Friday, September 10, 2010

A League of Their Own (Wes' season)

This last and final baseball entry is about Wes and his season. I entitled it 'A League of Their Own' because Wes' team was one of those special teams that you hope to experience in your sport's career. I am going to do my best to describe it.

We prayed and prayed that Wes would get on a good team with a good coach for a couple of reasons. One, Wes had been on a team the prior year that had really struggled and we were hopeful he might be on a better one this season. Two, while all of our boys love baseball, Wes takes the cake. He is about as fanatical as they come for an eight year old.

Every spring afternoon, Wes would spend a couple of hours, at least, practicing baseball. As I would do the dishes, I would look out the kitchen window and see Wes out in the back yard practicing running the bases. As I homeschooled the others, I would hear him throwing the ball up against the side of the house. While I made supper, I could hear him in the garage doing hitting drills. No, I am not kidding. Joshua is pretty disciplined about practicing, but I think Wes even beat him out on hours of practice. I started referring to Wes as Mr. Baseball.

So, you can see why we were hopeful he would get on a team with a coach that took it serious. Well, did God ever answer that prayer...

Wes was put on the Pirates. From the first five minutes of his first practice, we could tell that Wes had a great coach. Eric came home from that practice and said,'this guy really knows what he's doing. He sure can teach the fundamentals of the game.' Now, I am not one to like to sit through watching practices; in the past I have considered them a bit boring. But, after watching one Pirate's practice, I was hooked. This guy (Coach Matt) could even make practice exciting to watch. Pretty soon, Eric and I were fighting over who got to take Wes to practice!

Coach Matt was one of the most efficient coaches I've ever seen. He was completely on top of every drill they did. He had a knack for getting every bit of talent out of each of the players he coached. He was hard but he also really cared about the boys and made it fun. It was kind of like seeing tough love in action.

He was every bit as efficient off the field as he was on. He sent out detailed emails letting us know exactly what was going on when. Not only that, but you would have thought these boys were on an all-star team, as he had us order two different pair of baseball pants for the boys with black belts and black socks. One pair of pants were black and white pin striped. The other pair were gray with a black stripe down the side. He then gave us a schedule of which pants to wear for each game. He also bought black Pirates batting helmets for them to wear when batting. For himself, he bought the traditional black Pirates baseball hat and shirt to wear to each game. Whether or not we would be any good was still out on the table, but we sure were going to dress the part. All of this extra effort on his part made the anticipation mount; we anxiously awaited opening day. And I thought, 'Mr. Baseball (Wes), meet Mr. Baseball (Coach Matt).' Yes, our Mr. Baseball had met his match!

We needn't have worried about whether or not our talent was going to be able to match our attire. The Pirates won their first game 20 something to 0. It was a bit of a blow out and I started to feel badly for the other team and hoped they would at least get on the board.

Every game began to be a repeat of that first one. Now, you would have thought it would have started to get boring--to win every game by so many runs. The interesting thing is, it didn't. It got more and more exciting. There was something special about the chemistry of our team. As my mother-in-law said, 'there is just something magical about them.' I was amazed at the defensive ability of these eight and nine year olds. That is basically why our opponents couldn't get many runs on the board; they couldn't get much by them. We saw them turn several double plays. We saw some amazing catches. And we saw these boys instinctively know at what base to make the play. Many of the teams had difficulty stealing second because our catcher could get them out at second. We heard Coach Matt say more than once, 'defense always beats offense. Always.' Now, the boys could really hit the ball too, but it was their defense that made them stand out and made them truly fun to watch.

Coach Matt is 100% Italian...if you can picture 'Cake Boss' except in the world of baseball, you've got the picture. He could be--well--intense. He has that typical Italian personality. He doesn't hold back what he is feeling when he is feeling it. So he culd be explosive one minute and encouraging the next. The thing is, for every bit of his toughness, he was equally praiseworthy over a good play. Not only that, the time and effort he put into these boys was unbelievable. He took them and paid for ice cream for the team after several games. He reserved and paid for batting cages for batting practice for the entire team at least twice. He offered to meet with the boys individually outside of practice and work on hitting or fielding. And when the season was about midway through, he sent out an email inviting the entire team and families to an end of season cookout and swim party at their community pool. He really put his all into this team.

Well, at the end of the regular season we were undefeated. I think the closest anyone ever came to beating us was within six runs. We were excited to play in the tournament. We had been playing National League teams all season...but their were two teams in the American League that we would eventually face that were going to be hard to beat. They were both good hitting teams and pretty good defensively. We would have to be playing our best to beat them.

