I’m the best baseball player you have never heard of. I was hitting plastic balls across the living room when I was 16 months old. In the coach-pitch “league” when I was six all the fielders were moved to the outfield for safety reasons. At nine, I became the first kid ever to hit one over the fence at the little league field. As a 12-year-old in actual little league, I once came up with the bases loaded after hitting a grand slam the previous inning. The umpire kept telling the opposing coach to walk me, “You gotta walk him. I’d walk him. You’re crazy not to.” The opposing coach didn’t. It cost him another four runs. Later that summer, I was the starting first baseman for the New York City All-Star team in the Nanshiki Baseball Games. Wish I had known about it as an 11-year-old. It would have been nice to play in Tokyo. Babe Ruth league Batting Champion (we didn’t have an MVP award) at age 13. At 14, I tried out for the US Olympic team. Hit one off the scoreboard in center at the college stadium we were trying out in – 405 feet to the scoreboard. The Olympic coaches loved me as a player, but a 14-year-old wasn’t about to compete with Will Clark and/or Mark McGwire. As I said, I am the best baseball player you have never heard of.
We had a stud on that New York City All-Star team. Pat was our shortstop, our cleanup hitter, our captain and one of the few kids in my naivety I ever thought was better than me. He was a big muscular kid. The next year, I played against Pat as his team of 13-year-olds demolished my Babe Ruth league’s rag-tag All-Star team in the state tournament. I had grown an inch or two taller and Pat hadn’t. He was still good, but I didn’t think he was better than me anymore. The next year, I went to play for that team and there was no Pat. His baseball career was over at 14. In a way, mine was too.
Being the best 14-year-old is only a good thing if you keep getting better. I didn’t. While it was good enough to get me through high school and recruited by colleges and to play in college as well (though I was a JV kid, turns out the college coach wasn’t into a 160lb first baseman who didn’t hit homeruns even if I never hit under .400 in college), it caught up to me in college and probably already had in high school even if I didn’t realize it. Every guy who I played with who made it beyond college (my high school teammate who pitched for the Brewers and Giants for three or four years, Zimmy, the pitcher I once mentioned before, who was a bonus-baby with the Marlins and went as far as AAA and the three or four other guys from high school or travel who played in A or AA ball) all had one thing in common. They were getting better every year. We might have been at the same skill level when our paths crossed, but their trajectory was upward and mine was flat. They made and I didn’t.
Nowadays, I always chuckle to myself when I hear about a kid being a total stud or being the best in the league or in town, particularly when it comes from a parent. It’s not I don’t believe the kid is good or that they are the best in the town. But I know that kid. I was once him. And I know from my own experience baseball (any sport really) is a marathon and being the best right now means just that and only that. The Justin Heywards and Todd Fraziers are few and far between. Whether it is physical maturity, mental maturity or just pure ability, if you aren’t getting better, you are going to fall by the wayside sooner than later.
I think about this a lot as I head into the new season. As a coach, it’s in terms of am I doing everything I can to help all my players get better, particularly the “best” ones. For my players, I see glimpses every so often where a kid who has had some success stops listening and as a result stops learning. For them, it’s in terms of helping them understand while being told you’re good is something to savor, it’s not something to rest on. Being even better tomorrow will be a whole lot sweeter so let’s keep working. I try to remind the parents about it as well. As a father, well, if there is a parent out there who doesn’t want their kid to be the best at whatever they do, it’s not me. So as a father, it’s about reminding myself to focus on the improvements they are making every day and not to see only the shortcomings they have as players now. More importantly it’s to remind myself not to push too hard now particularly with the way kids are sent into drills and organized practices at such an early age these days. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, really hard. But I need only look back to my own experience to know I really don’t want my kid being the best right now.