I loved baseball as a kid. Loved it. Loved watching it, listening to it on the radio, playing it, reading about it. Before there were girls, there was baseball. After girls, there was still baseball.
I’ve been watching youth baseball since 1998 when my first son started playing t-ball. Two more sons followed. My middle son has continued to high school and Summer travel teams. I don’t know how many games I’ve seen, but it’s somewhere north of 1000. My youngest, 10 years old at this writing, is just getting cranked up in the baseball world. This year alone–among high school, Little League, all-stars and American Legion–I’ll probably watch over 100 games.
Why do I write this? Because I’ve learned a few things. Some by watching others, some by my own stumbles. I’ve always thought the best way to learn is through the mistakes of others, but life isn’t always that tidy.
I played baseball but not particularly well. I was fast, but that’s about it. I also had a stubborn unwillingness to work hard or take instruction. Couple that with limited natural ability, and athletic success was not within my grasp. One day I might have kids. Boys even. They would play. I did have boys, three of them.
Like a lot of first loves, my baseball love faded over time but never died out. I wanted my boys to play. I wanted them to be good. I wanted them to love it. Baseball rattles, tiny uniforms and little bats were the baby gear I favored. I wanted my boys to play baseball–and any other sport they wanted to try. Sports build character. Teaches life lessons. I found out that all that is true, but I’m the one who may have learned the most.
My oldest son didn’t love baseball. He liked it. When he played t-ball, he figured out that if you threw the ball from the outfield, play would stop. So, he’d picked the ball up and toss it maybe 3 feet. Dead ball! It was one of many early signs that he was smarter than we were. But, he liked playing and seemed to have fun in his distinctive low-key style.
I knew early on that my oldest son wasn’t going to be a ballplayer forever. Now, I suppose the dramatic story would be that I struggled with this and it tortured me. It didn’t, but he taught me. He was supposed to love it, because I did. But, he didn’t. Now, I don’t think he played in order to please me. It’s just something he did, like going to school.
He taught me that my kids can find their own way without me mapping out their every step. He found his interests without much help from me. No, it wasn’t baseball, although he played until he was 15. I enjoyed it, and I think he did, too. But the things he loved were different. He could draw. He loved to read. He taught himself to play the piano (I certainly was no help with that). He loves math. Again, I’m pretty useless with that, too. He taught me what my Dad told me long ago about my kids: “Find out what they like and learn to like it, too.”
In his last season of baseball, my oldest was used mostly as a pinchrunner. I didn’t like that one bit. I suspect he didn’t, either. He showed up to every practice, every game and rarely complained. He pinch ran, stole bases and scored runs. For the first time, I admired one of my children. He showed up and did his job.
My second–and middle son–was different. He loved baseball. He made me throw him grounders when he was 3 years old until my arm ached. He made up a game called “cool scenes,” which required me to give him increasingly difficult plays to make. He wanted to be catcher–the BEST catcher. So, we worked on it. He put on full catcher’s gear and I would bounce baseballs to him. Oh, yeah, he kept his hands behind his back and stopped them with his body. And he was 6 years old. He became a helluva catcher, starting as an 8 year old catching 12 year old Little Leaguers. When he was 12, he was a one man wrecking crew.
If throwing baseballs at a six year old sounds extreme, it is. It’s also extreme to tell a 5 year old before his games: “Remember: You’re the best there is. Prove it. Kick their butts!” I did that, too. He ate it up and believed it. He also played like it. I was from the Marv Marinovich School of Parenting.
With me, there was a problem with this approach. It’s hard to reign it in. If you do that before the game and after the game, it’s hard not to demand it during the game. That’s problematic. I would yell. I would rage. I would want to strangle coaches, parents and opposing players. In short order, I started to become Monster Dad.
You’ve seen this guy. He yells. He paces. His face is red. He barks instructions or criticism between each pitch. His kid’s success is his success. Failure is an indictment of his parenting and, indeed, worth as human being.
I will say one thing for Monster Dad: This approach can be quite effective. Sadly, it’s downside is the creation of Monster Kid. At least–to some extent–that’s what I got. My son would fume, throw things and curse. Or he would exalt in his accomplishments far beyond their real worth. In other words, he acted just like I did. Of course, I attributed none of this to me. It was just his personality.
So, I had this kid who played ball the way I always wanted to. Hit the snot out of the ball; strong arm; fast; played all out. He also preened at home plate after home runs; threw helmets; and punched walls. Hmmm. How do I get him to stop this? What will people think of me?
Well, in my case, I had to stop my behavior first. And I did. I shut my mouth. I stopped blowing up every good game into the greatest event I ever witnessed. I stopped critiquing his every move. Turns out that some of it was his personality, but a big part of it was mine. I had to change before he did. I’m now the dad you rarely hear at the games and never hear yelling AT his kid. If he has behavior issues (which is rare now), his coach will handle it on the field. My job is after the game–in the car or at home. I’m not perfect, either. He could tell you that. I still have my flare ups, too, but all in all I keep my mouth shut.
