One Kid at a Time
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Looking at the world sometimes, a person wonders what’s gone wrong. Everything seems so complicated and disturbed, and few seem to possess the compass (or compassion) necessary to guide themselves from one side of life to the other. Many people have, in fact, given up, resigned themselves to cynicism and defeat.
But consider this.
Some years ago, as an assistant baseball coach, I was presented with the challenge (which I now know was a fine opportunity) to help a rag-tag band of eightballs through, what was for some, their first baseball season. This was humbling work. Even the would-be Paradise Valley practice field presented serious problems—a good bit of our time was spent rock-picking the prairie.
Be that as it may, baseball is necessary. You learn to play it because by doing so you learn about life—it’s a metaphor for life, a training ground that prepares kids for what’s to come. And while Montana does much to prevent the sport from flourishing (late springs, seasons that end by Fourth of July, and not much level ground), truth is truth regardless of geography.
I could recall any number of the various misfits who fell into our hands that season, but one stands out, a quiet ten-year-old who never swung a bat, held a glove, or threw a ball in his life. His father was always away—working, I was told, as it was hard to make ends meet locally at the time. And little Manuel showed the signs of his father’s absence—he knew nothing about baseball.
The thing about Manny, though, was that more than anything he wanted to play ball. In that he was Hispanic, he gave you the feeling baseball was in his genes, the way swimming is in a black lab, that if he couldn’t play he would shrivel up and die.
Frank Horiel and I were coaches at that time. Frank was the head coach, the mastermind, the big cheese, and I did things like gather bats and balls after practice; but my subservient role gave me leave to take someone like Manny aside and work with him for ten minutes or so each day we practiced. What amazed me about this kid was his determination in the face of failure. He didn’t know a baseball from a potato, which was painfully revealed the first time he tried to play catch and got hit squarely in the face with the ball. It hurt badly, and he cried, but then cour-ageously sucked it up and was soon back at it. That was when I decided to take him aside. I didn’t want to see him get hit in the face again, or for his cour-age to go unrewarded.
Putting myself in his child’s mind, we started at close range. I literally introduced him to the ball, saying, “Manny, this is a baseball.” He was fascinated by it. He gripped it and pretended to throw it (kids love balls—the way dogs love bones). I asked him to stand about three feet away as I lobbed the ball into his glove, showing him how to squeeze it to keep the ball from falling out. He got that, and then we did the same thing at a farther distance. With his eagerness to learn, it wasn’t long before we were playing catch—what ought to be, by the way, the universal father-son ritual, an exercise that runs deep in a kid, a means of engaging in construc-tive play with Dad; which is what every boy wants, girls too. If done often and with gladness, this simple thing would make the world a much better place.
So, Manny learned to catch and throw. Progress could have been swifter, but we only practiced twice a week. We also learned that his batting skills were non existent. When he first stood at the plate, he positioned himself perpendicular to the pitcher’s mound. We turned him ninety degrees and gave him some pointers; but as I recall he also got hit by the ball at the plate, and it was heartbreaking. The most amazing thing, though, was that he wouldn’t give up. He wanted to play ball—to be part of the team, one of the guys, no matter what. So, again, it fell on me to take him aside.
As before, I stood close to this amazing kid and tossed the ball at his bat, which I asked him to hold in front of him. We did that a while, then at greater distances until he knew what it felt like to make contact. The great thing was that he would do anything we told him. If we told him jumping in the river would make him a ball player, he would have jumped in the river, which caused me to consider the respect and obedience he gave as a sacred trust.
Manuel improved with each practice, and it was gratifying to see this otherwise isolated boy clowning with the other kids—we had our share of poorly adjusted kids that season, kids whose fathers apparently could not grasp that interaction and patient discipline produce wonderful results in their children.
Our Bad New Bears won only a single game that year, so our victories came in smaller measure than most teams—a base hit here, a strike out there. It was humbling, but what was even more humbling was how those kids responded to guidance. Even the most incorrigible among them, it was obvious, wanted the care and attention of an adult male.
In a game toward the end of the season, one of those small victories came as Manny stepped up to the plate. The same kid who earlier didn’t know how to hold a bat belted out a base hit, his first ever, and I wish the entire world could have seen his face as he rounded first (we had to stop him so he wouldn’t get thrown out at second). It wasn’t joy that shone on his face as he hovered over the bag, it was surprise, adrenalin, and accomplishment. He was pumped like a black lab retrieving a stick from a lake, his fists loosely clenched as he bobbed up and down, ready for more.
Why tell this story? —Everyone starts out as a child. By learning to master things adults consider second nature, kids thrive and begin to embody the natural image within, the man or woman they can become. But they need care and attention to do this, a guiding hand. They need someone who understands what they don’t know, the basics we take for granted, someone who will work with them consistently. The converse is also true, that without care kids turn inwardly upon themselves, having been taught through neglect that what they need within themselves to be happy they don’t deserve. They see themselves as unworthy, unloved, and they become self-destructive because they secretly hate themselves. Imagine a world full of such people. Or a world full of base hitters.
If only you could have seen his face.
Sign up’s in April.