It seems appropriate to me that a website about FAILURE should have a piece about baseball. I mean, baseball is the perfect metaphor for failure, right? Even if you never watch sports, even if you never have heard of Ripken, Mantle, or Aaron, even if you can’t tell the difference between a balk or a walk––even if you know none of these, just about everyone knows what a strike out is. Just about everyone has seen Charlie Brown get his socks blown off after he pitches the ball. Baseball is the essence of failure. There is a team element of failure. As fans we relate to “lovable loser” teams as if their struggle were our own society’s struggle. Failure of a team envelopes a fanbase in its own notion of collective failure. The team’s loss helps soothe our real-life failures—if our heroes fail, then our own failures feel more human, more acceptable somehow. Going further, there is an even more poignant mono-á-mono element to baseball’s failures. When a pitcher faces down a batter in a critical situation with the game on the line, there will always be a winner and a loser, a hero and a failure. A strike out means a pitcher gets hoisted onto the shoulders of jubilant teammates; the batter walks back to the dugout completely alone despite being amidst forty thousand ecstatic human beings. Or reverse the result. The batter hitting the game winning home run means the hoisted player and the sad solitary figure pull a double switch (that’s a baseball term…you know what, never mind). So yeah, baseball. Failure. But the story I intend to share here is probably not what you’d expect. It’s actually a story about my son’s first year at organized T-ball.
Now a little background for those unfamiliar: T-ball is named as such because the young participants hit a regulation baseball off of a tee. I say young participants because, well, to call them baseball players or even little leaguers? Let’s pump the brakes a little. To be sure, some of these kids surely love baseball and can’t wait to play. But the others? Mostly it’s apathy. Some love any sports, and this is that time of year after soccer season but before summer soccer season. Others actively wish not to be there. And a few are there at the secret wish of a parent that they would have a “Field of Dreams” moment and become the next Willie Mays. But mostly it was apathy.
Look, I love baseball. Love it. Playing it, watching it, talking about it, talking about people who talk about it. I LOVE BASEBALL. But it’s just not for everybody, I get that. The biggest complaint most people have is the pacing. They hate what they feel is that huge lull between pitches. Hell even most of the pitches result in, well, nothing happening seemingly to the untrained eye. The game can be too slow for some, I get that. So when you put a child and tell them to participate in something with that pace…Let’s just say many a daisy or dandelion has been picked in the outfield by would-be defenders awaiting for the batter to make contact with the ball.
That being said, with T-ball at least the kids aren’t waiting pitch after pitch for something to happen. The ball is placed on the tee by the coach who then:
Adjusts the tee to the height of the batter
Calls up said batter to the tee, reminding them to put on their helmet, no Jen you need your helmet. Alex give Jen your helmet.
Tells the batter where to stand to address the ball
Helps the batter remember:
How to hold the bat
How to swing the bat
How to hit the ball with that swung bat (This involves reminding the batter that the ball is the target of the bat, not the coach, not the coach, not th…coach)
How to run
When to run
You guessed it: where to run. Alex! That’s third base, third base. We run to first, Alex.
It takes a little time, but at least this means that in T-ball basically every batter puts the ball in play. No strike outs, no walks. Just balls hit. Action. Good for the little ones’ attention span hey look at that pretty dandelion. T-ball is a good idea to introduce kids to the game and try to keep them interested. It works for basically any child.
That is, of course, unless the batter is too small to hold the bat. Or too small to keep the helmet on his head. Or too small really to see the top of the tee. If these latter conditions exist, then the bat’s arc on repeated occasions will intersect the middle of the tee (i.e. the shaft). Many, many repeated occasions. Out of frustration the batter will swing harder, but due again to the batter’s physical size, this will only result in hitting the tee shaft harder. Still, no contact with the ball will be recorded. If struck really hard the tee will tumble. However the ball will, for a pregnant instant (much like the coyote when he realizes he’s run off a cliff while chasing the roadrunner), hang suspended in mid-air before falling straight to the ground with a very un-ceremonious thud. This will only spurn the now frustrated batter further and will incite a fairly random, fairly furious swinging of the aluminum cudgel. The coach or parent in charge of placing the ball on the tee now finds him or herself in some degree of jeopardy as the focus becomes not so much the ball nor the tee, but rather avoiding genital damage at the hands of a 5-year-old who now resembles an extra from a riot scene in “The Gangs of New York”.
