A New Beginning

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There’s nothing like strolling out to the pitcher’s mound for the first game of the season. A new season ushers in a new beginning, and with a new beginning comes new hope. For someone like me, the games may be of the past, but the smells aren’t: the sweet fragrance of the freshly mowed outfield; the gritty dryness of the dusty infield; the melts-in-your-mouth aroma of broken-in leather. With these smells, of course, bubble up the feelings of old: the promise of a clean slate; the dreams of achievements yet to be; the comradery of brothers only shared experience can forge.

Admit it. If you’ve ever played Little League Baseball, then you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve ever coached, then no doubt you’re amazed how a new generation of kids experience and enthusiastically embrace those same emotions you once did (and still do). As you watch them run around all happy and invigorated, you lean back and smile. Life is good.

I’ve been fortunate to experience baseball from a variety of angles. Growing up we played a game called “300.” One player would hit the ball to a handful of fielders. You scored points based on your fielding: so much for fielding a grounder; so much for a one-hopper; so much for a two-handed catch; and, so much for a one-handed catch. First one to get to 300 in points wins. The game not only helped you hone your baseball skills, but it offered the additional advantage of helping you hone your math skills, too.

We played “300” because we lived in a small neighborhood. Small neighborhoods generally didn’t have enough families to produce 18 kids capable of playing baseball. Heck, we didn’t have enough to field a single side. So it was “300” for the summer. If we wanted real baseball, we’d have to convince our parents to ante up for Little League.

I learned a lot playing Little League baseball. Maybe the most important thing I learned was that I couldn’t play baseball. This was important. In my sandlot days, I was under the mistaken impression that I could hit the ball. I learned the truth once I joined an organized league.

But I didn’t unlearn the incessant math lessons of “300.” I quickly calculated my odds of getting on base increased the fewer times I would swing the bat. Swinging the bat produced a variety of results, almost all of which – for me – were bad. Sure, there was always a chance I could get on base with a weak infield hit. The rest of the bat swinging results were, in order of decreasing likelihood: missing the ball and striking out; fouling the ball and then striking out; hitting the ball and getting thrown out at first; hitting a line drive right back to the pitcher for an out; and hitting a fly ball that would be caught for an out.

This is not the stuff that impresses girls. Truth be told, the very first Little League at bat was a solid outfield hit for a standup double. I’m not saying the little red-haired girl was there watching, but it was the kind of hit you’d want to hit when the little red-haired girl was there watching. It was also the last solid Little League hit I ever got. That was in fifth grade. For the next several years I hoped three things would happen every time I came to bat. First, I hoped we were so far ahead it didn’t matter what I did. Second, I hoped there weren’t already two outs. Third, I hoped there was no little red-haired girl anywhere to be found.

That being said, I often ended the season with the lowest hitting percentage but with the highest on-base percentage. What does that mean? It means I walked a lot. That’s where that math came in. For every good thing that could happen whenever I swung the bat, there were five bad things that could happen. That’s an 18% chance of something good happening as a result of swinging the bat. On the other hand, when I didn’t swing the bat, only one of two things could happen: I could either strike out or walk. And it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out most kids had a hard time throwing strikes. Ergo, if I wanted to increase my on-base percentage, I simply needed to avoid swinging the bat.

OK, OK, I admit it. Although impeccably logical, this strategy sort of violates the spirit of the game. And, quite frankly, I was a little embarrassed by it. That’s why I shied away from playing baseball as soon as possible.

You can therefore imagine my horror when, in the spring of my freshman year at college, several upperclassman dragged me out to play baseball. Treating my post-secondary education as a new beginning of sorts, that entire year I carefully sidestepped anything that would expose my frailty when it came to baseball. I covered it up mainly through my football exploits, which were adequate for the job.

That afternoon, on the freshly mowed fields of Walter Camp, I feared my impending plate appearance. I desperately hoped the opponent would retire our side before my at bat. That didn’t happen. The captain of the club – the starting goalie of the varsity hockey team – couldn’t understand why I was reluctant to bat. He almost literally had to push me up to the plate. I stared at the pitcher, imaging how to cope with my soon-to-be-revealed athletic fraud.

First pitch. I swing. I miss. Incredible feeling of déjà vu. Nonetheless, the team, led by the captain, cheers me on. I begin to pity their misplaced confidence in me.

Second pitch. I swing late and foul the ball off. Again, not unusual. Again, the team cheers and the captain shouts encouraging words.

As the pitcher winds up for the third pitch, I decide it’s best to get it over with quickly. The ball comes speeding towards the plate and I swing. Unlike an aggressive confident swing, one oozing with power, my swing was batting practice casual. I make an effort to follow through, but without the power of a determined hitter.

Much to my surprise – but, for some reason, not unsurprisingly – the ball connects to the meat of the bat, producing a solid line drive through the gap in the outfield. I end up with a stand-up double.

Afterwards, the captain came up to me and said, “You’ve got a great swing. Why’d you make us think you couldn’t hit?”

That was my last ever hardball at bat, a perfect bookend to my first Little League hit. The next day they hauled me out to the men’s softball team. Talk about “new beginnings!”

But that’s a story for another time…

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