Note: The majority of these article can also be heard on Episode 6 of the Do Whatever podcast.
My family lives in the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs. My wife grew up in the suburbs. Thanks to this pedigree, we believed that we were prepared for anything suburban life could throw at us.
“Throw the ball!”
We have deftly navigated noisy neighbors, barking dogs, block party politics, authoritarian home owners associations, and drag-racing teenagers. We were now bona fide adults! There is nothing this tame place full of bike paths, community pools and charming, stately street names can throw at us that we can’t handle with ease or shrug off as “first world problems.”
“Throw the damn ball!”
We work hard. We work hard to be good citizens, and more importantly we work hard to make our children good citizens. We want them to be confident, capable and kind. We know that not everyone shares those same values; even if they do, they might teach them to their children a little differently. The one promise that the suburbs are supposed to keep is that for the most part, the people around you are interested in being part of a community. After all, there are cheaper and more convenient ways to live for working adults. These little boxes are arranged just so - because in some small way, we sorta do want to be all the same. That way, it’s easier let your kids play outside until the street lights come on, because there are better odds that the people they meet will be as kind to them as you are.
“You gotta be kidding me!”
. . .
My older brother is the greatest natural athlete I have ever known. I have had the good fortune to meet, train and compete with people that are superhumanly strong, fast and agile. I have spent hours talking with athletes and coaches who, through decades of experience, understand the mental aspect of competition at a level beyond any psychologist or neuroscientist. None of them were as natural as Matt, though. My brother wasn't an intimidating figure, or a mountain of a man by any stretch. At the height of his playing days, he was maybe 230 lb. at six feet, two inches tall. He wasn't a speedster. He never clocked a sprint time worthy of note. He wasn't a stats and film geek. He always knew the scouting report on the hitters he was facing, but he didn’t let it dictate how he would pitch to them.
Matt was a gamer. I suppose nowadays he would be called a “baller.” He played every sport you are supposed to play when you grow up in Texas: football, baseball, basketball, football and baseball. He also played football. He dabbled in martial arts during college, nearly earning his black belt and going undefeated in every tournament he entered. He bowls in his downtime nowadays, and regularly dominates leagues. I never played a sport with Matt where he looked uncomfortable. He had an uncanny mind-body connection, and to this day it still amazes me.
However, Matt’s calling was baseball. As he neared the final year of high school, he was faced with a decision that many talented young men have to navigate: baseball or football. He was being recruited by college programs for both. He enjoyed football, and was the school’s starting varsity quarterback almost by default because of his physical gifts. He had also developed into a ferocious starting pitcher, and was known around the state for being a lefty with a fastball in excess of 90 mph. In the end, he accepted a full scholarship to the University of Houston to pitch.
Fast forward to the Phillies selecting him in the 7th round of the 1994 draft, a meteoric rise through the minor leagues, and three years as a starter in the majors – I would say he chose well.
I also played sports growing up. I played baseball. In fact, I even pitched. You can probably guess how things panned out for me by either doing a quick web search, or noticing the cover of this book doesn’t have any baseballs on it. I was mediocre at best, and I had no passion for the game. I languished in Junior Varsity until I quit prematurely to follow my other interests. Do I regret it at times? Sure. Looking back, I’m sure I could have put in the extra work and forged myself into a Division II player. The thing is, my life today is the sum of that decision along with millions of others. Overall, that one choice was pretty insignificant in the great scheme. What actually matters is that I am happy with the person I have become, and I have the respect and love of my friends and family.
That, and it was the right decision. I sucked at baseball.
. . .
I stood at the end of the bleachers next to my wife. We watched the game with the mixture of pride and fear that every parent experiences when their kid is playing. Our youngest daughter was in her stroller, alternating between yelling her big brother’s name and asking for more raisins. I had plenty of important things to focus on, but at one point all I could think about was the man twenty feet to my right.
In tee ball, the outfield is really just an overflow prevention squad. When a ball rolls out of the infield, they are there to scoop it up and get it back to the infield. This was my son’s first game. He was in centerfield when a ball rolled past the short stop, and into his life. He chased it down, tackled it and stood up ready to throw. Except no one had ever told him what happens next. There had not been any discussions of cut-off men, crow hops, or opposing coaches that will gladly keep sending runners when you hesitate. He simply looked up and tried to process it all. It probably lasted for all of five seconds, but it felt like minutes as he stood there holding the ball, frozen.
“Throw the ball!”
He was an older man. I would later find out he was the grandfather of one of our better players. Next to him in the stands was his son - the father of this player. They were both overweight, out of shape, and just a little too intense given their surroundings. In the moment he chose to shout at my son (whom he had never seen before today), he hadn’t held up his end of the deal in terms of “being part of a community.” Neither had his adult son when he laughed and shook his head.
I had never really understood how fist fights could erupt at little league games. The harshness of the old man’s words and voice though, coupled with the embarrassment starting to well up inside me, showed me just how quickly it could happen. Anger washed over me. I was approaching a decision point. Whatever happened next could potentially change a lot of people’s lives – including my son’s.
My son. He would either remember this day as his first baseball game, or he might remember this day for something that I did. As I stalled out at the absolute apex of my rage, I remembered something Matt told me weeks before. I proudly informed him that his nephew was about to start playing tee ball. In that conversation he told me
“Your job as a father has one-hundred percent nothing to do with how good he is at baseball. The only thing you can do at this stage is ruin baseball for him. Fun and fundamentals.”
Natural, as always. The issue was put to rest: I refused to make the day about our noisy neighbors, or myself.
So why, if I was able to let this go so easily, were these two men unable to sit silently or, heaven forbid, even shout supportively when a five-year-old had a wholly insignificant “crisis” on a tee ball field?
The answer was to be found in that twinge of embarrassment I felt when my son stood there with the ball in his hand. Why would I feel that way? Why, when I am a good, loving father who gives him everything? Why, when I have put my heart and soul into ensuring he will be a good man? What do I have to be embarrassed about? The answer is painfully obvious to anyone with children – I was embarrassed because I felt like I was standing out there with the ball. For a split second I projected onto him all my years of disappointment built through countless failures and embarrassments on the field of play. I deluded myself for a moment that everyone would blame me for his failure. The impostor would be found out and a new generation of people would find out that I wasn’t any good at baseball – that I wasn’t as good as Matt.
Thankfully, that moment of embarrassment passed from me as quickly as my anger did. Why? Because I have spent years crafting myself into a strong and capable man. My son knows this. My wife and daughter know this. The people I care about know this. My failures in sports, business and personal relationships don’t define me – neither do my successes. What defines me –what defines all of us – is who I am at this moment, and what I can do right now.
I don’t pretend to know that old man, nor his son. They are probably decent men who work hard and do the best they can. Most likely, they love and adore their children. What I do know for certain is this: When they yell “throw the damn ball” at a little boy, all they are doing is giving a voice to the years upon years of their lives spent not meeting their own potential. They dwell on their failures, or worse, burden others with their success. They don’t feel strong and capable. What struck me the most was how much their bodies reflected their attitude. Weak, overfed, underdeveloped, unprepared to meet any challenge. No father should feel this way. No father should allow his body and mind to deteriorate to a point where he lives in a constant state of insecurity.
Kids need strong dads.
Fathers owe it to their children to be strong.