Sweaty eleven-year-old boys with freckles across their noses, Little League baseball games and ice cream in waffle cones mean the arrival of exactly one season. Summer. And it is here.
My son's team, the Rays, finished eighth of eight in the Little League regular season and began the playoffs last Friday night. With the sudden death structure of the tournament we expected this season of baseball to end for him last weekend. Five days and three games later, his team is still alive.
After an initial victory over the seventh place team, the Rays faced the number one Orioles two days later. Despite the triple-digit heat, the Orioles quickly put two runs on the board. When the Orioles shut the Rays out in the first three innings, it seemed like the first place team would live up to its ranking.
The fourth inning changed all that. One Ray after another connected the bat with the ball and put base runners on the diamond and runs on the scoreboard. It was 5-2 at the end of the fourth. It was 8-2 at the end of the fifth. In the sixth and final inning of the game, the Orioles inched within victory by putting four runs on the board with no outs. The Rays pitcher then struck out the Orioles' super star and that sealed the game for all interested parties --- on the field and in the dugout.
The scoreboard could not capture the most meaningful moments in the game, however. Virtually every kid on the Rays that struck out their first time at bat came back to lob the ball the second time around. When they struck out, their coaches clapped for them and shouted time-honored phrases like "you'll get 'em next time" and "shake it off."
And they did.
But it was not easy. Some boys clenched the bat in their hand and gave themselves a mini-lecture as they made their way back to the dugout. Some boys looked at the umpire in disbelief. Some boys cried. Some boys walked back to the dugout and gave a high-five to the next batter. Those latter boys impressed me.
Sitting uncomfortably on metal bleachers, it occurred to me that this 'strike-out, external encouragement, try again routine' is a critical process we must all learn to master --- on the baseball field and off.
I thought about the first grant proposal I slaved over my initial year in a tenure-track position. I opened the rejection letter ('strike-out') in the afternoon just moments before a student arrived for office hours."You don't look so good," she commented when she rounded my office door. I held up the brown envelope and explained that my first-ever attempt at external funding had not been successful. Without thinking she replied, "Rejection stinks, doesn't it?"
Short and sweet, it was just the right thing to say ('external encouragement'). After 12 years, not only have I never forgotten her comment but I have also quoted her on several other occasions. (It's astonishing how often "rejection stinks, doesn't it?" is the absolute right thing to say in personal and professional situations).
I have managed to 'try again' for grant proposals and other venues to support and further my work. I've also managed to 'try again' with my own children when various first-attempts did not quite achieve success, however it was measured. As I've grown older, I've even allowed myself to 'try again' when I was otherwise frustrated with how I handled a particular situation. Most of the time, though, I am not so good at the 'try again' stage of this process.I would rather not be there, to tell you the truth. I would prefer to skip the strike out stage. Who wouldn't?
But my son did strike out his first time at bat. And he came back two innings later and hit a beautiful line drive. The next batter brought him home. He called me over to the dugout. "Did you see that?" he wanted to know. (This is what every child wants to know in moments of success.) Inside, I wanted to tell him that what impressed me most, that what would stay with him in the long run, is the skill he acquires every time he walks away from a strike out and comes back to get a hit. Instead, I gave him a fist bump through one of the diamonds in the chain link fence. He grinned.
Tonight was not really a night for too much serious reflection though. It was a night for celebrating.The temperature actually dropped into the 90's by the end of the evening, there was an occasional breeze, and the eighth-place seed pulled out another victory. Most of the players made a serious deposit in their courage banks at some point in those six innings. But they didn't notice. They ran out of the dugout after the game and announced to each of their respective parents that "coach is treating at the ice cream store!" How sweet it is.