When It Really Was Just a Game

Take a close look at the picture below.  Closer.  I’m the batter.  It’s from a game played in 1981.  It might as well be a picture from the baseball’s Dead Ball Era compared to what we see today.

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What struck me immediately was that I’m not wearing a helmet.  Then I remembered the catchers didn’t wear any equipment other than a face mark.  Though the ball we played with was rubber ball which is what they used in Japan (we were playing a team from Tokyo), it was still a hard ball so I don’t know how we got away without wearing any equipment.  What really got me laughing though was the umpire.  He looks like he  came off the set of The Richard Simmons’ Show.

This wasn’t some minor little baseball game out in the back of beyond.  The game was played in Central Park.  It was the opening game of the Nanshiki Baseball Games, a.k.a., the Friendship Series, five games played across the five boroughs that pitted a team of 11- and 12-year-old all-stars from New York City against a team of all-stars from Tokyo.  There was news coverage – John Tesh, he started out as a TV news sports reporter, gave me two of my 15 minutes of fame when he interviewed me for the nightly news  – and some congressman made sure we were mentioned in the Congressional Record.  You’d never know it from the picture though.

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With NYC Mayor Ed Koch at Gracie Mansion

Today we seem to get rankled if there aren’t two umpires with 15 certification badges on their uniforms at an 8U tournament game or if the field isn’t in pristine condition or there are no batting cages.  Every kid has their own bat, two usually, batting gloves, an infield glove, an outfield glove and a first baseman’s mitt.  My kids are no exception.

I’m not saying it was better in 1981 and I’m certainly not intending to minimize youth sports injuries.  It’s a little nuts they let us bat without helmets, rubber ball or not.  But when we treat the players like mini-major leaguers and we expect the fields to be mini-major league stadiums and we expect the umpires to be major-league umpires, we start looking at the games like they are the World Series.  We lose sight of the fact the games really don’t matter.  Worse, we start to teach the kids the trappings are important rather than “just go out and play.”  Second game of our summer season.  As the visitors stroll in to our admittedly horrible fields, one of the kids turns to a teammate and says, “These dugouts don’t even have roofs.”

Sure, we took the games seriously and our coaches coached hard and they coached to win.  But take another look at the photo.  No one is asking the people behind the plate to move as if somehow they will have an effect on the game.  The bat I’m using was one of four we had for the entire team, and in a million years I never would have thought of asking my parents for batting gloves.  And then there’s that umpire who I can’t help but think was fished out of the stands.

None of it detracted from the game or made us play any differently or made a difference in the game itself – we won though the series ended 2-2-1.  It was the most fitting outcome, and one I couldn’t imagine being allowed to happen today.

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Beacon Jewelers Little League, Spring 2016. - Photo by Schram“Batting 4th, #13!”

A simple comment which brought with it a flood of memories of games and escapades long gone.  It was social media response from a high school teammate to birthday wishes I had sent him.  I had used his nickname from when we played together.  In the intervening years, I’ve neither spoken with him nor seen him, and if not for social media’s having made the world tremendously small, I doubt I would have had reason to think of him (I’m sure the reverse is true.)  Yet 30 years later, we still remember each other by things ascribed to us on a ballfield.

When you stop playing the meaningful games, not the adult, beer can stuff, but games you believe are important at a time when the majority of your years are still ahead of you, no one tells you it is the last time you’ll truly be part of a team.  It’s the last time you’ll ever being willing to go through a wall for another person simply because they wear the same jersey you do.  I’m sure in some walks of life the team is the single most defining element, but for the majority of us, nothing will ever approximate the feeling of being a teammate.  It hit me hard when I started my first job out of college.  My colleagues and I worked hard together and had lots fun, but at the end of the day we went our separate ways.  We didn’t share the same experiences and “live” in the back of a bus the way teammates do, so how could I have really thought it would be the same?

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When I look back over my son’s travel seasons and my daughter’s just completed first softball season, I’ll always remember their accomplishments and feats, both the good and the not-so-good.  But what seems to always come front and center are the moments they first started connecting with another kid as a teammate, those precious moments in which what any one player did didn’t matter, but what they did collectively surely meant the world.  They probably don’t even recognize it yet because they are at the stage where the games are important to them and they have so many more moments ahead of them.  But this is where it starts.

It’s the championship game of our summer league playoffs.  It’s clear during my pregame spiel (I gave them the Herb Brooks’ “Not this game.  Not tonight” speech) they are nervous.  My son is nervous as he’s getting ready to hit.  Sensing it, his teammate, a nine-year-old kid, pulls him over and says “You’ve been doing it for us all year long.  You can do it.”  It loosens my son up immediately and though neither of them know I’ve heard their exchange, I know coaching these boys has been worth every minute and all the effort.

Sports transcend the playing field.  That’s a simple truth, and if you don’t know that you’ve never played.  It’s a powerful feeling to belong to something bigger than you just as it’s a powerful lesson to figure out how to get along regardless of your feelings for the individual occupying the uniform.  I don’t like every guy I ever played with, but I’d sit down and have a drink with any one of them any time.  The bonds you make with your teammates are as eternal as they are strong.

I can’t think of a better reason for my kids to play team sports.