[WARNING: SHAMELESSLY EXAGGERATED, SELF-AGGRANDISING OPENING PARAGRAPH]
I was somewhat of a local legend back in the day. In the spirit of the great boys of summer who came before me, I once delighted Morristown fans to a brand of baseball that was seldom seen in these parts. A glove man of such grace, fans would pack-in the friendly confines of Burnham Park just to watch me take infield practice. You could have charged admission and they’d still come to behold the wizard of Burnham Park turn a diamond in the rough into a field of dreams. My hands were so soft, they called me “Hoover” back then. If you already caught the vacuum analogy, please let me hose you with the rest of my hyperbole. My glove was the place where base hits went to die, and I could count the number of errors I made on my middle finger [it’s still sticking up if you’re knocking me for bragging]. And my curveball didn’t just break, it broke the hearts of opposing batters.
If all that shameless self-praise has you ready to eject me from the blogging game, please keep in mind that I was only 12-years-old at the time. I’m allowed to boast now because my baseball career didn’t have a Roy Hobbs-like ending. I never tore the cover off the ball or shattered the stadium lights with my Savoy Special. Heck, I could hardly splatter the inner edge of the outfield grass with the 30-inch Easton Big Barrel that outweighed me. I didn’t even win a varsity letter…unless you count the endless string of Es I committed during my freshman baseball season. Burdened by expectations, I started playing less like the vacuum Hoover and more like the President Hoover. Yep, my career as a slick-fielding, weak-hitting ballplayer peaked at the age of 12. So I guess you could say I didn’t live up to people’s great expectations of me. Or maybe I simply crumbled under the weight of those expectations.
So to this day, when I reminisce about playing baseball….I’m not wearing a uniform for my high school team. I’m playing on the Burnham Park little league field where my father/coach stood outside the dugout smoking his Winston reds right down to his nicotine-stained finger nails. I’m heading up to Newburgh, NY with my 1985 Morristown National Little League state championship teammates. Or I’m in the street with a tennis ball and a makeshift stickball bat with my brother and friends. I’m nailing cars, breaking the neighbor’s window, and helping my friend to his feet because a telephone pole caught his face before his glove caught the ball. In other words, I’m playing baseball with only one expectation in mind: having fun!
Today I coach baseball on the very same little league field where I played as a kid. And I follow my father’s Hippocratic-Oath-like first rule of baseball: “FIRST, have fun!” Believe me, this isn’t always easy. Coaching my son on the same field I played on, it’s almost impossible for me to not set high expectations for him and his teammates. I’m as competitive as the next coach, and I’m a firm believer that it’s a lot more fun to win than it is to lose. But every time I find myself getting caught up in the good plays and bad plays, the hits and the misses, or the wins and the losses…I remember my father’s golden rule of little league baseball. If that doesn’t work, I pop in The Sandlot.
“Man, this is baseball! You gotta stop thinking! Just have fun. If you were having fun, you would have caught that ball!”
The Sandlot is youth baseball in its purest form. It’s about kids passing time playing the great American past time. No benchwarmers or All-Stars, just boys growing up with baseball in the foreground and the expectations of parents and coaches far off in the background. The kids are the players, coaches, umpires, and spectators….and they’re all having fun. Too often, I fear, kids aren’t playing baseball for fun. They’re playing to meet or exceed the expectations set by everyone but themselves. Sometimes it’s the expectations of the coach, or a parent…or as is often the case: the parent/coach like myself.
As a parent/coach to my 11-year-old son (and 6-year-old daughter), I’ve learned to not set too many expectations for a couple of reasons:
1. Expectations are probably what took the fun out of baseball for me after little league. And it’s probably why, to this day, I feel my son’s strikeouts and errors as if they were my own.
2. Expectations backfired when I named my firstborn after Cal Ripken…and he named his first love SOCCER.
So if you ever find yourself frustrated by your child’s recent slump or string of errors, try to remind yourself of the golden rule set by the greatest coach I’ve ever known: “FIRST, have fun!”
If that doesn’t work, rent The Sandlot…or just read the tagline on the movie poster: “The Sandlot: A piece of paradise a half block wide and a whole summer long.”
Little league baseball lasts longer than a whole summer….and for most kids, it’s as close to baseball paradise as they’ll ever get. But only when expectation #1 is to first have fun.