Far From Unremarkable: Life Lessons From Baseball
I never played a professional baseball game. The largest crowd I played in front of measured in the hundreds. Tens of people cared about the awards I won and promptly forgot them. Only my teammates celebrated my biggest hit, walking-off the second game of a playoff doubleheader, because the 97-degree day had chased away all of our fans. I used to think that I had a good career, that I had been a player of some substance, but in reality, if I am being kind to myself, I was a very average player with a very average baseball career that almost no one will remember.
To achieve that quite unremarkable career, I spent hours upon days upon months upon years upon decades on baseball fields all around Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee, and a myriad of other dirt patches across the country. I spent almost three decades worth of time, energy, and thought—not to mention the time, energy and thought sacrificed on my behalf by coaches and teammates—to become, in the end, when all of my cleat marks had been made, most decidedly unremarkable. I remember a day in the summer after my senior year of college when I drove to a batting cage at 7 a.m. to work with a hitting coach who was only in town for a few hours, coached a youth league double-header starting at 10 a.m. in Branford, Connecticut and then drove two plus hours to Albany, New York to play in a game that started at 7:30 pm. My playing career never paid me the gas money for that one day of baseball.
Respecting the Game
At practice the other day, Coach Callaghan, as he often does, made a great point: “We [the Avon coaches] are honored every year to work with some of the best high school baseball players in New England.” Standing at home plate and looking at the championship banners along the backstop, it is evident that he was not bragging or being hyperbolic: the Avon Old Farms baseball program has an impressive history. But the second part of what he said— “And we take seriously not only making you better baseball players, but teaching you to play the game the right way, teaching you to respect the game.”—is what impresses me most about Winged Beavers baseball. Since I joined the varsity team last year, a spring day has not gone by without Coach Callaghan, Coach Doyle, or Coach Dowling calling our players attention to some detail of the game that transcends the field; a day has not gone by where our players were not actively involved in learning not just the details of baseball, but the importance of paying attention to, respecting, and becoming good at the routine.
Like much of today’s zeitgeist, baseball is mostly digested in clips and highlights of homeruns, strikeouts, diving plays, and big-armed throws. Young players are more familiar with the metrics of swings—exit velocity, launch angle, and barrel zone—than the tradition of the seventh-inning stretch. Players can recite the forty-times and Perfect Game rankings of other high school players, but would be hard pressed to tell you what record Cal Ripken holds. This is not an indictment; it is just baseball (and life) in 2018.
The problem is that playing good baseball is all about making the routine play, is all about appreciating and being good at the little things that go unnoticed by most who watch and, in point of fact, most who play. Taking a strike to allow a runner to steal second, getting a good secondary lead to go first to third on a single to center, or hitting the cutoff man to keep the double play in order never make the highlights, but they are the plays that often decide the close games, the games when the talent is even, the games when the pitching and hitting balance themselves out. They are also plays that go against most players’ instincts, take Sisyphean amounts of repetition, and require an understanding of what is happening just below the surface; they are plays made by those who respect the game enough to take the deep dive into baseball.
The hard part about diving deeply into anything, about becoming good at the routine, is the time and effort required and the lack of instant gratification. It is easy to see the value of batting practice or long toss, but every day in the spring, down at Carpenter Field, our players enthusiastically delve under the surface of this simple game, learning how to appreciate and make plays that are more about awareness and nuance than athleticism, that are more about the quotidian than the spectacular. This helps us win baseball games, but the more gratifying part as Coach Dowling recently said to the boys is that “paying attention to these plays makes the game a lot more fun; baseball is boring to those who don’t know where to look, who can’t appreciate the details.” Every day, I am thankful for our players’ willingness to take that deep dive with us because I know what they will get in return.
Playing baseball never paid for the gas or got me fame; the best plays I made have long been dragged over and forgotten. But those decades on baseball fields pay me out in full every day. More than the memories and teammates, baseball taught me where to look to find fulfillment in life. Each day I am trained to pay attention to the details that make me a better husband, father, son, brother, friend, teacher and coach because I have taken the deep dive and learned how to see just below the surface and appreciate the beauty in life’s routine. Being part of a program that aspires to teach as Coach Doyle says, “not just baseball,” but that it is impossible to be bored in life when you know where to look is a gift and a detail that is far from unremarkable.
About the Author
English Teacher, Varsity Baseball Coach