It had been a rough day. I was buried in paperwork at the office, two of my children were sick, and the rain had been drizzling since morning. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the highlight of my day had been paying the orthodontist bill. After I left work, and picked up my 11-year-old son Tarcisius (or as he is simply nicknamed, “T”) to drive him to his baseball game, there was no reason to think that this was going to be a special day.
After I parked the car, T and I walked to the dugout together, and we noticed that the sun had decided to make an appearance for the first time that day. Since we were late, T was not in the starting lineup, so I grabbed a bucket of baseballs and gave him some soft-toss pitches between innings. In the third or fourth inning, after two batters had reached base, T was put into the lineup, and he stepped into the batter’s box.
Now, to visualize this story properly, you have to understand that T has been blessed with size. When he used to play “Tee-Ball” (a game he thought was named for him), he seemed like a giant compared to the other boys. Though he just celebrated his eleventh birthday, he stands about five feet, four inches tall. And if it’s possible to be muscular at 11-years-old, T is that. This is slightly ironic, and here’s why. When he was a baby, we got the standard, “What a handsome baby” comments, complete with smiles, but then a funny thing happened. People would ask his name, and Lisa and I told them: “Tarcisius.” The smiles would leave people’s faces, they would give their heads a quarter turn, don a look of disbelief, and then inform us: “You know, people are going to make fun of him with that name. They’re going to call him ‘Sissy.’” I think that T’s size is God’s little joke to would-be name callers.
As T stepped into the batter’s box, he tapped the plate with his bat, dug in his cleats, and waited for the pitch. Three seconds later, as the centerfielder looked up and saw the baseball going over his head, he raced back to the wall and grabbed it on the warning track. When the ball finally returned to the infield, T was standing on second base, looking over at his teammates and smiling.
This entire process took about 12 seconds, and yet, for that moment in time, all was right with the world. This wasn’t the first time T got a hit, and it wasn’t even the first time that T hit a 2-RBI double. But in baseball, these moments are always special.
I’ve never been comfortable comparing baseball to any other sport. In my mind, it’s not fair to the other sports. It’s not that football and soccer don’t require intense training or athleticism. It’s just that baseball transcends its genre. Let me explain.
First and foremost, the game of baseball is almost impossibly beautiful. Take the case of a home run. Every home run is a simultaneous phenomenon of physics, psychology, and athleticism. The next time you yawn about a home run, consider how it occurs. Not only is a typical ball thrown at a velocity of 90-100 miles per hour, but the pitcher is trying to do everything he can to make the ball take an irregular flight on the way to the plate. The batter, concentrating on a white ball that is less than 3 inches in diameter, must decide whether to hit the ball in about one-fifth of a second with a bat that is only about 2½ inches thick.
Not only must he hit the ball, but he should hit the center of the ball. Not only does he have to hit the ball with the bat, but he must hit the ball with the sweet spot of the bat, which is about three inches in size. The hitter must also try to block out the idea that the baseball might hit him in the leg, the shoulder, or the head, and end his career. If he hits the ball well, a five-ounce ball will travel more than 380 feet. It is ridiculous to expect players to hit home runs, and yet they do.
But it’s not just the game itself that is magnificent; it is what the game can do for players. Someone once observed that “the baseball diamond defines who we are,” meaning that the way we behave on a baseball field tells us a lot about ourselves, some good and some bad. The game magnifies the player’s virtues and vices, and allows them to work on both. Baseball teaches players how to deal with failure, because there’s a lot of it, even for great players. Sometimes strikeouts are remembered more than hits. Otherwise-successful careers can even be defined by failures. Defensive errors are not just criticized, but are put on the scoreboard. No other major sport does this.
Perfection is expected.
And even after having their mistakes discussed by thousands, if not millions, of people, baseball players must persevere. They must develop a positive attitude despite all the negativity. They must not only learn to deal with adversity—they must learn to thrive on adversity. Maybe the best example of this was Babe Ruth’s affirmation: “Every strikeout gets me closer to my next home run.” Good baseball players define perseverance.
In order to improve, a player must have the humility to admit even the slightest of imperfections, and then correct it. He must seek the help of others to improve—batting coaches, managers, and fellow players. In other walks of life, once a certain level of greatness has been achieved, people often slouch into a life of contentment. Baseball players don’t. They can’t, because there is always someone ready to take their place.
When I coached baseball at Christendom College, I used to tell my players that baseball didn’t grant them the luxury of harping on past mistakes. When you fall, you must pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back in the box. I developed a team motto for them, which has become a motto for myself and my family: “Remember your mistakes long enough to learn from them—and then forget them.” What better analogy is there to living the Catholic Faith?
You train very hard for something—a chance—only to fail. But baseball teaches another valuable lesson: that failure is transitory. Baseball teaches you that you can be down two strikes, but you’re not out. You could have struck out three times one night, but redemption lies in your fourth time at bat. And the persistent belief that success will follow failure is what makes champions. That is also the mentality of a Christian.
Baseball has many lessons to teach, and you don’t have to make it to the major leagues to discover them. Maybe the lesson it has to teach fathers is that there is a place in the world for games between fathers and sons. I think most of us would love to go back in time and play catch with our own dads. While we can’t do that, we do have the opportunity to make a memory today with our own children. As home schooling fathers, a lot of our time that is spent with our children is devoted to math lessons, spelling quizzes, and book reports. This summer, let’s try to find some time to discover the fun part of learning; to learn about the game of baseball together, and for fathers and sons to get to know one another better in the process.
As Tarcisius and I walked back to the car, I realized that he had taught me a valuable lesson too. He reminded me what it was like to be eleven years old again.
And that’s a pretty good thing.