Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Baseball Dad

It's October and the weather is changing. The evenings have a chill that feels good when inhalled deeply. My sandals wearing days are starting to dwindle. It is also playoff time. Lucky for me my team is still in it. (Not by much,down 3-1.) I have always wanted to live in a city that has a baseball team so I could buy a group of game tickets. 3 wonderful hours spent out with my boys. Three hours filled with 30 minutes of action. My math tells me that is 150 minutes I can spend with my boys discussing life, our team, girls, Mom, politics. . .you get the point. That to me is the real beauty of baseball, the down time.

There are many life lessons in baseball. Since my writing is often fragmented and filled with other issues that would make my 4th grade teacher shake her head, I elected to Google the topic and found a great article. It is kind of long but for those of you that enjoy the game and the analogy, it is rewarding.


Before you read it, I have to give you my one idea. It is always game time. You never know when you are going to be pulled up out of the bull pen. But when the calling comes, you go, you always go, and you give it all you've got until you win the game or the coach pulls you out because you just don't have the stuff.


This is just for fun, please don't comment about my fatherhood skills, the games still early, it is only the 3rd inning, and it could easily go extra innings.


Ground Rules for Dads



I’d had a bad Dad day. No need to gnaw details. Let’s leave it at this: By the time I had fled to the den for the sanctuary of Mets–Phillies, I not only regretted ever having children, but wondered how my once promising life had come to this dark place. As usual, baseball was balm.

The instant I heard the familiar announcer voices, I felt the pressure in my carotids easing down. After just a few moments of balls and strikes, I actually had a tender thought about my wretched kids. As the game ambled on, my anger evolved into introspection. How, I despaired in uncharacteristic self-critique, had I managed to learn so little about fatherhood? After 15 years, I made the same rookie mistakes three or four times a week. Then, just as the game climaxed, including a happy result for the home team, everything about fatherhood was perfectly clear: Baseball was the answer. Since that night, these wisdoms have helped me have much better at-bats as Dad.

Just hit the center of the ball. Ever since Ruth invented the home run, the idea of it has been nestled in the male psyche. Sure, we have a grudging admiration for the high-average Gwynns and Ichiros, but most guys aspire to hit those moon shots into the October night. And that hyperbolic taste for the big blow seeps into our fatherhood ambitions. We long to be heroic figures in our kids’ lives, and so we often overswing, thwarting the ­technique that always trumps thump. I share a regret I’ve heard from several fathers, a sense of having been too big a presence, of having intruded into moments when the kids might have learned more had Dad been a little smaller, a little less.

Consider Derek Jeter, who until 2005 had the most at-bats of any active player without hitting a grand slam. When asked about the stat, the Yankee captain averred that he was actually a little proud, because when he came up with the bases juiced, he reminded himself not to hit a home run. The temptation to be The Man, to muscle up, can wreck your rhythm, went his thinking, and his goal was just to hit the center of the ball with the center of the bat. If a dad has the discipline to stay modest and stick to fundamentals, guess what happens? Not only will his kids find their way out of his shadow, but every now and then the old man will surprise them with a moon shot into the night.

Let the kid have his ups. When some pint-size third-grade sociopath is taunting your boy, your instincts are to (1) deploy the 82nd Airborne, (2) explore legal remedies against the school district, and (3) challenge the dad of said thug to a throw down. Wrong. Send your son into the game. Offer a word of encouragement and a few tips for defusing the situation, and see if he doesn’t work his own way out of the jam. Too often, I made the mistake of trying to fix everything, and I ended up ­disrespecting my kids’ power in the world, denying their 11-year-old realities with what I imagined was my wiser view.

Take the out at first. A baseball team gets into trouble when it forgets a fundamental truth of the game: Baseball favors the defense. Fly balls tend to be caught, grounders tend to find the shortstop’s glove, even belt-high fastballs turn into easy chances for the left fielder far more often than they become homers. Things get sticky when a rookie pitcher panics and tries for the force at third, and suddenly, what could have been a manageable second-and-third-one-down situation is now, yikes, a bases-loaded-nobody-out mess. The dad analog is this: Just as baseball is inclined toward outs, kids are inclined toward their families. Even in adolescence, when they seem to value only eye rolling and contempt, I’m telling you, underneath the surging hormones, your kids want to be part of your tribe. Remember that inclination when the call comes from the principal’s office, and subdue the adrenal, confrontational impulses that are the default for so many men. Try a gentler response that trusts the child’s attachment. To be sure, there will be times when tough love is the only kind that is useful. But you’re playing with the lead. So nobody is going to be kicked out of the house—not tonight anyway. The morning is always calmer. Think damage control. Love wants to find a way. Behind your anger, reassert the bonds—a dinner together at home or at the local pizza place, a DVD. An affectionate shoulder squeeze can actually go with a stern reproach.

Aim for a .300 average. In A League of Their Own, a movie about the women’s professional baseball league during World War II, one player whimpers that “It’s too hard” and threatens to quit. To which the grizzled manager replies in stupefaction: “Too hard? The hard is what makes it great!” Baseball is about coping with failure. The best batters fail two-thirds of the time. Knowledge of this fact could come in handy for a kid who thinks failure is abject and that he’s the only one who screws up. So, Dad, feel free to admit how inept you were as a child—at whatever. Your kid thinks you’re cooler than he is, and you know you’re not. You may be more useful to him down on the ground than up on that pedestal.

Remember, it’s a long season. Baseball is ruthless and generous. Few spotlights are harsher than the batter’s box with the game on the line in the eighth. Strike out with the tying run on third and you’re alone at center stage with 43,000 witnesses to your incompetence. But suddenly the batting order has turned over, and the batter is digging in again in the ninth with an opportunity for redemption. Parenthood indicts you and forgives you too. Sure, three hours ago you were careless with a brokenhearted 12-year-old or you treated Mom with less respect than she deserves. But there’s another game tomorrow or even later today. From this moment forward, you can be a wonderful father. Seize the opportunity of this at-bat, right now.

As much as I have cherished the wisdoms gleaned from spending 20 percent of my life watching base­ball, I’ve savored the tranquilities of playing the game even more. On many evenings in my life as Dad, the only thing I wanted to do was crack open a (root-beer), sit down, and chat with my wife. Or even better, sit down, crack open a (root-beer), and be quiet. But I didn’t. Instead, driven by obligation or guilt or some yuppie sense that my children are entitled to the last erg of energy in my tank, I went outside and played ball with the kids. And every time, the gentle rocking of pitch and catch calmed the clatter in my mind. It was as if my autonomic nervous system, that web of unconscious impulses that manages my heartbeat and breath, muffled the part of my brain that worries about roads not taken, about should-haves and better-nots, about anything other than pretending to fall down just before I could tag a giggling child. Baseball with my kids commended me to what Thoreau called “the gospel according to this moment.” A man couldn’t ask for a ­better pastime.

2 comments:

Denise said...

What a great analogy. Sounds like material for a good church talk.

Nana said...

One of my favorite childhood memories is attending Dodger games with my dad. We always sat on the first base side, and he patiently taught me to keep score in the program.