This is now the 17th summer that I’ve spent running laps at the local high school track. Down a hill on the track’s eastern side are the school’s athletic fields – 3 baseball diamonds, 2 soccer ‘pitches’ and a lacrosse field. As I run around the southeast corner of the track I have a full view of one of the baseball diamonds that lasts for about 30 seconds or so, until my jogging puts the field behind me, out of my line of sight.
Yesterday there were two coaches walking a team of 14 or 15 year old boys through a series of infield drills. It seemed to me a try out for the team. The coaches wanted to see what the boys could do, what their skills were, which of them could field a hard grounder or catch a fly ball. The boys were stacked in 2s and 3s at each base. The coach would hit a grounder towards first, second, third, or short, and the boy at the front of that line would be charged with fielding the ball, and then making the proper play, generally throwing to first base.
There was one particular boy who caught my eye. Dirty white t-shirt. Non-descript grey sweats. Old logo-less baseball cap. He had longish hair (the look I remember from the 70s when I was growing up, that seems to come back every 10 years or so!). He did not move with the smooth grace of some of his friends. Stationed at first, I watched the coach hit the ball in his direction. He backed up slightly and stabbed his glove downward as the ball slipped through his legs. ‘Take another one!’ the coach yelled out. This ball to the boy’s left. It caught the bottom of his glove and dribbled up the first base line. He hung his head and walked to the back of the line.
I know what that feels like. We all do, in one way or another. Something we desperately want, someone we desperately want to be. And then that (terrible) moment when we realize it just isn’t going to work out the way we had hoped or even dreamed. In my mind I imagined the coach posting a list of names somewhere, those who had been chosen, selected to participate in a long summer of golden evenings, balls and strikes, wins and losses. And this young man walking down to see the list, knowing in his heart his name was not there, but needing to look, to confirm it. He goes when he knows no one else will be there. Alone, facing his fate. His eye runs over the list once or twice and not seeing his name, he turns his back and slowly walks home.
A bit later they had switched to fielding fly balls. The boy caught my eye again as a high ball sailed to his right. He tracked the flight of the baseball, ran, raised his glove, and there was a satisfying pop as the ball settled into the glove’s webbing. He casually transferred the ball to his throwing arm and threw it back to the infield. I thought, in the distance, I could see the hint of a smile on his face.
The Talmud teaches that a person cannot stand by words of Torah unless he has failed at them (Gittin 43a). That is to say through failure we grow, and ultimately in that growth we can find success and meaning. We might say the same thing about baseball. And even life itself.