ground. He stands up and throws it perfectly in my direction as I wait for it at first base. I focus on the ball and nothing else, knowing that if I catch it we will beat the unbeatable team. All I have to do is catch it and the game will be over. That’s all.
Just catch the ball, Matt, just catch the stupid ball.

To be honest, I never derived a great deal of joy from playing little league baseball.  I loved t-ball, though.  It was an easy sport to love.  The ball was placed upon the tee by the umpire and just sat there, waiting patiently for the next pummeling from some kid who barely knew how to tie his own shoes.  Talent was not necessary and, in most cases, not present even in the smallest of quantities.

There were also very few expectations in t-ball.  The first year, my coaches were ecstatic when all of us  on the “Livewires” team learned that third base was not the first base we should run toward after hitting the ball. And if any of us actually caught a ball in the air they behaved as though they just found out their children could poop gold. 

We weren’t very good and we didn’t care at all.  The outfielders just wanted to catch the next butterfly and most of the infielders were pre-occupied with trying to spell their names in the dirt.  After each game, we got a free drink from the concession stand.  Most of us chose the “suicide”–an unholy concoction created by combining all available soda types into one indescribably horrendous drink.  I am still baffled by the popularity of it to this very day.

That second year of t-ball went much better.  The coaches found out I could catch just about any ball thrown in my direction, so they placed me at first base.  It also helped that I was about a half-a-foot taller than the next tallest kid.  Freakishly big may have been the best way to describe how I looked compared to most of my teammates. 

I enjoyed playing first base and because I was so tall, very few balls got past me.  If the ball was thrown  outside, I could reach out and catch it.  If it was thrown too high, I could reach up and catch it.  If it was thrown too short, I could reach down and scoop it up.

The Livewires improvement was dramatic.  We improved so much that we were the Holston-Chilhowee T-ball Champions that year.  It was great to be a part of a championship team, even if it was just t-ball.

And then it got quite a bit more difficult.

Back then, there was no such thing as “coach-pitch.”  Once you graduated from t-ball, you moved up into a league where kids who were just a couple of years removed from learning to control their bladders were learning how to control a baseball that they threw as hard as they possibly could. 

My rear-end seemed to be a baseball magnet that first year.  Every time I got hit, my coaches would run out to check on me.  They acted like they really cared whether I was hurt or not, but I secretly suspected they were just glad that I got a free ticket to first base.

While hitting a ball in motion was not a strength, catching still came easy for me.  First base was my home when my team was in the field.  Defensively, I rarely ever let my teammates down. 

I don’t remember the name of the team that I was on, but I do remember that we weren’t very good.   But being on a sub-par team in little league baseball was different than being on a sub-par team in t-ball.  The coaches seemed to care a lot more, the parents seemed to fuss a lot more, and the players wanted to win.  Catching butterflies and drinking suicides didn’t diminish the aggravation of losing on a regular basis. 

We were hopeful, though, of better things to come.  Especially those of us who played t-ball together.  If the Livewires could go from worst to first in one season, surely our baseball team could do the same.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.

Sure, we improved some.  Just not enough.  It seemed like we all became better fielders, but very few of us became better hitters.  We won a few and lost more, often by the slightest of margins.  At least I got to stay involved in the action by keeping my job at first base. 

My misery in losing was compounded by the fact that Chad, my best elementary school friend and seat-mate on the school bus, was on the best team in our league.  The day after the games were played were the worst.  He would tell me how many hits he had and how badly they had beaten the other team and I would tell him that we had lost and then try to change the subject to how Inspector Gadget managed to fit all of those awesome gadgets into such a little hat.  And how did a moron like him make it to the level of Inspector even with the help of Penny and Brain, anyway? 

When we won, it was easier to talk about the games.  Of course, he still out-did me even on those days since his team always won more handily than ours did. 

After trudging through another less than fun losing season, we finally made it to the last game.  It was against Chad’s team.  They had already beaten us badly once that year.  In fact, they had not lost a game and were assured of winning the championship whether they beat us or not.  School was already out for the year, so I didn’t have to talk to Chad about it.  Even though Chad was a good friend, I wanted to ruin his team’s perfect season.

As I arrived at the ballfield and saw my teammates, I was pretty sure that we were going to get slaughtered.  I don’t think that I have ever seen a group of 9 & 10 year-olds look so downtrodden.  Then our coaches got to us.  I guess they saw the same dejected look in our eyes that I did.  Suddenly they all became little league versions of Vince Lombardi, motivating us boys with passion never before seen on the hallowed fields of Holston-Chilhowee.

OK, so I may be overstating it a bit.  But they did speak to us with purpose, reminding us that any team can beat any other team on any given day.  Sure, we had lost to them badly earlier in the year and hadn’t won many games, but this was a brand-new ballgame with a brand-new chance to do something special.  We could beat the team that no one else could beat.

I don’t remember the specifics of most of the game, but I do remember a lot of shouting.  The coaches were really into the game and the parents acted like blood-thirsty zombies.  My teammates and I played with more emotion than I had seen in all of the other games combine.  Chad’s team didn’t start out as focused as we did and got behind early before fighting back.

