You’re going to have a good hitting night — even when you’re missing it’s just by a little bit. You’re locked on. We’re listening as an Astros pitcher encourages a hit-less teammate in the Houston dugout during game 5 of a National League Championship series.
Later on, as then-Cardinal David Eckstein gets to first base, we hear a more casual conversation between two Astros players. One comments that Eckstein is the kind of guy you hate to play against, but would love to have on your team. Coming after a mere single, the comment would seem excessive if not for the context: Eckstein had just fouled a ball off his own leg. Rolling on the ground in pain, he wouldn’t leave the game. Instead, he walked it off, returned to bat, and got on base.
Any disquiet or guilty pleasure we might feel in engaging in this seeming eavesdropping is tempered by knowing we haven’t really indulged. These players are wearing microphones so their conversations can be shared with the television audience. Although unscripted, their comments aren’t entirely candid: it’s all part of the players’ performance for the TV cameras. For my part, I appreciate the producers’ forbearance, their selectivity. Even though players wearing microphones naturally become more guarded in their speech, no doubt there was other commentary available. Banging their gear around the dugout after bad calls (aren’t they all, when they go against you?), they clearly swear in frustration, and not always under their breath.
There are two good lessons here: things aren’t always what they seem, and we shouldn’t take it so seriously. After all, in this television age, baseball players are as much entertainers as athletes. What other life lessons does baseball offer us to justify time spent watching this coming season?
Practice, practice, practice. The shortstop leaps to catch the ball, whirling in mid-air to throw to first — a movement so seamless and deadly accurate it must be subconscious. Each player trains until they can do the right thing in the right way without even thinking about it. Moving beyond mere individual excellence, they learn to function as a team, executing double plays and other impossibilities perfectly. The dream of glory is grand, but there’s no shortcut to getting there — not for them, not for us.
Back-up your teammates. The pitcher runs across the third base line; the shortstop moves to second base; the second baseman acts as cut-off man for the throw from right field. On the next play they’re all on the move again, but to different positions. When a ball is dropped, or a throw is missed, someone is there to recover the play. They look out for each other: no defender plays alone, no position that matters is left untended.
Get on base. Even on offence, no one needs to do it all by their lonesome. A home run takes the breath away, but a base hit keeps the inning alive and can score runs just as effectively if not as dramatically. A sudden breakout is exciting, but steady positive pressure wins more games.
Celebrate your successes. Base runners wait at home to high-five the slugger whose hit out of the park drove them in. Every player in the dugout congratulates the lone scorer, and the guy who sacrificed himself to advance the runner. Infielders mark every out. Rightly viewed, every game is full of successes.
Encourage your teammates. Morale isn’t just the coach’s job: everyone is responsible. Like the Astros pitcher commenting on his teammate’s performance, informed and sincere encouragement from a peer is worth more than any amount of cheerleading.
Be ready to play hurt. Injuries large and small are unavoidable. On any given field, someone is playing hurt. Players know that the game goes on.
Some days, it rains. As Ebby Calvin Laloosh learned in Bull Durham, even though baseball is a simple game, sometimes you can do everything right and it just doesn’t amount to much. In life, as in baseball, some days it rains.
Out doesn’t mean over. Striking out, out at base, out of outs, out of the playoffs: there are lots of ways to be ‘out’ in baseball. But there’s always the next at-bat, the next inning, game, year. And even though it looks like it sometimes, it’s not really a zero-sum game. Someone wins, someone loses: that’s the format, all right. Yet for all the excitement of the win, all the dismay of the loss, a few years down the road hardly anyone remembers who won the day. What we do remember is how beautifully they played the game.