By now you see where I am going. The batter here, of course, was my son. Try as he might, solid contact between ball and bat always seemed to elude him, mainly because the tee was simply too tall for him. And the parent facing groin mutilation was invariably me. So that’s it, right? Failure at T-ball. We’re going to muse upon my own parenting failure or my son’s athletic failure right? Oh, no. This story has a very important turn.
Somewhere towards the merciful end of the season, another of my son’s turns at bat arrived. The batters prior to him had each hit singles (by which I mean the ball was hit into the field, and although the fielders could corral the ball, throwing it to the appropriate base to make an out was just too much to ask of the universe). So let’s just skip those other kids’ at bats and say that my son came up with the bases loaded. Now remember he hadn’t been very successful at the plate. Nevertheless, to his credit, he always seemed determined to make this at bat “The One”. And prior to each attempt I’d remind him that once the ball hit and put in play, you RUN. Run and never quit. Even if it’s a dribbling ground ball that you know is going to be an out, you run it out all the way to first base. Never quit. As coaches say: “Never ‘dog it’ to first!”
I’m not quite sure what exactly happened next. The ball was on the tee. My son was in his stance (he had a pretty good batter’s stance). It was all so fast. The swing. The hit. Did he hit the ball?? Did the ball actually have forward momentum? Was it maybe instead because he hit the tee high enough that it fell *forward*, thus propelling the ball into the field? WHO THE HELL CARES THE BALL WAS IN PLAY!!
For a stunned moment, all was still. All was silent (which is saying something, since 30 kindergarteners in a group are NEVER all silent). For a split second as the ball advanced towards the middle of the infield my son and I made eye contact. In that knowing moment, I saw a spark. It was recognition. I saw that even his young brain comprehended the magnitude of the event. THE BALL WAS IN PLAY! That same spark of realization ignited a powder keg that had waited an entire season for even so much as a photon of flame. What exploded forth was a furry of running legs, churning the basepath like a John Deere tills the soil. My boy, having had the “No Dogging It To First” lecture drilled into him for a whole season, wasn’t about to let his old man down, now that he finally had the chance to put lessons into practice.
Now for perspective, when I say the ball was in play, I’m really saying the ball moved forward from home plate into the field enough to make members of both teams wonder if it should count or be called a foul ball. That initial confusion gave my boy the head start he needed, and he capitalized on the other team’s hesitation. There’s a point when you’re not quite sure of a situation that you just have to “go with it”. The other team, realizing that no coach or umpire was going to call a foul ball, sprung into action. An infielder ran up (the ball really didn’t even make it up to the pitcher’s mound) and picked up the ball which by now had stopped rolling. That kid, being one of the natural talents on the field, threw a perfect strike to the first baseman. The first baseman, being a proper 5-year-old, was watching my son run towards her and just narrowly flinched in time to avoid getting plunked in the head by the well-thrown ball. Realizing the ball was meant for her she turned and ran for it as it rolled into the outfield.
By now, my son had safely reached base, and cheers went up for both him and his teammate who had just crossed homeplate. What transpired next is worthy of a montage of baseball movie hero moments, complete with inspiring soundtrack. My son, seeing the ball had gotten past the first baseman, sped on. Barely missing a step he turned hard left and began running for second base. He was average speed for a kindergartener, but that day he had found another gear. His legs had that blur of motion that made him look so much faster than he actually was. Most of that motion was probably spent trying to keep his lower half properly under his upper half as his head plowed forward, ever determined to make it to second. The teammate in front of him, a girl he knew from school, was standing on second feeling the security of the padded pillow beneath her left foot. Standing, that is, until she saw the runaway locomotive careening towards her. In an instant, her nascent sense of self-preservation propelled her away from the bag towards third. The runner on third (who by now was waving his arms towards the dugout in celebration) looked over his shoulder. Seeing the chain reaction of baserunners behind him, he too jumped into action and bolted for home.
You must remember that none of this happened in a vacuum. The opposing team was still on the field, and they were having none of it. The first baseman by now had picked up the ball, and she lofted it toward the now 5 or 6 teammates who surrounded second base. Gotta love that hive mentality. The same mob that surrounds the soccer ball in a 5-year-old’s soccer league will gather around a baseball in T-ball. One of the players picked up the ball and tagged my son. Which should have been the end of the inning. Or at least the end of that play. He was out, right?