Miraculously, we made it to the bottom half of the last inning clinging to a one-run lead.  We were three outs away from victory and I could taste it.  All of the parents were standing and cheering and the coaches of both teams had bulging veins in their necks.

We manage to get two outs and they manage to get runners on second and third base.  A hit would mean that one and possibly two runs would score which would either mean a tie or victory for Chad’s team.  I figure that anywhere the ball is hit, the players on base will be running.

It is Chad’s turn to bat.  He isn’t normally a power-hitter, but he usually makes it on base.  My body becomes tense as I stand near first base.  If he hits it in the infield, I have to get to the base and make the catch in order to preserve our unforeseen victory.

The pitcher hurls the ball toward home-plate.  Chad swings his bat with all of his might and makes contact with the ball.  I quickly head toward first base.

 

 

 The ball rolls slowly to the left of the mound. 

 

The pitcher lunges toward it, gracefully scooping it off of the ground as the runners on second and third take off at full speed.  He stands up and throws it perfectly in my direction as I wait for it at first base. I focus on the ball and nothing else, knowing that if I catch it we will beat the unbeatable team. All I have to do is catch it and the game will be over. That’s all.

Just catch the ball, Matt, just catch the stupid ball. 

The ball speeds toward me and I have my glove in the correct position to make a clean catch.  Chad is fast and I can hear him approaching, but the ball will get to me before he does. 

Everything seems to slow down at the ball makes it to my glove.  But before I can close my glove and make the catch, the ball pops out and drops to the ground.

Chad makes it safely to first base and the lead runner has already crossed the plate.  I look and see that the runner that started at second base has rounded third and is heading toward home.  I pick up the ball and throw it toward home, only it’s a bad throw.

The runner slides safely into home plate and their team erupts with joy. 

Chad’s team has won and our team has lost.

And it was all my fault.  If only I had caught the stupid ball.  It was a play that I had made over and over again all season long and I had failed to execute it on the last play of the last game of the year against the team that I wanted to beat more than any other.

Tears started to well up in my eyes as I walked toward the dug-out.  No one said a word to me; not the coaches, not the players, not any of the parents.  I was in my own personal solitary confinement.  The coaches said a few things to the team about a tournament that we were going to play the next week, but I wasn’t listening.  It didn’t matter.  I had screwed up.  I was a failure. 

My dad tried to make it over to me to console me, to tell me that it was going to be all right.  But I didn’t let him.  I walked ahead of him and my mom up the hill to the car.  I opened the door of his old Ford Grenada and flooped onto the old, red vinyl seat.

And I sobbed.  Uncontrollably and unashamedly. 

My parents tried to encourage me.  They told me it was just one play and that I would get more chances in the future if I just kept my head up and kept trying.  They said that games aren’t lost on just one play.  They said that my team would need me and support me in the upcoming tournament. 

I believed them a little until I arrived at our first game of the tournament.  My coach told me that I would be playing left field instead of first base. 

I was devastated.  My parents had told me that my coaches wouldn’t blame me for losing the game, but with that one decision I found out that they did blame me.

We lost both of the games that we played in the tournament. 

I never played organized baseball again. 

My dad tried to encourage me to try again next year.  He said that I would get better and enjoy it more.  He said that every athlete has setbacks, but that I should look at it as an opportunity to improve and  prove people wrong.  I told him that I had made my decision and that I never wanted to talk about it again. 

So we didn’t. 

But there have been times when I look back on it and think that he was probably right.  If I had stuck with it, maybe I would have improved greatly.  Maybe I would have proven my coaches wrong and enjoyed the ongoing camraderie of being on a team. 

I really regret not trying again the next year.  If only I had listened to my father.

I try to do a better job now of listening to my Heavenly Father.

There have been times I have failed and felt like a failure.  There have been times that I wanted to quit.  There have been times when the mistakes have piled up and I have felt like Iwas to blame for all of my families problems.

When God felt so far away, I could still hear His voice. 

 He encouraged me not to quit.  He reminded me of better days to come.  He spoke light into my darkness.

He gave me the ability to hear His voice above all of the others. 

He can do the same for you.

Maybe a mistake on your part has caused a loss for you and your family.  It’s possible that at this very moment you consider giving up to be an option.  It could be that your boss is blaming you or your spouse is blaming you or your kids are blaming you.  Maybe you deserve some of the blame.

Take a deep breath and listen.  Do you hear it? 

The voice of the One who holds all things in His hands is calling out to you.  Telling you to trust Him, to try again, to never give up.

The mistakes that we make in life are more serious than the one that I made on the baseball field that night so many nights ago.  But the results are often the same.  Maybe you are  sobbing on the inside.  Maybe you are sobbing on the outside.

Either way, your Father wants you to hear his voice.  You need to hear his voice. 

We are not alone in our manifold miseries.  God is with us.  If we listen to His voice above all of the others, there are days filled with sunshine ahead.

Be still and know that He is God.  Be calm and focus on His voice.

We may have lost badly during parts of our lives, but there are victories ahead if we only listen to the encouraging words of our Father.

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