As I’ve noted in past posts, I coach both my sons’ baseball teams; a hectic, exhausting, and absolutely exhilarating endeavor. My younger son, Gunnar, is really showing some signs of natural skill. He’s developed a very pretty left-handed swing (far better looking than his old man’s) and is one of the few kids on his team that can consistently catch pop-flies and throws from his teammates. Indeed I think we’re going to try and jump him to kid-pitch this fall and test out to see whether he’s ready for that big step.
Gus, my 10-year-old, however, has shown no such innate ability. He’s not especially fast. His arm is average at best. He does not have lightning quick reflexes and is naturally a bit ball shy. His depth perception is not particularly good, making fly balls an adventure. When he swings a bat, or fields a grounder, it all looks extremely robotic—like he has to think through every single step.
But despite this complete lack of natural talent, Gus has willed himself to become a very good baseball player. So good, actually, that he got invited to play on the all-star team this past fall. Every single coach he has ever had—myself included—all say the same thing about Gus: he’s a hard, hard worker.
So for the past few weeks, Gus and I have been in the back yard, the cages, and baseball fields from dusty to swampy getting himself ready for the tryouts for the spring all-star team. For while he was asked on the fall team, the spring team is much more competitive as many of the best athletes in the area play a sport other than baseball in the fall. We had him in the best possible shape and he felt really good going into the tryout.
As we were driving there, I was chatting with him incessantly about what to remember. “Relax and attack.” “Run to the spot of the ball.” “Glove to the ground.” Nothing he hadn’t heard a thousand times before. Amazingly, one valuable comment did escape my mouth. I said, “Gus, normally I’m your coach, but here you are trying out for other coaches, and today I’m just your Dad. So do you want me to give you advice during the tryouts, or just shut up?” He paused for about, oh, three-tenths of a second, and replied, “Could you just shut up, please?”
Well, he was polite about it.
And, as agonizing as it was, I did just that. And he had a very solid tryout. He caught just about every fly ball, though, as always, each was an adventure. He wrestled each ground ball into his glove and made solid, if not spectacular throws to first. He hit a few balls hard, and fouled-off anything he couldn’t catch up to. He was always around the plate with his pitches, and blocked a number of balls in the dirt when he caught.
When we heard that there would be only one tryout (last year there were two rounds) all of us went home feeling like he had a solid 50-50 shot at making the team. Gus had spend the next two days talking to every friend, teacher, and building custodian he could find talking about how excited he was about the fact that he thinks he had a better chance this year of making the team than last year, and how nervous he was about it.
While Gus was at school, the e-mail came from the coach. I opened it and saw it was addressed just to me—not a good sign under these circumstances. It was indeed bad news: Gus had been among the last players cut from the team. Here’s a bit of that very kind note:
“We really enjoyed working with Gus in the fall and have seen a dramatic improvement in his skills and his confidence as a ball player. As always, Gus was attentive, hardworking, and respectful throughout the process and has been a pleasure to coach. I know Gus will continue to work on his game and will be a better player for it.”
Immediately Kirsten and I started texting and talking a mile a minute trying to figure out the right approach to giving our boy this piece of crushing news. Coach Joe had said a number of nice things about him, and that he’d like to reserve the opportunity to “call Gus up” if another player was not able to be part of the team for some reason. So stress the positive, right? We’re proud of him for giving it his all. He should feel fantastic at the fact that he’s among the top 10-year-old ballplayers in all of Arlington.
And I used all of these lines, and a few I can’t remember word-vomiting out on the walk home from school. But none of these words were a magic elixir, as I watched him struggle to hold himself together, his massive blue eyes welling up in disappointment.
I felt powerless. I couldn’t fix this. He had tried and failed, and he was devastated. To make matters worse, he was scheduled to pitch for my team the very next day against the league team that Coach Joe is in charge of. Unbelievably, my eternal spigot of words had run dry, so I just walked silently with him. He kept a few paces ahead so as not to make eye-contact. When we got home, he immediately made a bee-line upstairs to his room, and shut the door.
I could hear his cries of anguish from the floor below—my heart was shattering. But despite my strongest desire to barge right in there and hug, hold, talk, soothe…to save him—I didn’t go in. I realized that not only could I not rescue him from this pain, I couldn’t even make it a little better. He needed to go through this himself.
An hour later, Gus emerged red-eyed from his room, hungry. As I fixed him a snack, I casually mentioned the game against Joe’s team. “If you’d rather not start tomorrow, that’s no problem, bub.” At first, he said nothing. He just munched his Sun Chips. When he was done, he got up and ambled toward the bench by our back door where his glove rested. He picked it up, and, staring down at it, said, “Dad, can we go out in the back yard and practice pitching?”
“Just let me get my glove, big guy.”
The next day, he stared down a lineup of mostly all-star players, and he pitched his heart out. He gave up a couple of runs to in the first, but only one solidly struck ball. He struck out a couple of their best hitters, and absolutely dominated the second inning pitching not with his arm, but with his head. Up, down, inside, outside, fast, faster, slower, slow. He made the most out of what he had, and kept us in the game for three innings (the first time he’s ever thrown more than two).
We didn’t win the game, but Gus’ attitude rubbed off on his teammates. When the next team to use our field was showing up, parents looked up at the scoreboard, then looked at all the chatter, fire, and camaraderie in our dugout, and wondered aloud, “Which team is winning this game?” I could not have been more proud of Gus and the Grays—showing how passion and determination can transcend even the numbers that supposedly determine the difference between winners and losers.
And so this highly-involved, highly-verbose coach and Dad learned that sometimes by holding back, we give our kids the power to feel what they need to feel, and empower them far more than even the kindest words or biggest hugs can. So while being a hands-off guy is probably not in my future, I’m going to try and remember that sometimes shutting-up is actually the best advice of all.