NO DOGGING IT TO FIRST (or second, or third, or home). My son would not be denied his chance to run out every play to every base on the field, and maybe the next field over. HE KEPT ON RUNNING. The kid with the ball was large for his age and fairly athletic. So he quickly overtook my son, reached out with the ball, and tagged him out again. And my son kept running. Rounding second base like a Formula One racer navigating a hairpin at Monaco, he motored on towards third. The infielder with the ball was now utterly confused, but moreso he was determined to end this charade. He cut across the infield at an angle to catch up to my son who had to maintain his orthogonal trajectory towards third base. But tagging him out for the third time had the same effect. My boy kept running.
The poor infielder looked over to his coach and then to his dad, partly frustrated, partly confused. He shrugged as if to say, “Now what do I do?” He did not wait for a response and instead started running alongside my son, tagging him repeatedly. Looking more like yellow jacket defending its nest, repeatedly stinging an invader over and over, the tag outs became more and more insistent, even frenetic. And still my boy ran. The ball tagging his small body might just as well have been spurs digging into the haunches of a horse.
By this point my cheers exhorting my boy to run to first had gone from joy to wonderment as he ran for second base, then to a conciliatory “Awww, great try” when he was initially tagged out, then to a “Hey son, you’re out now” when he was tagged a second time, to a “Well, he’s still running, I’ll give him credit”, to outright guffaws of laughter and exaltation. The combination of determined will on his face and plain frustration on the infielder’s was too absurd not to laugh. People in the stands were cheering just at the site of the runner who, baseball rules be damned, would not be stopped.
Eventually (and believe me it took some time for those little legs to make it), my son crossed home plate. He’d been tagged out probably two dozen times, the ball now thrown down onto the grass in frustration by the spent yellow jacket (aka infielder). The baserunners before him had already crossed home and were jumping for joy at scoring runs. At last he too was able to celebrate, and celebrate he did. My wife and I were there to meet him, both cheering him and laughing at the spectacle to the point of tears. The other team’s kids (those that cared…some had already gone back to perusing daisies) were protesting this obvious flaunting of the rules. We continued cheering and laughing.
It was the best goddamned grand slam homerun I had ever witnessed.
That was many years ago. My son has long since hung up his spikes and glove. He tried a couple more years of little league and really never enjoyed it. Frankly he has forsaken pretty much all athletic pursuits. Just not his thing. And that’s fine with me. So where’s the failure here? Was it a failure of his abilities? Was it a failure of my teaching him the basic rules of baseball? Was it my failure of being one of “those” parents who act abominably at their kids little league games? Was it his failure for not sticking to baseball and learning to play better? Was he a quitter? Or was this actually a success story? One of determination, training, and most of all perseverance?
My answer is that it is all of the above and none of the above. I wrote this firstly because dangit I love this story and smile every time I tell it or even think of it. But how does it belong here on the blog? Well first off, it’s my blog, so there. But really, I have so much of my own life’s failure to talk about. And when all of my posts so far focus on Failure and I call it a Failure blog, it’s easy to assume every post, every submission, every entry will be straight doom and gloom. But it doesn’t have to be.
The goal of this site is to encourage people to talk about failure in ways they usually don’t get a chance to. They can do so by any means: a story of tragedy, a story of Epic Stupidity, a story of missing it by *that* much, or a story of a Grand Slam homerun off of an infield dribbling groundball that might actually have resulted from the bat NEVER TOUCHING THE BALL. I can find failure in just about any aspect of my life. Medicine and my departure from it is the motherlode of failure. I wanted this site to be for anybody: doctors, parents, young, old, baseball players, T-ball coaches, anybody. A story of failure doesn’t have to be profound. It doesn’t have to bring you close to tears. And if we’re lucky, if you have any love of baseball like me, it might even make you smile.
Sorry, but yeah. This whole post was just a shill to get you guys to write and submit to my website. But seriously, if I can get you to think about your life’s failures with a story of the greatest infield homerun foul ball ever hit, just think what you can do with your stories. I’ve placed the ball on the tee just for you. I’d love to see you swing for the fences. Swing at the ball, not the coach. Not the coach!