Sunday, September 2, 2007

Happy Birthday Dad

On a recent hot, hazy and humid summer day Susan, Alek and I, made an outing to a local playground where Alek likes to run around. At one point, he stopped to watch the pee-wee soccer game at the nearby field. Soon, he'll be running about and kicking the ball as we have enrolled him the preschool version. As I stood there contemplating the sports future of our somewhat physically reserved cutie pie, I was swept by a wave of nostalgia to consider the circumstances of My formative sports experiences.

It seems not so long ago that I too was on a hot and sweaty summertime field ready to embark on a season of farm team baseball. Certainly, I was older than Alek is now, somewhere in the early middle grades, which means I probably understood a lot more of what was going on. For example, I knew our team was a bunch of misfits rescued from "the draft", there were fat kids, not so skilled kids, the team sponsors kids, my younger brother and even a girl. The prognosis for success seemed highly unlikely, we'd be lucky to break 500. Yet the coach seemed undaunted, unphased, like the other coaches he could have had his share of the truely athletic kids, but he didn't make that choice.

So we practiced in the sun, running our drills, shagging balls, honing our little skills. Who knew what the other teams were doing? Other kids knew what position they were playing, whereas we had only narrowed the possibilities down to three each. I was playing catcher, shortstop and pitcher. Other kids knew their place in the batting order, all I knew was the fat kids were batting cleanup. It didn't seem sensible, one swung the bat like a golf club, the other swung it like a butterfly net.

Imagine my surpise when the green and white misfits of Potter and Assoc. (our gas station sponsor) started the season winning games, not by much at first, but as we kept winning we gelled as a team and the margins expanded. By the end of the season we beat our nearest competitor (sponsored by a dumpster company) something like 28 to 1. If I close my eyes I can feel the heat of that afternoon on the upper filed of Metcalf Middle School, the field near the road, I can feel it like yesterday. It is not a feeling of triumph or superiority. Despite our success I had never really lost the sense that we were underdogs, we knew we had to try hard, that most of us weren't albelled as natural talents. No the feeling of that game, that afternoon, that summer was the confirmation of things I had begun to suspect, that things aren't always the way they seem to be, that labels and expectations mislead, that they are traps for the unwary. The success of the team aside, my personal sensne of athletic competence was affirmed and has remained with me ever since. Even thoug sport never really became a core component of my self-identity, these realizations have had reprocussions in areas of my life beyond sports.

Aside from the above described self-confidence, I derived insights from tangible examples on the diamond. Quite quickly it became clear that having everyone ready to play a few positions was a big advantage, not only could we cover for anyone missing a game we also had a greater number of potential pitchers, important for when someone is having an off day. From this I appreciated the value of contigency and redundancy in planning. Another of our "secret weapons" was our willingness to take sensible risks, we stole bases at every opportunity, bases, plural. The other teams weren't prepared for runners going from first to third or second to home. This managed risk not only raised my self-confidence and real time decisiveness, it opened new opportunities to expand my horizons. Granted I would go on to err in estimating risks but on the whole I've come out ahead. Practices and games reinforced the value of teamwork over individual experience and nurtured skills over innate ability. It seemed to me that other coaches had a more static, more purely competitive startegy of drafting the best starting roster and relying on their pre-existing strengths. Looking back, I think this contrast helped me assess my prospects based upon my intrinsic motivation to improve and not upon the extrinsic guessimates of my potential.

I'm sure there are other life lessons from that summer in the sun that I am forgetting, probably ones I am not even conscious of. Certainly, it colors the way I watch sports, always rooting for the underdog. And it colors the way I participate in team sports, "everyone plays" is more important than winning and the two aren't mutually exclusive.

Turning my thoughts back to Alek, I realize these are some of the life lessons I want him to learn.. It is now that I am a father contemplating the future of my child that I really appreciate the gift you gave Adam and me by coaching our farm team. Thank you, and Happy Borthday, Love, your son...Erik

PS In hindsight, my narrative has a certain bad news bears vibe I hadn't appreciated before probably because I've been looking out from the inside. Ironically, the coach in that movie was played by Walter Mathau, who also played Oscar in the Odd Couple movie. In the Odd Couple sitcom that role was played by Jack Klugman, who went on to plat Quincy, which was your professional nickname! Don't ask me how I strung that one together.

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