The tournament began. We won our first three games easily by several runs. At this point, we advanced to the semi-finals. There were four teams left and it became double elimination. The next team we faced were the Blue Jays. In my opinion, they were our toughest competition. It was going to be pretty evenly matched and our boys would have to fight through the game and give it their all if they were going to beat this team.

This game was the biggest nail biter in history. Not to mention, Eric had stayed back for a couple of days in Murray, KY to be with his grand-dad (his grandmother had just passed away), and it was just me and Owen, my three year old, at the game. AND, Joshua's team was playing a few fields over at the same time in their tournament game, which was also a nail biter. What's a mom to do? I was running back and forth like a chicken with its head cut off, dragging Owen with me and cheering like a crazy woman. INTENSE, to say the least! I earned a few more gray hairs that night, for sure.

Basically, it was an extremely close game, resulting in it being tied 6 to 6 in the last inning. This was the first time we hadn't scored several runs in a game because this was the first time we had ever played a team that could stop us in the field. The Blue Jays had some amazing catches in the out field to say the least. Also, our defense played an impeccable game that night. To be honest, it was close to perfect--the best defense I had seen them play yet.

Tied 6-6, we went into extra innings, with the Pirates having the home advantage. That flip for Home probably won that game for us. We got a couple of runs in, making the score 8-6. They then got another run in, making it a one point ballgame. They had some players on base, yet we were able to hold them and win the game. YES! Coach Matt praised the team that night for their defense and warning them that we would see the Blue Jays again. You see, the Blue Jays were now in the losers bracket; they would play the loser between the Rays and the Marlins. However, most likely they would win that game, resulting in them playing again. We would play the winner between the Rays and the Marlins (are you confused yet? I know! But hold tight, even if you don't really get who's playing who. The ending is worth it!).

The Rays ended up winning, so next up would be the Pirates vs. Rays and the Bluejays vs. the Marlins. This game was super important because both the Rays and the Pirates had yet to lose a game. Whoever won this would have a huge advantage. All they would have to do is show up on Friday night for the championship game and win. The loser however, would have to win three games to become the champions.

Now, remember, we are going into this game yet to have lost a game, and we are the only team in the whole Lyndon Recreational League with an undefeated record. Going into a tournament with such a record can sometimes be a disadvantage because whether you mean to or not, you get a bit of an 'air', if you know what I mean.

So here we go. The biggest game of the year. Rays vs. Pirates. From the start, it was as if all was against us. It seemed as if the game was 'off' from the start. Coach Matt was wound up tight. Our boys were wound up tight. As a result, our guys made fielding errors they hadn't made all year. I have to say it was a real let-down. It's harder to stomach a loss, I think, when you know you could have played better.

As we walked to our cars that night, I wondered how our team would react to this loss. We hadn't ever had to deal with losing before. Would it get the best of us? Would they be able to keep it from ruffling them? I knew our team had a lot of talent but could it come back on Friday and do the seemingly impossible feat of winning three tough games? Only time would tell.

Friday rolled around and we (as Coach Matt predicted) faced the Blue Jays again. To make it to the championship game we had to beat the Blue Jays and then immediately play a second game against the Rays. If we were able to muster up a win against the Rays, we would then come back the following morning and play the Rays one more time for the Championship title. All the Rays had to do tonight was waltz in and play the winner of the Pirates and the Blue Jays.

Well, the Blue Jays were out for blood. This turned out to be, again, just as much as a nail biter as the very first tournament game we played against them. Except this time they wanted revenge. BAD. But we had something that night that I think gave us the edge to pull out a win. Remember the infamous line between Julius and Gerry in 'Remember the Titans'?

'Attitude reflects leadership.'

That night's game showcased Coach Matt's love for his boys. He showed up with a sound system for the game that night so that the boys could be announced prior to the game and prior to batting. He had music playing from the sound system before the game and in between innings. At the beginning of the tournament, Coach Matt had told the boys he would get a mohawk if they won the championship. So, all around the dug out he hand hung these posters:

Coach Matt set the tone for the evening by making it fun. Rather than our boys being wound tight, our boys caught the spirit and looked like they were having the time of their lives. The attitude definitely reflected the leadership that night.

Play Ball!

And that our boys did. I daresay both teams gave it their all. It was back and forth, good play after good play. Both teams were 'on'. Both teams looked unstoppable.

But we edged ahead our last time to bat. We were the visitors so we had to hold them. And that we did!

The Pirates were headed to the Championship!

The Rays waltzed out on the field. Cool and crisp, clean and tidy, not having played a game minutes before. Oh, this one was going to be a tough one. Could we do it?