What have I gotten in return? A kid who matured into a young man. He’s still too demanding of himself but goes about his business on the field. Oh, occasionally, I’ll hear a helmet placed down none-too-gently or hear him muttering expletives on his way back to the dugout. That’s okay. Striking out is not the same as getting a hit. I’ve matured along with him, and we both enjoy the experience. The only time he’ll ever get criticized by me is if I see behavior that has no place on the field. Then, he’ll hear about it from me, but it will be between us. He still wants to be the best and works hard to be just that. He’s more intense than I’ve ever dreamed of being. I admire that.
My youngest found his own way. He is almost 7 years younger than my middle one. He watched his brothers play. He started swinging anything that looked like a bat from the time he could stand up. Left handed, too. Sweet swinging. He’d throw anything that resembled a ball.
My youngest never met Monster Dad. I just let him play. He’s good, too. Same physical attributes as his brother but little of the attitude. He’s egocentric, but all decent ballplayers are. When he steps on the field, he believes he’s the best player. He has fun, smiles a lot and rarely hears his Dad’s voice during games. He has his moments. We’ve had tears and tantrums, but very rarely. He plays hard and always has fun. I admire that, too.
I used to attribute these differences among my kids to their personalities–which are very different, by the way. That was until I took a look at my own actions. Each child reflects–to at least some extent–my attitude toward him. I learned something from each of them. I can’t take credit for their athletic ability, though I’d like to do so. My influence came through how I dealt with each of them. While I was dealing with them, they were teaching me.
I’ve seen towering home runs and lock down pitching. Slick fielding and laser-like throws. I remember my 10 year old coming in to pitch against the best team in his league and striking out the side on 10 pitches. And an 8 year old catching a cut off in the outfield, spinning and nailing a runner at the plate. There have been many, many others. These are easy.
Now, for the hard parts. Strikeouts, game-killing errors, injuries, pitching meltdowns and countless others. Hey, you gotta be there for those, too. How about your kid dropping the F Bomb on his way to the dugout? That’s happened. Ejected from a game? Been there. Benched for throwing a fit? Yep. We’ve learned to say: “Hey, that sucks, but it’s over. Time to move on.” No one enjoys these moments, but they happen. Suck it up.
It took me awhile to figure out something and apply it to my kids. I don’t like being yelled at. Ever. For any reason. If you yell, I don’t listen. I just want to yell back. It’s no surprise that my kids are pretty much the same way. Honestly, aren’t most people? I see the parents who yell and rage at their kids. If you do that, take a look at your kid after you do it. You won’t see a look of affection, I’ll guarantee that.
The highs are never as high as I think they are nor are the lows that bad. I learned that watching my kids play baseball. A clutch hit is great, but it doesn’t cure cancer. A critical error is bad, but we still have everything we had before. Relax. Enjoy. It’s just a game. So is life.
What Have I Learned?
Left on their own, kids will play ball and have fun. Do you learn anything else? Do sports really build character? Maybe. Oh, there are kids from such bad backgrounds that any type of structure probably helps, but there aren’t a lot of those. The older they get, the more they see that working hard and being good at what you do pay dividends. There are certainly benefits to that, but the sports world is not the exclusive proving ground for those lessons.
Everything isn’t a matter of life and death. My kids aren’t the center of the universe. I go to games to watch my kids. Other parents show up to watch theirs. If my kid has a bad game, I’m no better or worse parent than I was when the game started. Simply put, we’re not all that important. I’ve never seen a really good athlete who wasn’t a bit of a narcissist. Would a star player really be okay with going hitless just because his team won? Nope. It’s just not reality. Youth sports feeds this. People slap your kid on the back and tell him he’s great. You do, too. That’s why some of those bad moments are okay. A little ego deflation never hurts
So, my kids have learned a few things, but the real student has been me. Most of my life, I have been relentlessly critical of myself. In my mind, a good day was fluke, and bad day would last forever. No matter well I did something, it could always have been better. The world, it seemed to me, was focused on what I was doing. One slip up, and failure was sure to follow.
Turns out that I was wrong about all that. If you strikeout, you get to bat again. If you lose, you can play again. Preaching to my kids to let things go and play the next game has had a positive impact on me, if not them. I can’t tell someone something over and over without applying it to myself. Bad days, like bad games, don’t last forever. There’s a next day, just like there’s a next at bat–even a next pitch.
In my case being a parent has built my character. Taught me discipline. Taught me patience, understanding, even empathy. While I was trying to teach my kids these valuable life lessons, I was the one learning. They were clean slates. They didn’t have a lifetime of bad habits and ego-centric behavior to deal with. I did.
So, here it is–what I’ve learned:
- Play to your strengths and don’t let anyone else tell you what those strengths are.
- Whatever your role, go hard.
- There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the best if you follow the first two rules.
- While you’re following the first three rules, have fun.
If I do these everyday, they’re all good days. Thanks, boys. Well, I’m done. I have to pack for a trip to Georgia–baseball tournament this weekend.