Tuesday, June 2, 2015

For the Team

It was the summer of 1971 and the Thomaston Little League All-Stars were playing the Barnesville Little League All-Stars in the first round of the regional tournament in Griffin. It had been a good year for me—the only good year I ever had in my very limited athletic career. I had played on a good team with good friends and I had won the Barnesville league’s batting championship. I still have that trophy even though the inscription says that I had the Best Batting Avenue—they used “Ave.” rather than “Avg.” as the abbreviation for “Average.”

So there I was, starting in right field for the Barnesville All-Stars and feeling mighty nervous about it. One reason I was nervous was that I wasn’t a very good outfielder. I had been the first baseman for the Mets during the regular season but our All-Star team manager, who was the manager of our rivals the Cardinals, decided early on during our practices to play their first baseman there. On the day that I realized that the decision had been made, I complained to my father about it, expecting him to support me, maybe even to the point of speaking to our manager about it. But instead he just looked at me kind of sideways and said, “It looks to me like you ought to be grateful to be playing right field.”

I was also nervous because I assumed that the Thomaston team was of a higher quality than our team. I was right about that. Going into the sixth and final inning they had the game well in hand, leading us 9-0.

So I found myself in a pretty hopeless situation as I stepped into the batter’s box in the last inning with nobody on and nobody out. I was 0 for 1 at that point with a weak line out to the pitcher and a walk to show for my offensive efforts. The pitcher threw a fastball that came in just below my knees; I found it hard to lay off such pitches and I had no luck doing so that time. I went down and got it, immediately realizing that I had gotten under it and had hit it high in the air. I figured it was a popup to the second baseman but I wasn’t sure so I put my head down and started running like I was supposed to do.

Then I heard cheers. I looked up just in time to see the ball land several feet beyond the centerfield fence. I—scrawny, bespectacled, and nerdy Mike Ruffin—had hit a home run for the Barnesville Little League against the Thomaston All-Stars in the regional tournament! I trotted around the bases feeling pretty good about myself.

Later, my mother would tell me that someone sitting behind her said, “Look at him grinning!” What can I say? I was happy. After all, I had imagined myself hitting a home run in such a setting for a long time. But when I imagined it, my team was trailing by three runs and I hit a walk-off grand slam to give us a miraculous win.

We didn’t come all the way back against Thomaston, though. Our next batter also hit a home run but that was all we got; we lost the game 9-2.

I don’t regret the grin I wore as I circled the bases. After all, it’s not like I pumped my fist or showed off in some other inappropriate way; besides, I was twelve years old. But we all know that it’s nice to do well as an individual. It’s perfectly fine to feel good about yourself when you accomplish something worthwhile in an honorable way and it’s perfectly fine to celebrate such an accomplishment. I believe that God celebrates with us when we make good use of the abilities that God has given us.

Still, I would have enjoyed it so much more had my home run contributed to a win by our team. It’s great to do well as an individual, but it’s even better to do well as a team. I believe that God is especially pleased when we use our gifts and abilities for the sake of and for the good of the team and when we all work together toward a common goal for the common good.

Think of how much better off our various communities—our family communities, our faith communities, our neighborhood communities, and our work communities—would be if we would all put more emphasis on the team and less on ourselves.

To be fair, though, I think that my Barnesville Little League team did its best on that day in 1971.

The boys from Thomaston were just better.

[This post first appeared as a column in the Thomaston Times, which is publishing my bi-monthly religion column "Ruffin's Renderings."]

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