I have a few obsessions in my life. These obsessions very nearly touch into the realm of religion. Music, comedy, movies, and baseball. This time of year is like an awakening of my soul after a winter of nothingness. My love affair with baseball is perhaps my strongest tie to my mother and her father, my namesake. From an early age it was drilled into me how great a game it is, and I desperately wanted to learn every nuance of it. When the time came for me to play Little League, I was more than happy to get out there and play.
My very first at-bat I was drilled in the arm by a fastball. That should have been a sign to me at the ripe old age of 10 that playing baseball and watching it would be two totally different balls of horsehide. I’ve never been what anyone would even remotely consider “athletic,” though towards the end of my baseball playing days I was good enough to where the high school coach had heard my name, and one other kid’s name (ironically the kid who beaned me in my first ever at-bat) as being incoming Freshman with potential. That however, was years after my introduction into playing baseball. For the first few years, I was an average fielder and I was pretty much lost at the plate.
My second year in Little League I was blessed with getting a coach who understood not only the fundamentals of baseball, but what it means to the psyche of pre-teen boys. Bernie was the assistant principal of the High School at the time, and I was on a team with his son Nick, a talented pitcher who I believe is still pitching professionally to this day. Every practice and every game I’d get my one or two at-bats and every time I’d either strike out, walk or get hit, and it was starting to get daunting.
I told my mom after one practice in particular that I wanted to quit. She told me that was just not going to happen and that I should talk to Bernie about it, so I did. Bernie told me under no uncertain terms what a fool I was being. He told me that it takes time to be able to hit well. Then he asked me what my batting average would be if I only got a hit once every three times. “You’d be a .300 hitter, James.”
Bernie told me that he just wanted me to keep trying, and to learn something every practice and every game. He had me work with one of the other kids’ fathers who was also an amazing coach. He started me on the path of at least being able to make contact. I struggled and struggled with it for another couple of years. In a cruel twist of fate, my abilities as a fielder were progressing faster, and I was able to get more time on the field because of it, but I was never reliable as a hitter.
For weeks I practiced my hitting. My mom would take me to the batting cages. I didn’t like hitting in front of other kids, especially my far more talented younger cousins. They were naturally gifted athletes, and I felt inferior being older and unable to make solid contact. Looking back on it, I absolutely should have practiced with them. I’ve learned as a musician that if you want to get better, you play with people who are far superior to you in skill set.
Finally all the practice paid off and in one game I made solid contact with the ball and got myself a single. Later that year I had a base hit in our championship game. From there I kept improving in the batters box. I was never so great to where I was on All-Star teams or anything like that, but by the time I played my last year of Little League I was a good enough player to where I was starting and finishing every game, and my coach tried to get me as much playing time as he could, so I got to try and catch and pitch as well.
What baseball taught me is that failure after failure should never deter you from reaching your goal. If you love doing something, no matter how bad you are at it at the time, you have to keep trying. It also taught me that when other people you respect encourage you and believe in you, improvement is inevitable. Baseball is a game rife with metaphoric possibilities. It’s a microcosm of life’s trials and tribulations. The lessons I learned I want to impart to my son, which is why next year he’ll be playing tee-ball.