A child needs your encouragement

I grew up on the ball fields of a coal town in the northwest corner of Alabama. Baseball was my game.

I fell in love with the sport at an early age. I loved the smell of it, loved the feeling that overtook my body as I raced around the bases. Loved the way a bat felt in my hands, loved smearing glove oil all over my broken-in Wilson.

As a boy searching for something to pour his life into, I decided that baseball was a suitable container. And so I thrust myself headlong into the game. Luckily, our cable package offered the Mets on WOR-New York, the Cubs on WGN-Chicago, and the Braves on WTBS-Atlanta. A large part of my summer was spent Indian-style on the carpet in our living room, watching the players I fashioned into heroes: Darryl Strawberry, Andre Dawson, and Dale Murphy.

My father worsened my mania for the sport by ushering me to the ballparks of America. Every year, it was a new venue. First, it was Fenway Park in Boston. Then Wrigley Field in Chicago. Then Royals Stadium in Kansas City. Then Riverfront in Cincinnati. By then, I was completely convinced I would occupy the outfield in one of those stadiums one day.

This picture was taken on the Cincinnati trip. (L-R) Me, Dad, Mom.

But my eighth grade year, something terrible happened. One day, while I was warming up with a friend of mine, I wound up and threw the ball straight into the dirt.

What the—I thought to myself.

Across six years of playing baseball and making thousands of throws, that had never happened before. It was so…odd.

My friend laughed. I must have been joking or something. He retrieved the ball and tossed it back to me.

And it happened again.

Straight into the dirt for the second time.

Now this was getting weird. How could something so simple now be so difficult? What is wrong with you, Al? Can’t you throw the ball?

Then I started to aim the ball, and the next one sailed over his head. He was standing ten feet in front of me and I could not seem to get the ball to him.

By then, it was in my head. I can’t throw the ball. It was maddening.

It turned out to be a long season that year. Every game, I was petrified that I was going to throw a ball in the dirt and everyone would laugh at me. For a boy who loved the game of baseball as much as he did, it was very painful.

I continued to struggle with my throwing. The next year, I got cut from the high school team.

I still continued to love the game of baseball. My dad worked with me in the summer and I eventually got back on track, back on the team, and hit .420 my sophomore year.

My junior year began with high hopes. I had been one of the best hitters on the JV team, now hopefully I could make the varsity roster and compete with the seniors for a starting spot.

Unfortunately, that old throwing demon reared his ugly head. During warm-ups one day, I was tossing it back and forth with a buddy of mine. Since we all had to park our cars at the field, many of the vehicles were jammed in right next to where we were warming up. I remember it was a tight space. My throwing partner was standing right next to a vehicle, and because I didn’t want to shatter a windshield, I began aiming the ball. It went everywhere. In the dirt, over his head. And yes—into the car.

Here we go again.

It was a long, long season to say the least. I could not seem to get my throwing problem out of my head. Every day in practice, I battled it. I feared that people would laugh at me.

During games, I didn’t want to go in. I was a first baseman, and I remember visualizing the crowd chuckling vigorously after I threw the ball into the grass while tossing it back to the pitcher on an attempted pick-off play. I thought about holding onto it too long when I was turning a double play, the ball skidding across the dirt.

I could not seem to drown out the voices in my head telling me I was going to fail. That they were all going to laugh at me.

Our baseball team my junior year.

Because my father grew up in an old school, affectionless generation, I didn’t feel that I could approach him about my throwing problem. Let me state it more plainly: I was scared to talk to him about it, and my “weakness” would probably have infuriated him. Neither did I feel as though I could talk to my coach about it, even though he and my father were good friends at the time. In those days, you just didn’t talk to your coach about something like this. You sucked it up, fixed it, and shut your mouth.

So things went on like this that spring. I limped through the season and in the end chalked it up as the worst of my life. I swore I would never play baseball again.

And I didn’t.

After all, I wanted to have fun my senior year, end my high school career on a crescendo, not face some problem. So I walked away, and tried to put baseball out of my mind.

My father told me I would regret quitting baseball for the rest of my life.

So far, he was right.

****************

A few weeks ago, I went to watch a high school baseball playoff game. I am a friend of the head coach, and before the season started I promised him I would come watch a game or two.

As I stood there watching, as I gazed across the field and heard the sounds of the game—the dugout chatter, the ping of the bat striking the ball—I became a boy again. My mind danced with the images of my own youth, and again I went down to that field that forged the crucible of my life.

I was overcome with emotion and wondered how I could walk away from the game I once loved. Regret began to fill my body.

Why did you quit baseball? Why couldn’t you have just summoned up enough courage to go on? Why couldn’t you have picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, and overcome it?

Then this came into my head: The agony of regret is always greater than the temporary sting of humiliation. Better to have sucked it up for two months that senior year than to live a lifetime of disappointment.

And lastly: is it normal for 41-year-old man to go down to the baseball field and cry?

Over the years, I have tried to heal my hurt by pouring myself into sports in other ways. I was a basketball coach for awhile. I even coached one year of high school baseball.

There was some healing in that.

Then I started to write about sports. I had a number of interviews with famous sports legends. I thought that would heal me, but it didn’t completely.

After I left the baseball field that day, I tried to process what went wrong. Why I didn’t just shake it off and keep playing.

And I realized that I needed my dad.

I needed my dad to say to me, just one time, “Son, you’ve got this. I believe in you. Don’t worry about anything. You’ve got it.”

Or “You and I are going to walk through this together.”

Maybe I needed to hear my coach say that, too.

After my father died, I became very close with my baseball coach, and he has become more than a mentor to me.

The other day while we were at breakfast, I mentioned to him about the experience I’d had at the ball field. I told him about my throwing problem and how I needed some encouragement from him and from dad, but didn’t get it, so long ago.

And that morning, standing in the parking lot of Chick-Fil-A, he gave me the words I needed:

“Al, try to concentrate on the fact that you are accepted. God accepts you. You don’t have to do anything at all for Him to love you. And just try to rest in that.”

What profound words. 

I have worth and value because the Creator of the Universe cares for me. He has been there the whole time, cheering me on.

And as a Christian, my identity is found, not in what I do for a living or what title is beside my name or what my batting average is or whether or not I can throw a baseball, but rather in Jesus Christ.

I’ve lived an entire lifetime in debt and failure. Every day, I have felt like I’m starting at zero and have something to prove.

I’ve had it all wrong.

Jesus Christ died for me, and because of this, I am starting from victory. Victory, not failure, is my jumping off point. And in the game of life, I’m playing with house money.

So I don’t have to strain to achieve worth and value. I don’t have to perform. I don’t have to put on a show.

I’ve already won.

I am fiercely loved. I am accepted. I have worth and value—just as I am.

In the end, time has not healed me. Giving back to the game in various ways has not healed me. The only true healing I’ve found is through Jesus.

There is a child who grew up on the ball fields of America who needs your encouragement today. He needs to know he is accepted and loved.

And he needs to hear these terrific words, “Son, you’ve got this.” 78

P.S. There are daughters who need to hear that, too.

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