It was the 6th inning and our team was down by one. Carter, a third grade boy who had yet to make contact with the ball the entire season, stepped up to plate and gave that ball the greatest wallop seen the entire game, landing his first RBI and tying it up, 1-1. And then everything stood still, including the tall maples that edged the stretching field.
Each time a boy picked up a bat, my stomach squirmed into knots. The boys in the dugout were silent. The air didn’t stir. And the game stood at a stand still for five more tense innings until the opposing team just plain outlasted our group of third and fourth graders who could barely see in the 8:45 pm twilight.
Shoulders slumped, hats askew, they shuffled in for their final coach talk of the season. “You guys worked hard out there,” Coach gently told them. “And you’ve worked hard all season. You are walking off this field with nothing to be ashamed of. Now let’s have those game pants.” Tears streamed down each little round face, their dreams of making the MLB now dashed, as they all changed into shorts and handed over their uniforms.
My boy, Teddy, cried the short ride home, got in his pajamas, and then curled up on the couch in a daze of ceiling staring.
This year wasn’t quite as traumatic of an ending, but when our outfielder was hit in the knee, our best pitcher grew tired and was taken off the mound, and my son was called out on a steal when he knew he was safe, things weren’t looking so good. Tears were already welling and the crowd was restless and unsettled. We knew we might not win this game — the opposing team had a better record and older players, but you can’t help but hope for the highest when you’re the underdog.
However, in what would become the final play, my son Teddy, at first base, reached to get an overthrow and somehow he jammed his finger, falling to the ground in admirable drama. As he lay there, holding the ball with his eyes gripped shut, the other team ran in three players, letting them end the game because of the ten run rule. By the time Teddy picked up his head, the field was clearing. He stood, alone, a look of confusion across his face, until the reality of what had just happened settled in. Dragging his cleats through the dirt with the weight of an entire season on his shoulders, he came off convinced that he had just lost the game for everybody.
A boy from the opposing, winning team who is in Teddy’s class then left his huddle. “Teddy?” he leaned in and hugged my son. Teddy’s gasps came a bit louder and the boy pulled back for a moment and reached into his back pocket. He shuffled his feet a bit and then looked up. In his hand he held his game ball. “Here, I want you to have it.” He thrust it into Teddy’s hands. More sobs emitted from my broken-hearted boy. The two of them walked arm and arm to the car, Teddy sobbing, the other boy just holding on.
In class the next day, my sixth grade students asked how Teddy’s game had gone and I told them I didn’t realize how emotional Little League playoffs were. “Oh yeah,” spoke up the most manly of our 6th graders. “There wasn’t a Little League playoff game that I didn’t cry at. Those are big days, Mrs. Miller. Get ready. You’ll cry every year no matter whether you win or lose.” Other boys’ heads solemnly nodded in agreement, their eyes wide in case I didn’t believe them.
And although I was momentarily shocked by the boys’ honesty, it dawned on me: why shouldn’t they be emotional?
My son has learned how to live through Little League, in part because of the excellent coaches he’s been fortunate to have, and in part because of the very nature of the sport. He has learned manners: wait your turn. Don’t talk when the coach is talking. Carry equipment back to the coach’s truck. Cheer on the last batter. Congratulate the other team.
He has learned how to get up from failure. You might strike out every time, but you might just get up and get the winning run. He has learned how to learn from his mistakes, and he has learned that when you don’t learn from your mistakes you get taken out of the game. In fact, he has learned that mediocrity can be easily replaced.
He has learned that sometimes you have to become a leader when you aren’t expecting it. Other people might not take the game as seriously as you do, and so it’s up to you to rally them in the dugout and focus them on the field. Positivity is a great motivator.
He has learned that sometimes your friends do things you don’t like, but in the end, you have to still be a friend and a teammate — even if they threw a bad game or decided to actually kick the ball to first base.
He has learned to focus and to strategize. You can’t play first base any other way. You can’t be good at anything any other way.
He has learned that while some coaches yell, they can still be good teachers, and that ultimately it is up to you to decide how much you are going to learn.
He has learned that you will only get better if you are willing to practice hard. Without whining.
And he has learned that even if you lose the game, it’s how you handle that loss that counts. You have to be proud of yourself when it’s over. Dignity matters.
But most importantly, in a world where every kid is made to feel like a winner, as a parent, I appreciate that this sport has taught my son that sometimes you are the loser. You’re out when you should have been safe. They ran bases when you were down & injured. That’s just the way it is. Life isn’t always fair, and you aren’t always the best. Don’t argue; don’t doubt yourself; don’t plead for other results. Get up, move on, and don’t make a stink about it.