I was so excited to go see my first Spring Training baseball game, the Orioles vs the Braves. I’m not really a fan of either team. I’m a fan of the game and the sport. I love being at the ball park, which brings back great memories of the days my mom and I saw the Cardinals play at Busch stadium in St. Louis. I was like a kid again sitting behind the home team dugout. This close to the players signing autographs and clambering in and out of the dugout. I got a good look at the goofy antics going on and was even within reach of the balls tossed into the crowd after each home inning. This was gonna be AWESOME!
Unfortunately for the home team, the starting pitcher was having a bad day. The manager left Jimenez in until the Braves had put 7 runs on the board and the lead-off hitter came up to bat for the second time in the inning. As he headed out to the mound to extract his pitcher a man in the 3rd or 4th row in the section next to ours shouted, “Way to go, Jimenez. You suck! It’s gonna be just like last year…”
I looked at this guy and all I could think was, I hope you’re not a youth sports coach. The man sitting next to me said, “Yeah, really.” Apparently I didn’t just think it, I said it. And, as it turns out, that guy turned to BE a youth sports coach.
There was a smattering of applause as Mr. Jimenez left the field. Most of us, I think, were hoping to drown out or at least to disavow the jeering man who stood alone shouting insults. It was spring training, for crying out loud. Practice games. Trying to find your groove. Just getting started. There’s a whole month until opening day. What are we doing shouting insults and discouragement at a player who is already beating himself up for his poor performance?
I suspect this young pitcher, getting the start today in the pre-season to the big leagues, has developed a pretty tough skin in his thirty-two years. You don’t get to pro sports without hearing your share of heckling and being on the receiving end of some tough criticism. But this is not the fan’s job. In fact, it is our privilege to come watch the game. Yeah, they gave up 7 runs in the first, but there was a lot of action, a lot of close plays, some great fielding, and some really terrific hitting – most of it by the Braves. It was fun to watch, all of it but the guy with the axe to grind.
Fortunately, he settled down as the game progressed. So did the O’s who came back with four runs of their own in the second inning. I loved that they kept scrapping to get hits and to score runs even after the disastrous first inning.
This was especially good because the dad-coach sitting next to me had brought his 7-year-old son to the game. Jayden was sitting there with his mitt at the ready, eyes glued to the game, chattering baseball talk with his dad. He knew all the player’s names and had a ball inked with a half dozen he had collected at batting practice. “He absolutely loves baseball.” the dad told me, “Though he plays basketball and soccer, he really loves baseball.” And so, when another ball was tossed his way from the dugout steps, he grabbed it and put it in the cup holder in front of him.
Guess who badgered him about keeping the ball. “That’s two!” heckling-man shouted in Jayden’s direction, “holding up two fingers to the seven year old.” The kid gave a confused look at his dad who whispered something in his son’s ear. The boy stood and walked down to the heckler’s row and offered the second ball … to a couple who was sitting near the aisle. They declined, thanking him but telling him to keep it. The boy returned to his seat and stashed the ball. The heckler sat down.
Later, I asked the boy if he was a pitcher. He looked at dad again who explained that this season they would play coach-pitched ball and start player-pitching the next. Then, everyone would get a chance to pitch.
“It would be tough to give up seven runs like that, wouldn’t it?” I asked Jayden. He nodded with a furrowed brow and a frown, but the crack of the bat called his attention back to the main event. He was too busy watching this great game to give much thought to anything else. That’s what love of the game looks like. It learns to ignore the distractions and attend to the encouragement in pursuit of the game.