Thursday, February 19, 2009

Teaching Your Child about Baseball—and about Life

My friend, parishioner, and fellow traveler Trey Luckie sent me the following message following the recent revelation that Alex Rodriquez (A-Rod to his friends and fans) had used steroids during his time with the Texas Rangers during the early part of this decade:

Please tell me where the game of baseball has gone. Who are the true record holders of the game? Where do we draw the line? How come Mickey Mantle couldn’t have found steroids and held every record in the book? My heart hurts for the game that I so loved as a boy. I can still smell the rawhide of the ball. I can still feel the dirt in my spikes. I can still hear the pop of leather in my glove. I can still remember my only high school homerun like it was yesterday. Where has that game gone? It has been replaced by a drug induced shadow of the honor of the game. No more summer, baseball and apple pie. It is now greedy agents, money and steroids. How can you teach a young boy to love the game that is full of cheaters and liars?

A-Rod owes me an apology. Pete Rose is starting to look like a saint. Why can’t baseball do a good thing and put a good man like Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame? Why should true fans care anymore about a game and players that just won’t “Do Right”? (one of my favorites from Erk).

(For the uninitiated: the “Erk” to whom Trey refers is Erk Russell, late great long-time defensive coordinator of the Georgia Bulldogs, including the Junkyard Dawgs of national championship fame, and founder and builder of the excellent football program at Georgia Southern University, Trey’s alma mater. For the clueless: Dale Murphy is a good man who roamed center field for a couple of good and for many bad Atlanta Braves teams in the ‘70s and ‘80s; he was and is a solid citizen, the kind of role model that people like Trey and I wish all baseball players could and would be.)

Trey’s comments and questions strike a chord with me; his most poignant question is this one: “How can you teach a young boy to love the game that is full of cheaters and liars?” Trey asks that question as the father of Reid, a boy who is just now getting to the age where he should start learning about the things that matter, like Jesus, country, and baseball. Trey, here are some preliminary answers.

First, teach Reid about the wonders of the game of baseball. Show him that there is nothing more beautiful than a well-manicured baseball field, one that has been carefully fertilized and watered in preparation for the season and one on which the chalk lines have just been laid down in preparation for that afternoon’s game. Show him that there is no sweeter sound than the crack of the bat as it strikes the ball (although unless you take him to professional games he’ll have to imagine it since all he’ll hear elsewhere is that pitiful and sad “ping” made by aluminum bats) and the pop of the leather as the ball strikes it. Show him how roasted peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, and nachos taste better at a baseball stadium than they do anywhere else.

Second, teach Reid about the glorious details of baseball. Tell him about the intricacies of the strategies employed by good managers and coaches. Tell him why fielders shift their positions according to who is batting and who is pitching. Tell him how a hit and run play works and what its purpose is. Tell him about the signs that catchers give the pitchers and that coaches give the base runners.

Third, teach Reid the lessons for life that come through in baseball. Teach him about the value of teamwork, about how in baseball it’s really difficult ever to give one player the credit or the blame for a loss because it really takes the whole team to win or lose. Teach him that in baseball size doesn’t matter, that some of the greatest players ever to play the game were not great big guys but were in fact really small guys. Teach him that some of the most valuable plays in baseball involve a player giving himself up for the sake of the team—the sacrifice bunt, the sacrifice fly, and hitting behind the runner—and that the players who can do such giving of themselves are just as valuable as—and perhaps more valuable than--the big bashers.

Fourth, teach Reid that baseball players are only human and that while it’s ok to admire and appreciate their skills, he must be very careful not to give them too much adoration and not to expect too much out of them. It’s a hard lesson to learn and we don’t want to turn our children cynical before their time, but the truth is that every baseball player, like every other human being, is a sinner and that even the ones about whom we know nothing negative still have negative aspects to their lives. The truth is that players of every generation have had their problems and that, were the media back then what the media is now, we would know a lot more dirt on many of our heroes—which frankly I’m glad we don’t know and, while I’m on the subject, I’m not sure that some of the stuff that we learn about modern athletes is any of our business. That is not the case with steroid use, though, because steroid use changes the terms of the game in unethical ways and such use, when discovered, has to be exposed.

Perhaps we do right by our children when we teach them to look up to real heroes: missionaries who give their lives up for the sake of the gospel, teachers who help us learn what we must know to make it in this world, people who try to help the poor and the hungry and the outcast, adults who coach tee ball and Little League out of love for the game and love for children. Now, I know—we all know—that sometimes such folks turn out to have skeletons in their closets, too, but still, the vast, vast majority of them are doing great good in this old world. Besides, as cool as being a professional athlete must be and as much pleasure and diversion to people who, Lord knows, need pleasure and diversion, they bring, there are many, many, many greater things to do with a life and people who do those things are the real heroes.

Finally, teach Reid that the best baseball is played by amateurs. It’s really true in all areas of life—professional musicians are great, but real joy is known by the amateur singer or guitarist who sings or plays just because she loves to sing or play; professional bass fishermen are wonderful, but real joy is known by the kid sitting on the bank with his grandfather watching the cork bob up and down; professional preachers (my own kind) are a blessing, but real joy is known by the Christian who shares Christ as a matter of course and just because she can’t help it; professional chefs are a wonder, but real joy is known by the woman or man in the kitchen fixing dinner for her or his family. So take Reid to see the amateurs play—the Little Leaguers, the high school players, the college teams—and for goodness’ sake, encourage him to play himself—especially in pickup games in the back yard, if he can find some friends who are willing to leave their Wiis or computers or televisions long enough.

Oh, one more thing—just keep being a good role model yourself. All the professional baseball players in the world could fall and fail and be exposed but your son will be just fine—so long as his Daddy is a stand up guy. That’s why, as much as I appreciate my baseball heroes—Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Carl Yastrzemski, Joe DiMaggio, Dale Murphy, and John Smoltz, to name a few—it is my father, Champ Ruffin, and my adopted father, Howard Giddens, whom I admire most—because they never let me down. That’s not to say they were perfect in their parenting or that you and I can be perfect in our parenting—but it is to say that they did and we can know who we are in the Lord and they were and we can be consistent in our love and grace and that they did and we can, when failure happens, show our children how to seek and to accept forgiveness and redemption.

So Trey, teach Reid the good things about baseball.

But mainly show him the good things about being a good man.


Trey said...

Thanks Mike! I promise to do my best! Now...Let's Play Ball!!!!!

mcdaniel clan said...

beautiful post. as a baseball purist of sorts, you have reminded me of all the good things in the game. thankfully, there are still players like Eckstein, Ichiro, Maddux, Moyer, etc who uphold the ideals of hardwork, attention to detail, poise and scrappiness. these are the players to teach the youth about. those that take whatever talent they have and use it to the best of their ability.

thank you for your post!