The First Cut is the Deepest

We’ve all heard the story by now. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team only to persevere and become a national champion at North Carolina, a 6-time world champion for the Chicago Bulls, and the undisputed king of crying memes.

In 1978, Michael Jordan was just another kid in the gym trying out
for the Emsley A. Laney High School varsity basketball team. There were 15
roster spots. Jordan—then a 15-year-old
sophomore who was only 5’10” and
could not yet dunk a basketball—did not get one.

This very true story has become every parent’s rallying cry when their child gets cut. In movie terms (and these are the only terms I understand) getting cut is like being shipped away to Shawshank Prison or to a solitary cell at Alexandre “Dumb-ass’s” Chateau d’if.

Let’s stick with the Shawshank Redemption theme. You might say that when it comes to being cut, it comes down to a simple choice, really:

“Get busy living. Or get busy [crying].”

As a little league “All-Star” coach, I had to cut kids as young as nine. Nine!?!? Sure, I handled the cutting process delicately and I challenged each player to work hard and prove me wrong next year. Like Jordan before him, one player did prove me wrong. By age 12, he finally earned the right to be called an All-Star. Sadly, other players phased out of baseball and phased into lacrosse, track, or Grand Theft Auto.

In cases where cuts lead to quitting, it’s easy to blame the coach. And as “the coach”, it was easy for me to stand on my soapbox and deflect criticism with
coach-speak replies that were more cliche-ridden than a Bon Jovi set list. Heck, I’d even extend my “You Give [Cuts] a Bad Name” anthem to friends and family members whose kids didn’t quite, well, cut it.

“Uh, [Shane], I do believe you are talking out of your ass.” 

It turns out that being a former coach with cutting privileges means you don’t know jack crap about what it’s like on the other end. When my son got cut this season, my natural response was to shape-shift into Mama Bear and shove porridge up Coach Goldilocks’s ass.

  • Your first thoughts are irrational ones: He has something against my son. It’s all political. He must know I like pineapple on my pizza.
  • Your second thoughts are equal parts constructive and destructive: Maybe I should call the coach…call the cops…send him a letter…lace it with anthrax.
  • As the blood finally recedes from your vein-bulging forehead: I’d better shred the letter…hang up the phone…put the pineapples back on my pizza…have an honest conversation with my son.

And that’s exactly what I did (the honest conversation part). And when you do that, you might find that your child won’t take “cut” for an answer. In fact, he just might look forward to proving his coach wrong.

“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright.” 

As a former little league coach, I enjoy watching my former players ascend the ranks from middle school to high school ball. The coach in me can’t help but project their futures and grade them like stocks in my very own baseball portfolio. There are “5-toolers” and “bench-droolers”, “can’t misses” and “couldn’t hit water if they fell out of boats”. But like the 9-year-old who ultimately proved me wrong, there’s nothing that I enjoy more than a baseball redemption story. Especially when, in my humble opinion, the coach gets it wrong at first.

To me, a baseball redemption story is no less dramatic than Andy Dufresne crawling through a river of shit and coming out clean on the other side of Shawshank Prison. And like geology to Andy Dufresne, baseball redemption is a study in pressure and time. “Maybe that’s all it takes really…is pressure and time.” If you’re lucky enough, your time will come. And when your time comes, you hope to handle the pressure of that moment. Because, let’s face it, all good redemption stories come down to that one moment.

“I find I’m so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head.” 

This past week I watched two such players take full advantage of their respective times in the most pressure-filled moments of a high school baseball game. For one player, his moment was an indescribably beautiful, run-saving, full-extension, diving catch. For the other player, his moment covered three dominant, scoreless innings on the mound. What both players had in common was that they weren’t the coach’s first choice over the past couple of seasons. And it would have been understandable if either player had “vanished like a fart in the wind” after being cut and/or having to serve a commuted sentence on the varsity bench.

The redemption lesson here is that the players didn’t lose hope when their number wasn’t called at first. And, I’m pretty certain, their parents didn’t let them lose hope.

“Remember, [parents], hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

I hope that every player who was cut this year works hard to prove their coach wrong.

I hope that every coach welcomes the opportunity to be proven wrong next year.

I hope there are more baseball redemption stories to be told in the future.

I hope.