It started around midway through Tyler’s first season of travel baseball last year. Now before we get started, I don’t want to give the wrong impression — when I say “travel,” we’re talking about games requiring no more than 30-minute rides. No airplanes yet, please.
But it was around that time that Tyler (now eight) started showing an interest in pitching. And so, like any good dad, I spent a lot of painful time on my knees catching the pitches he threw that were, in fact, catchable, and scurrying after the ones that were not. Oh, and I don’t want to forget that I, in fact, caught one with my sunglasses while I was wearing them — yes, somehow I missed the ball and it hit me in the face, leaving a nice black eye.
Of course, as he was throwing to me, I’d do my best to advise him on how it was supposed to be done. But, never having been a pitcher, my knowledge of this quite complex motion was limited. I did my best but had little confidence I was teaching him the right way. There was also the very common father-son dynamic in which anything the father says, no matter how sensible, is deemed foolish; while the same words out of another’s mouth are gospel.
So as we finished wrestling season and began gearing up for baseball a few months ago, I told Tyler that if my knees were about to be abused again, it would only be for good reason, and by that I meant he was going to get some pitching lessons from someone who got paid to do that sort of thing. If not, he could practice against a wall somewhere.
After some initial balking (“Dad, I know how to pitch”), he relented and permitted me to spend $40 per half hour so he’d know what he was doing. What a prince.
Anyway. I figured if he wanted to pitch (or do anything for that matter), it was a good life lesson that if you’re going to do something, you should know how to do it right. Practice without knowledge is like going down a one-way street the wrong way. But there was also another life lesson here.
From last year, the team already had its identified pitchers, of whom Tyler wasn’t one. Everyone knew he had a strong arm, but nobody knew if he could hit a strike zone, or the broad side of a barn for that matter.
I knew that, like with most youth baseball teams, almost everyone wanted to pitch, and that if Tyler was given a chance, it might be his only one to show what he could do. If he wasn’t ready, it would be on to the next kid. And perhaps that youth would make quite an impression; and so that might be that.
I tried to explain this dynamic to my son.
“Tyler, you don’t know if Coach Frank is ever going to let you pitch and, if he does, you have to be ready on day one of the season. You can’t say, ‘Well, I’ll start practicing down the road.’ Sometimes in life you get one shot. You must have already put in the work.”
Tyler was on board. He not only went to his training sessions but did the inter-session practice drills the coach gave him. True, I reminded him it was time to train, but he didn’t balk (most of the time) and put in good effort. When the season started last weekend, I was proud of where he was. I knew that, if by chance they put him on the mound that day (which I doubted), he’d at least feel prepared. And that preparation would translate into confidence.
The first four innings went as usual. Last year’s star pitcher threw brilliantly in the first two innings and the coach’s son gave a fine account himself for the second two. I was taking a bio break during the top of the fifth when I noticed — through the lattice mesh window in one of those hideous port-a-johns — that Tyler seemed to be warming up a pitcher in some foul territory of the outfield.
But as the teams switched places and I tried to locate him through the lattice, I realized something else. He had been the one warming up — he was on the mound.
“Oh my God!” I whispered to no one, then exited my enclosure like Clark Kent turned Superman.
After speed-walking back to the field — to a spot where I could see Tyler but he couldn’t see me (I didn’t want to be a distraction) — I began my pacing. This was his shot. If he totally bombed, that might be the end of it.
I wish I could give you the exciting play by play, but I can’t recall every detail in sequence. I can tell you how the four batters he faced fared: strikeout, walk, strikeout, strikeout. And these were good strikeouts — not kids flailing at weak pitches outside of the strike zone. These were the kind you could really be proud of.
From a book I read on raising children, I always recall the message that it’s important not to connect success with natural ability (as in, “You’re so smart”) but with effort (as in, “You did well on that test because you studied hard”). And so, after the game, I did the same thing with Tyler.
“You did well because you learned the right way and you put in the work. When your chance came — and it came earlier than we thought — you were ready. Now, you’ll get another chance. Keep putting in the work and you’ll be ready again.”
And so it goes. Academics are great, but youth sports also provide so many instances for teaching. Make sure you’re ready when you get your shot at whatever you long to do, I say, and keep your eye on the ball — even it’s from the port-a-john.