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Thursday, June 17, 2004

What baseball teaches kids

Ted Williams said hitting a baseball was "the hardest thing to do in sports . . . A round ball, a round bat, curves, sliders, knuckleballs, upside down and a ball coming in at 90 to 100 miles an hour, it's a pretty lethal thing."
Which is, of course, why 3 of 10 is great, and 0 for 21 is bad under all circumstances. That's the way my son's AAU team started out in the state tournament last weekend: That's right - they were no-hit twice.
They lost, of course, both times; the first game was an error-filled mess when they just seemed to have shown up to see each other. The second, though, against a very good team was harder to watch. His team's pitchers gave up just two hits, but the team lost 6-0, on a few untimely errors. Next game, they hit but not enough and lost 6-2. They finally got it together on Sunday, playing just their fourth game of the summer, and won 6-3 and stayed in the tournament.
So, what's the point?
That baseball is a hard game to play, but is also a paradox: it is a team game where success depends entirely on individual performances at critical times, and every pitch is a critical time. Errors can wipe out hits, hits can wipe out errors, good pitching does not always win, bad pitching almost always loses. And everyone depends on everyone else doing individual, skill-based things right all the time.
To me, it's different from basketball or football, soccer or lacrosse, where team success depends on a total team performance all the time. Individual skills count, but we have seen in football and now in basketball that good teams win against even better talent. The motto of my son's AAU program (and this is not unique) is: "Talent wins games--teamwork wins championships."
In baseball, for most of the game, one person -- the pitcher, who has a special talent -- has the ball and gives it up, perhaps 120 times, and hopes that in the times that the batter touches it - more than 3 out of 10 times, of course - the other eight players do everything right. It is often the pitcher's fault, though, when the batter gets on base, and the pitcher alone never wins a game although the pitcher can and does lose games all by himself.
For my son, the pleasures of baseball seem to lie in the opportunities for success and the sharing of the struggle against serious odds to succeed. When he does poorly, he is learning -- and this is the most rewarding part of this game, for me -- not to lose his confidence at the same time, not to give up after striking out or flying out or making a mental error. He is learning not to judge or criticize or hold responsible his teammates because everything they do poorly, he has done or will do again -- every physical or mental mistake is a shared experience. He is learning to analyze what he did right, and wrong, more dispassionately; he is learning to remove his performance from his identity. He is also beginning to understand just how hard it is to succeed, what kind of work it takes, where he has to improve and where he has to persevere, and, for now, he is willing to do whatever it takes (although running is still an issue). And he is learning that confidence comes from success, but lasts through failure.
With 3 for 10 defining success in one phase of the game, the difficulty of baseball has not broken him or his friends, and there are no statistics that can measure how important this will be in the long run, outside the lines, where success can be just as hard.
There is nothing like sports to temper character and there is nothing like baseball, in my opinion, to give you perspective. He will need both as he grows up.
Now, if only I had the same perspective watching the games . . . but that is another story.
Tim