From the start the Rays seemed to have the upper hand. And we just looked, well, tired. Even though we were down a couple of runs in our last inning up to bat (we were visitors again), I just couldn't shake the feeling that this game wasn't over yet.

One out.

Two outs.

Last person up to bat.

Two strikes. Full count.

Ball is pitched. Bat is swung. The bat connects with the ball, with a beautiful cracking sound. The ball is hit out into the field. Bases are rounded...

In a crucial moment with two outs and two strikes, the tide is turned. Just like that. When the inning ends, we are up by two. The Rays seemed stunned and perplexed when they come up to bat. They can't get anything going, and ...

The Pirates won!!!!

Yes! We are headed to the championship that next morning. We must play the Rays one more time and win to be the champions!

That next morning, the smell of victory was in the air. You just sensed it was going to be a good day. You sensed Coach Matt would be heading to the barber after the game.

I wish I could remember every detail to tell you. Every play. I wish I had recorded it right when it happened. It was one of those special moments in your sports career that every boy dreams of. Some get to experience it more than once. Some never get the chance. My eight-year-old boy got to taste and smell the sweetness of a championship victory. It was as if he had just won the Worlds Series (parents, you know what I am talking about!). It was a special moment, indeed! A cherished moment in the life of our family to forever be remembered.

Coach Matt did go and get his mohawk and we had a pool and pizza party immediately following the big win. A fun way to end a fun season.

And next year we get to do it all over again. :)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Joshua's Season

As I stated in an earlier post, Joshua had been playing on a travel baseball team for the last two years. However, the coach had decided to discontinue the team for the coming year. So we had to make a decision on where he would play. We chose to have all of our boys play recreational ball at Lyndon.

Joshua was randomly assigned to the Bluejays in the 12/13 year old league. To say that the team got off to a rough start would be putting it mildly. They couldn't seem to win a game nor even come close to winning, for that matter. Their team seemed to lack energy and excitement. While the team may have been struggling to perform, I was definitely impressed with the kid's behavior. The coach in the very first practice let them know that he did not entertain any language from the players on his team and if he heard any that they would not play. I was very thankful for his coach's stance on that as I saw and heard otherwise on other teams. From the start, there were no bad attitudes or issues of that sort from any of the players and I truly believe it was because the coach set that standard from the beginning.

Joshua's playing was adequate; there still seemed to be some kind of disconnect going on when he stepped up to the plate. He just didn't perform. Don't misunderstand what I am trying to say. Not everyone is going to be a great baseball player, and that is fine. We have always asked our kids to just do the very best they can, whatever that may be. Give your all; don't hold back. It was just this feeling that he wasn't quite giving 100%; like he was holding back something. The strange thing about all of this was that Joshua is one of the hardest working, disciplined kids I've been around. He is extremely competitive and usually does give his all. I continued praying that God would turn Joshua's hitting around, that He would build Joshua's confidence and that they would at least win a game.

So the season continued and slowly the Blue Jays improved, yet they still couldn't seem to win a game. One practice, about mid season, the coach had them all bring their favorite fruit to practice. Their hitting practice consisted of hitting fruit. The team had more fun that night then they had probably had at all their games combined. I don't know if the coach expected this, but the payoff from that night of practice was strangely fruitful. The next night at their game, the Blue Jays turned it on at the plate. They were on fire and played like we'd never seen them play. They had an energy and excitement we had yet to see them have. They played well and won! While I can't say they suddenly became this amazing team that couldn't be beat, they definitely turned a corner that night. They finally began playing together as a team, displaying zeal and confidence that hadn't been there before.

Little by little, Joshua improved. Little by little his confidence seemed to be coming back. He began to get on the base more than not. And if he could get on the base, you could almost guarantee a run. Yet, there still seemed to be something holding him back...

The last game of the regular season, the Blue Jays faced the Cardinals who were #1 in the league. At the beginning of the season, our coach had told our team that they would beat the Cards before the season was over. That goal had and still seemed to be unattainable.

Yet something completely amazing happened that night. Our team was completely on their game that night. The score went back and forth throughout the game. In the last inning, we were down by four runs. But the Bluejays came back and tied it! We were now going into extra innings!

It seemed from this point forward for every play we made the Cards couldn't. For every pop fly we caught, the Cards couldn't. For every hit we got, the Cards, couldn't. In short, we outplayed them and won!

While Joshua had had an error or two early in the game, he was on fire for the rest of it. He had some incredible hits, great base running and great defense.

