I had an epiphany at 75 miles per hour this afternoon.
I was hurtling back home to San Francisco after a couple travel baseball tournament games in Manteca. About a 90-minute drive, depending upon how willing you are to risk a speeding ticket. My eldest son, Max, has been playing on this particular baseball team for about a year. The spring season was all-in, culminating in a family trip to a very cool tournament last summer in Cooperstown. For this fall season, we decided (Max included) that he would focus principally on soccer. Fall is generally and rightly regarded as THE time of year for soccer. That meant Max had to sort of demote himself to a “practice player” on his baseball team. The team stocked up on several new players, many of which I know nothing about. Except that they all elected to put baseball first this fall season.
Max chose to put it second.
He worked so hard to make the baseball team in the first place — think hitting balls off the tee for weeks, at night, in the backyard after dinner, with a headlamp on, until his calloused hands bled. That experience alone, make the team or no, was worth the price of admission. I never worked hard for anything until I was probably already in my 20s. If then. So to see Max out back last fall in the pitch black, ping ping ping the sound of his bat in the throw of his headlamp’s light? Pretty cool.
But there are consequences to choosing one thing or another. As a practice player, Max would not be playing in tournaments. He would regularly miss practices. And the practices he could attend, he typically showed up 30-60 minutes late, arriving on the heels of a soccer practice down the 101. Other players would make every practice. And they would be there early. And they would show up at every game, hungry to play every single inning.
Max’s voice would be conspicuously absent from the dugout, as he basically left vacant the spot he worked for — harder than anything he’d ever worked for before.
Today marked the first time Max was available to play in one of his baseball team’s fall tournaments and his coach invited him to come. Hence the drive to Manteca this morning. The morning after Halloween. After cutting himself off at a fistful of Halloween candy and getting to bed earlier than he otherwise would. Max was fired up, warpaint on his cheekbones, ready to go.
Only it didn’t happen. As much as I had tried to manage our expectations — Max is the only practice player; everybody else has put in their time and worked hard — neither of us was prepared for the consequences today. Max never played so little as he did in his team’s two games today. The times when he would generally be popping out of the dugout racing to his spot on the infield? Those times never happened. The times when he would step up to the plate, ready to get on base anyway he could? None of those times happened either.
He was crushed. I was crushed. I tried desperately not to let my bubbling anger show on my face. I refused to catch his eyes when he looked for me, peeking out of the dugout. I didn’t trust myself enough; I was afraid he would see my strong emotions and adopt them as his own, uncertain as he was as to how he should deal with this unfamiliar dynamic.
In the aftermath of the second game, I found myself melodramatically hurling my large cup of Coke into the trash can. I muttered (probably louder than just “muttered”) a number of F-Bombs I couldn’t help but sprinkle into my neck vein-bulging rants. Directed at no one in particular, just expressing my frustration. I don’t know that any of the other parents heard me. I hope not. But at the time, I didn’t care. I was angry, disappointed, embarrassed, confused. My adrenals were squeezing and it took everything I could muster not to say something stupid to someone who would not forget what I said and which I could not take back later.
There are times when a 90-minute drive is the best medicine.
After Max vented in an age-appropriate way (fewer F-Bombs), he suddenly fell asleep. Warpainted cheek pressed against the window. And was snoring out loud within only a couple minutes. He had never played less than he played today, but he was exhausted. Drained. From his little jelly head trying to figure out what to do with this.
Then it dawned on me.
His coach had given Max a gift. The Gift of Adversity. I don’t know whether he intended to bequeath this gift or not. But that doesn’t matter. The best thing about sports, about travel baseball and soccer, about the daily existence both of our kids are currently navigating, is the innumerable opportunities to handle and manage adversity. Everyone gets knocked on their ass, over and over again. Everyone gets knocked onto the canvas. And with your saliva-dripping cheek on the threadbare canvas, you have just two choices. It’s simple, really–
(1) Stay down.
(2) Get back up. Now.
I think Number Two is probably one of those key things in life.
Max got punched in the gut today, effectively. And I’m actually thankful for that now. I get to stand over his prone body, put my hand on his back, and ask him: “You have two choices, my boy. You can stay down. Or you can get back up. Now I’m going to walk back over to our corner, step through the ropes, and watch. I’m here for you either way. But it is your choice. Not mine.”
Here’s hoping he chooses well.
Thanks for reading.