Contemporary culture offers many reasons for the discerning geezer to be concerned: politics is toxic, the national deficit is monstrous, and,of course, there’s global warming. We geezers must resist the impulse to play Chicken Little and declare that the sky is at risk. We’ve been around for awhile now, and it behooves us to project a certain calm stoicism. Which is all fine until news comes along to confirm what we’ve been suspecting but denying all along:
Children are not playing baseball anymore.
More precisely, they are playing the game in ever-decreasing numbers relative to other organized games. Over the last ten years, participation in organized baseball by children is down 31%. During that same time period, children participating in soccer have increased over 15%. In community after community, official and unofficial “little league” programs are shrinking or folding. Summer camps are converting their baseball/softball fields to soccer fields.
|The Professor has learned his lessons well|
OK, you might say,,but is this a crisis? The basic, careful and rational response to this question is…..yes, of course it is!!! Baseball is losing popularity precisely for those same qualities which make it such a virtue to the process of growing up. Baseball teaches a young person many lessons, but—like most valuable lessons—they are tough ones. And let’s face it— tough lessons are not exactly in vogue these days. Now, it must be admitted that in our geezer youth we were often guilty of trying to avoid hard lessons in life, but in those distant days, our parents were usually somewhere about to insist that we learn such lessons. Our parents were tough, and they did us a great service by passing that toughness on to us.
But the impulse of many parents today is to exempt their children from the tough lessons of life, for fear that a little self-esteem might be eroded. (Just the New Testament for us, please; don’t bother with that pesky Old Testament with all of its demands and judgements. )
Among the many things we learned through playing baseball, here are a few of the most useful:
THINGS TAKE AS LONG AS THEY TAKE. One of the qualities of baseball that children and parents alike now seem to struggle with is that it takes time—sometimes a lot of time. (Sometimes it takes very little time, of course; it all depends.) But generally you need to plan to invest a good amount of time, and then hope for the best. If people took the same approach with their driving plans, road rage would be reduced by at least 50% . Harried drivers expect traffic to behave in predictable ways, but of course it doesn’t. It’s unpredictable—just like baseball. The right attitude toward this unpredictability can be the difference between life and death on the road.
Or take the notorious DMV. We all deal with bureaucracy, and it drives us crazy. But we know going in that it might take a ridiculous amount of time to renew our driver’s license….but we’re just not sure. Geezers who have grown up with baseball find it much easier to accommodate both the predictable two hour wait in line and the once-in-a-blue-moon occasion in which the person “helping” us actually helps us. Baseball players are at peace with the fact that many things in life take as long as they take.
|...though in his very young years, he threw like a girl.|
On the other hand, another little league phenomenon to observe (and address, if a coach) is the kid who just wants to “get on with it.” This kid just can’t wait to bat again; just can’t wait for the ball to come to him/her in the field. These kids certainly pay attention, but they are impatient with their teammates , they are restless on the bench, will ask fifteen times each game if they can be the pitcher. They want action, they want their action steady, and they want to be the center of that action. This is the youngster who need to learn about waiting. As much as it drives themselves and everyone else around them nuts, it’s good that they’re playing baseball. It slowly, patiently teaches them how to wait.
To be comfortable with waiting, but not so comfortable that when your opportunity is presented you miss it—that is the timeless body/mind wisdom that playing baseball imparts.
LEARN TO ACCEPT HUMILIATION WITHOUT QUITTING THE “GAME.” When you talk to
people who have played baseball while disliking it, again and again you hear about the trauma of getting up to the plate all alone, and having everyone look at you as you face a kid pitcher who for some reason is 4 inches taller than you and has the start of a ten-year-old version of a beard who throws a pitch impressive in both its speed and in its unpredictability of flight path. One stands there—risking life and limb—and inevitably is paid back for this gallant stand by hearing those immortal words (always shouted with what seemed like glee by the umpire) "Stee-rike three...You're Out!"
|....soon, he found his natural position in the field.|
It might seem like a bit of an overstatement to describe this ever-repeating moment as “humiliation,” but that is exactly what it is. That’s why baseball is such a good teacher. It is essentially a series of one-on-one encounters with the ball, each one offering an opportunity to make a mistake. (Does this sound familiar…It sounds a lot like life as I’ve encountered it.) The pitcher can’t get the ball over the plate; if he DOES get it over the plate, the batter can’t hit it. If by some miracle the ball is thrown over the plate and the batter hits it, the fielder will likely miss the ball (or not even realize the ball had been hit—see above.) If the fielder DOES field the ball, they inevitably throw over the head of the first baseman. If the throw DOES reach target, the first baseman will drop the ball (if, in fact, he even realizes that ball is coming toward him.) Is there any other 5-second event in life that offers more opportunity for failure and humiliation?
You get the idea. Unlike a sport like soccer—where you can hide within a gaggle of twenty two manic kids kicking a ball up and down an enormous field (with few—parents or children included—knowing the rules), in baseball you are out there on your own, and everyone knows that three strikes and you're out is how it works. You do your best and you take your lumps; a tough but important lesson.
|The Professor was always envious of |
Dr. Golf's natural skill.
YOGI WAS RIGHT—IT REALLY ISN’T OVER UNTIL IT’S OVER. It’s such a cliché, but really—there just isn’t that much of a point in giving up in life before the game is up. But, alas for the poor souls who have only played basketball or football, that is exactly what is taught by those games (wonderful as they might be in other respects.) There comes a time in every game played under the strict autocracy of the clock when there simply isn’t any chance…the only thing to be gained from further intense effort is an injury.
Not baseball. There is always a chance. This assertion is often greeted with a condescending smile by those who don’t know the game well. Their smile says: “oh, sure TECHNICALLY there can be a comeback, but you know it isn’t going to happen.” To them, I tell the tale of The Curious Incident of Dave Winfield in Omaha. In the final game of the College World Series in 1973, future hall of famer (and all-around great guy—he learned the lessons of baseball very well) David Winfield brought a one-hit, fifteen strikeout game into the ninth inning, pitching for the University of Minnesota against the Trojans of Southern Cal. He had a 7-0 lead. 7 runs! A one-hitter going! Suffice to say, it wasn’t over, and the Golden Gophers did not become NCAA champions. We thought it was over. It wasn’t over.
Until it was over.
And finally, of course:
IT’S ONLY A GAME. It’s a bizarre game, with hard-to-fathom rules—a game that is arbitrary, harsh
and many times unfair. We have to cooperate with teammates, some of whom we may not even like. It can drive you crazy. But in the end, baseball ‘s ability to reflect life is best seen in the example of two children—a boy and a girl—from far upstate New York whom I sat behind during a twi-night double
header when the Twins played the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. The first game started at five o-‘clock…the
second a little before nine. In about
the eighth inning of the close second game, one kid turns to the other and
says: “wouldn’t it be great if it went extra innings?” Even at near-midnight
with a long drive ahead, even with jokers like Bud Selig in charge of the
professional game, even with the indignity of being born in New York and having
to root for the Yankees; despite all the slings and arrows of outrageous
fortune that baseball and life bring our way, we still don’t want the game to
|The four Geezers, and some kid |
we eventually shunned.