Time Well Wasted

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.


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10 Responses to Time Well Wasted

  1. Alison Uhrbach says:

    Although I was considered a “non sports fan” when I was growing up… I have always enjoyed watching baseball…perhaps now I know why. I found your article to be the encouragement I needed today! Right/write on!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      My own enjoyment of the sport increased an order of magnitude when I found I could sit in the stands in March and worry about nothing more complicated than sunburn….

  2. Derek Smith says:

    Brilliant Isabel! Changes the way I think about things….including baseball!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      My favourite baseball advice is from Johnny Bench, who says that to look like a knowledgeable fan, just yell “Balk!” at periodic intervals. Every once in a while you’ll hit it, and the folks around you will figure you’re (at least) as astute as the umpire!

  3. My fondest early memory of my father is playing on the rug near him as he listened to baseball on the radio. “…a swing and a miss….” (I can still say it with the rhythm it had). Like hockey fans who, they assure me, can tell what’s happening by listening, my father shouted and cheered, happily seeing the game in his mind’s eye. Later, as I grew older, so could I.

  4. Susan Wright says:

    Going to a baseball game is like going to the beach…lazy, slow moving with periodic bursts of activity. And if that isn’t enough, along comes the 7th inning stretch and they shoot hot dogs into the stands from giant bazookas! What’s not to love.

  5. M. Gibson says:

    “God willing, and the creek don’t rise” — I’ll see one of those games soon! I have my own baseball memories – put in the outfield as a player who was more interested in finishing her lunch than catching a ball (few on our school team could hit that far, so it didn’t matter that I could not catch it if they did). Eighteen in our one-roomed school, so everyone had to play – and still I learned to love the game! Go figure – it was never my performance that was celebrated – but my effort. They pitched easy balls to me, encouraged my attempts, included me as a member of the team – and for a non-athletic little kid, that meant a great deal. 80 years later I still love the game.

  6. Carolyne says:

    Isabel, your breadth of knowledge continues to amaze me. Most people around me scoff at baseball but I live in a household of Baseball Men. My husband and I often remark that baseball provides good analogies for life lessons and you have communicated that brilliantly here.

  7. Ditullio Brother's says:

    Isabel, love all your works, especially “Time Well Wasted” ….I found it to be inspirational and a welcome distraction to my very busy day….so thank you!! Joe Buck & Tim Carver would be proud how you sum up a simple summer pasttime…Bravo!!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Hey, Fast Freddy – thanks kindly. I’ve often thought our days at the office should be more like a ballgame – and not just the beer-and-peanuts part.

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