After the win, the coach gathered them around and what I heard I will never forget. He said: 'I told all of you that we would beat the Cards before the season was over, didn't I? At the beginning of the year, I knew we were lacking in talent, that some of you were playing baseball for the very first time and that it was going to be a slow go. But I've always said that baseball is more about the heart than about talent. And that's what I saw tonight. I saw a lot of heart. I would rather have someone with a lot of heart playing for me any day than someone with talent and no heart. Also, Grogan and me--we had a little talk early on in the game, didn't we Grogan? He had a few errors and he was mad and down on himself. I told him 'are you going to throw away the rest of the game because of a few errors? Baseball is a game of second chances. It's a forgiving game. You got to look forward and focus on what is in front of you, not on what you did or didn't do. And Grogan did just that and look at the kind of game he had. Never forget that boys. It is the game of second chances.'

Okay, that is about the best talk I ever heard. I think he deserves a baseball academy award for that one. It suddenly hit me that he had just summed up what we had seen Joshua do for the past two years. Joshua is about as perfectionistic as they come and can get down on himself for the smallest mistake. This 'talk' was exactly what Joshua needed and exactly when he needed it. It was a break through. I realized in that moment that God had been hearing my prayers all season and was answering them in His way in His timing. He had everything under control. I knew in my spirit that something changed that night. It was the monumental breakthrough that we had been praying for him.

The tournament started the very next week. Being that we had one of the worst records in the league, we were scheduled to play the #1 team. Yes, you guessed it. We were set to face off against the Cardinals. The odds were totally stacked against them. To be able to pull an upset two times in a row would take an act of God.

Well, acted He did. Once again the Blue Jays won and it wasn't even as close this time! They outplayed them in every way, resulting in the Blue Jays picking off the #1seeded team in the tournament! Joshua continued to play well and it was an exciting night, indeed.

Two nights later, the Blue Jays won again, allowing them to advance to the semi finals of the tournament. At this point in the tournament, there were four teams left and it became double elimination. The Blue Jays were definitely the underdogs but we were ecstatic to have made it this far! Who knew at the beginning of the season we would be seeing this struggling team in the finals of the tournament? God knew, that's who!

Well, I wish I could write that the Blue Jays continued with their miraculous run, and won it all--wouldn't that make for a good ending? Unfortunately, they just couldn't pull it off in the next two games. They lost both and finished fourth in the tournament. We ended on an upbeat, though. In my opinion, to watch a team or athlete improve dramatically from the beginning of a season to an end is one of the most rewarding things to witness.

On a personal note, Joshua was selected to the all-star team, which couldn't have been a better way for him to end his baseball season. It was probably his best played game of the year. He was especially psyched to lead off at bat and play short stop. It made me smile to see him smiling and enjoying himself and playing his heart out. As I watched this game I kept remembering what his coach had said: 'I'd rather have heart over talent anyday...'

I realized this season had been about a lot more than baseball. It had been about recapturing Joshua's heart. It had been about getting out there and enjoying the game and doing the best he could and then being satisfied with that. It had been about learning to be okay with yourself when you make an error. He had learned that you don't look back, agonizing over what could have been, that you've got to keep looking forward, knowing that there is always a second chance around the bend.

Philippians 3:12-14: 12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

One day after the season was over, Joshua said to me out of the blue: "I know why I was in such a hitting slump for so long."


It was like we finally had all the missing pieces to the puzzle. While I am not sure why it took two years for Joshua to talk about this fear he was having, I believe it was all in God's timing. He knew that Joshua needed this particular coach and this particular league for this particular season in his life to teach him these particular lessons. The lessons that Joshua learned regarding conquering fears, playing with his heart, and looking forward and not back are life lessons that can be applied to any situation.

God knows what we need when we need it. I am thankful that He listens to a mother's prayers and he answers them in His timing and His way. I am thankful that He cares about a twelve year old's baseball season enough to help conquer his fears and recapture the excitement and heart of the game. I am thankful for sports in our children's lives and all the things about life our children can learn from them. I am thankful for the coaches and how they have influenced each of our kids thus far. Our God is a personal God who cares about even the seemingly small matters in life. Oh, how I am thankful to serve such a God!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jeremiah's Season

I am going to start with my little t-baller and reminisce over his t-ball year. That would be our six year old, Jeremiah. Now, you might be thinking, for crying out loud it's just t-ball. Like it matters! Well, yes and no. Yes, you are right, in the fact that it is just t-ball. And no, you are wrong, because Jeremiah had a set of coaches that determinedly decided to put there all into this t-ball team and make it matter. Jeremiah is our third boy and we have seen a lot of baseball seasons come and go (many of those seasons played in a church league) and we have never been as impressed with a set of t-ball coaches as we were with these guys.

