My heart jumped into my mouth as my adult son, Doug, began to unwrap the baseball supplies he had purchased for his son, Harris, ahead of the beginning of his first T-ball season.
Spilling from the plastic bags were tiny shoes with baseball cleats, two gloves (one for Harris and a lefty for little brother, Fisher), three balls, a bat and a stiff rubber T-ball stand. This Papa immediately cleared his throat, regained his composure and promised that Gran and I would buy batting helmets. Since Doug played baseball all through high school, and Janice and I spent many a nine-innings (or more) on hard, wooden bleachers, this was a holy, transitional, coming-of-age moment in our extended family.
Believe it or not, our family baseball legacy goes back even to my own boyhood. Although my sports experience as a kid was limited, due to my serious lack of athletic talent, baseball was the one team sport on which I spent the most time. While Doug opened those packages, my mind instantly raced way back — to a special day in about 1954. We were on the ballfield, next to the Teenage Canteen, in Meridian, Miss., when our first baseball uniforms magically arrived.
Since I was such a scrawny, short kid, my jersey was the smallest and had the number 1 on it; oblivious to any negative inference by that lowest number, I took that number 1 to mean that I was, somehow, in a sort of first place on the team. On that warm, spring day, each one of us boys were so thrilled to get our hot, thick, white cotton pants and shirts with Smith’s Sunbeam Bread (our sponsor) emblazoned on the front and a red number on the back, along with those fancy authentic-looking baseball stockings, that we all immediately ran behind the building housing the dry-cleaners, across the street, to strip to our underwear and put on our treasured uniforms.
When Harris got his stuff the other day, I was mystically transfixed and simultaneously made alive more than normal, while existing in three time zones simultaneously. I remembered putting on my first uniform, behind the dry cleaners; I thought of Doug’s first baseball shirt from the YMCA team; and then, I was transported back to the present, as Harris got his first glimpse of the big boy equipment for what he likes to refer to as “real baseball.”
“We went straightway (as they say in the Bible) to the side of the front yard, where Doug previously had attached a white sheet on the side of the fence, to serve as a makeshift back stop.”
We went straightway (as they say in the Bible) to the side of the front yard, where Doug previously had attached a white sheet on the side of the fence, to serve as a makeshift back stop. Doug gave some quick pointers, and Harris commenced to swing with all his might. As a totally unbiased observer, this Papa was pleased with the smooth swing that seemed to flow naturally from those nearly 6-year-old arms and wrists. Harris easily found a proper stance and, although his positioning in the makeshift batter’s box beside the T could stand some improvement, he stood confidently and swung that bat like a pro.
Papa pulled out his ever-ready mobile phone camera and began to take lots of candid shots. Before long, Papa engaged the video camera with sound. That already precious video which will forever be kept securely among our family’s archives, records Papa saying, “Good swing! Do it again!” following Harris’ first attempts. Behind Papa, there was an echo. As soon as Papa said something like, “Good job, Bud. Do it again!” young brother Fisher can be heard mimicking me, saying the exact same thing in his higher-octave voice.
After a few swings, Harris stepped back from the plate, choked up on the bat, straightened the bill of his cap, and turned toward Fisher. Looking keenly in the face of his almost 3-year-old brother, Harris said, “Hey Fisher, are you gonna’ be cheering for me at the games when I play?” Sensing that this was a brother-to-brother conversation, Papa refrained from answering and waited for Fisher’s response. Without hesitation, Fisher immediately almost shouted, saying, “Yeah, ABSOLUTELY!”
I did not drop the mobile phone/camera, but I almost did. This holy ground felt a little slippery. I cannot tell you how many times I have played that video since then. Each time, I wait for Fisher’s reply to the question. And each time, I thank God that, while both of these boys have lots of baseball training ahead of them, their parents already have taught them one vital lesson.
“Fisher knows that his brother (and all of life’s brothers and sisters, actually) needs affirmation. He also knows that he is capable of giving it.”
Good coaches will surely need to teach them better how to field the ball, how to throw it hard to first base or to the infield when playing outfield. They will need to know much more about the basics of the game, of course. But in just less than three years, before he has ever donned a fancy uniform, Fisher already has learned a far more important lesson, useful not only for the game of baseball, but also for the game of life. Fisher knows that his brother (and all of life’s brothers and sisters, actually) needs affirmation. He also knows that he is capable of giving it.
Many times in his life, others will seek his blessing in their “up to bat” endeavors, although they rarely will ask for that affirmation as directly and unmistakably as Harris asked if Fisher would cheer for him. Fisher will come to understand that honest critique and good coaching also are vital in life. But I thank God that this little boy already knows he is “absolutely” prepared to cheer for Harris.
Dear Lord, grant me the wisdom to see clearly this virtue and help me to develop the spiritual capacity to make this a fundamental and reliable practice in my life. May I strive always, whether I am coaching the team or playing side-by-side, amidst the game’s dust and dirt, to affirm others, to cheer for them, to encourage them and to bless them with my continuing support.
Far more important than any participation trophy or a championship one, regardless of the number on our uniform or even how well or poorly we play the game, every member on our human team needs always and often to hear us respond in an authentic, authoritative and convincing way, “ABSOLUTELY!”
Bob Newell has served as a university professor and administrator, a local church pastor and a cross-cultural missionary. He and his wife, Janice, now live in Georgetown, Texas, and he serves churches as transition coach and intentional interim pastor. They were the founders and remain advocates of PORTA, the Albania House in Athens, Greece.
The Atlanta Braves and the window of hope | Opinion by Richard Wilson
When following the line leads us astray | Opinion by Glen Schmucker
The power of an encouraging word | Opinion by Robert Sellers