First of all, their organization was impeccable. We usually got two lengthy, detailed emails a week. They sent email reminders about practices and about games, even though we had a game schedule. They sent a follow up email about each game. They were the kings of communication. It was great.

Secondly, our team was the Twins and they had a little cheer we did at the beginning and end of each game and practice: 'Twins! Twins! Twins!' They even ended each email with this chant. I loved it.

Thirdly, these guys grew up playing Lyndon baseball and they wanted each of our little guys on the team to have the same great experience that they had had growing up playing baseball there. So, they put their hearts into it.

Fourth, they had some awesome techniques for getting our kids to run through the bases and actually play the positions they were at. Most of the t-ball teams we played, all the kids would run after the ball when it was hit rather than playing their spot, resulting in mass chaos on the field. Our team didn't do that though; they actually taught them how to play their spot. Incredible.

Fifth, they were so positive and used positive reinforcement with everything. It was great. They also got to know each individual player and really worked with them on their baseball skills.

Sixth, and most importantly, they made it fun. They were a fun group of guys that wanted the season to be the best it could be. At the end of the season they gave each player a baseball signed by all three coaches with the name of the team and the year on it. They said a little bit about each player. These coaches reminded me that every little bit of influence you have counts, even when it is 'just' t-ball (or 'just' preschool, or 'just' _________--you feel in the blank). When you give it your all it makes a difference and you turn something ordinary into something extraordinary.

I got a bit teary-eyed this year at the last game, knowing next year Jeremiah would be moving on to a different team and it would be all up in the air again--what team he will be on, who'll be his coach... We will be facing uncertainty again. But then God reminded me that uncertainty is good. It keeps us relying on Him as we wait to see what He has in store in the next season of life.

One last funny thing about all of this. Jeremiah turned six in June--he could have gone either way in terms of which league to play in. He could have 'played up' in coach pitch or he could have stayed a second year in t-ball. Jeremiah has been playing baseball with his older brothers since he learned how to walk, so as you can imagine, he is a pretty good player. Yes, in all respects he probably should have 'played up'. But we loved his coaches SO MUCH, and we just couldn't part with them, so we decided to play down. Maybe, if he plays professional baseball someday we'll get to tell the story about how he 'played down' in t-ball! Ha! :)

Unwrapping the Gifts in this Baseball Season

Wow, am I ever behind on journaling about our lives. I have so much to write about and yet so little time to ever sit down and try to put two thoughts cohesively together! Did that last sentence even make sense... Oh well, I better throw out the perfection and just get to writing if I am ever going to get anywhere with this blogging thing.

So, the last thing I wrote about was baseball... and I have to finish up by posting about our baseball seasons. This year was significant for many reasons and I've got to write about it or it's soon going to go into the 'land of fuzzy memories'.

Just to give you some background...prior to this season, Joshua had been playing on a travel baseball team for the last two years. At the time, it seemed to fit perfectly into our lives because the man who started that team had a vision of 'God first, family second, baseball third.' He wanted to create a 'travel' team that did not go overboard in the amount of baseball games and travel involved, yet was more competitive and serious than a recreational league. This seemed a perfect fit for our family as we too do not want baseball (or any sport for that matter) to be all-consuming. We had a great couple of years of baseball with this team; however, at the end of the last season, the coach decided to discontinue the team.

Hence, it was decision time. What to do with Joshua after being out of the 'rec' ball atmosphere for a few years? Many of his teammates were trying out for another travel team in town. Honestly, though, Joshua had really struggled with his hitting ability over the last two years. He was in a slump that he had yet to get out of. We were at a loss at what was going on when he got up to the plate. Both Eric and I felt he needed to go back to rec ball, get his confidence up, and get practice playing several different positions, and just have some good 'ole fun.

Thus, the decision was made to go back to Lyndon Recreation. Jeremiah would be playing with the team he played with last year and Joshua and Wes would be thrown into the 'lottery' and randomly put on a team.

I prayed and prayed over the teams they would be on. I prayed for an amazing season for each of them. I specifically prayed that this would be a confidence building year for Joshua and he would get out of his hitting slump. I specifically prayed that Wes would get on a winning team with a good coach, as the prior year he had been on a team that struggled to perform.

God is such an amazing and good God. He loves to give good gifts to his children. And that is exactly how I view our baseball season--a beautiful gift from God. He gave each of our boys exactly what they needed this baseball season and then far more than we could have ever asked or imagine. He answered every prayer we prayed for this season for them. I do not know why I am so surprised. God delights in answering our prayers, even those as seemingly insignificant as baseball.

My next three posts will focus individually on each of our three baseball players and God's goodness at making their seasons remarkably significant.