A baseball story of a boy and his grandfather, of wilting in the pressure of great expectations, and of succeeding by learning not to be afraid to fail.
How can I become a great baseball player?
As a young man, this question bothered me, because no matter how hard I practiced and hustled I could never be as good as others wanted me to be. And when I say “others” I mean my grandfather.
You see, I grew up with a local coaching legend who had taught the American pastime to local kids for 50+ years. Heck, he was such a good coach that parents would bring their sons over the house for private pitching lessons. You would think having a pitching coach for a grandfather would mean I’d be an ace on the mound. That was far from the truth, and it wasn’t because he didn’t try.
I have fond memories of being forced to watch a Braves game when some of the great pitchers like Maddux, Smoltz or Glavine would be pitching. I’d be fidgeting in my seat as I dreamed about playing outside while my grandpa would be barking out situational questions.
“What pitch do you throw when you have a full count?”
“What pitch do you throw when the batter stands tall?”
I’d be bombarded with questions like these until he would inevitably fall asleep. Even this didn’t mean I could make a getaway, because our sofa was old and squeaky. Every time I tried to move, he’d awaken and continue drilling me. So I’d be stuck for the entire game.
My grandfather even built a large backstop made out of some old rug that he nailed to a large wooden frame. When I look back on it now, I am amazed at how awesome it was: he painted a right handed batter who was about 6 feet tall and cut out a square hole that was the size of the strike zone.
I’d spend every summer afternoon in the backyard throwing. That backyard is where I learned the mechanics and art of pitching. It is where I enjoyed my summers with my grandfather.
Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows from that point on. The joy of backyard baseball was also accompanied by days of frustration and sadness when I wasn’t good enough for my grandpa. I remember being yelled at when I couldn’t hit the strike zone or when I wasn’t throwing the ball hard enough. He’d get so frustrated that he would scratch out whatever hair he had left.
Those days, I hated baseball. After those sessions I’d run into my room and punch my metal bed frame until my grandma would come to try to console me.
I didn’t start pitching until my sophomore year in high school. All that practice didn’t necessarily give me the confidence I needed or reduce the pressure that came with that position. By the time high school rolled around, that was beginning to change. I was starting on the junior varsity football team, and we had just won our league title. So I was feeling pretty confident when I tried out for pitching.
Of course I didn’t tell my grandpa. I didn’t want him to know unless I made the team as a pitcher. After a fairly simple tryout, I was able to get onto the pitching staff as a reliever. By the time I was a Junior I had worked myself up to a starter. My first game was against a one-man team that was lead by Shane Victorino. You may know him as the “Flying Hawaiian” who eventually played in the Major Leagues for the Phillies and the Red Sox. Luckily he didnʻt have a David Ortiz on his team at the time, so I was able to get the win with a college level curve ball and a Pony League fastball.
After the win, I was on cloud nine and started to dream about the possibility of playing at the college level. After my grandpa saw me pitch in high school, he reset his high expectations for me. Unfortunately. that would spell my doom.
The next week I started against one of the best teams in the state. Unlike my first game, I wasn’t able to get through the first inning. I walked batter after batter until I gave up a grand slam. My confidence was shot. It was the last game I’d start that season.
How did that happen? How did I go from pitching my team to a win to not being able to get out of the first inning?
In hindsight, I know that I had lost that game before it even started. I had put an immense amount of pressure on my back. I was so anxious that I isolated myself as my teammates went out and had fun. I psyched myself out and allowed my nerves to take over. The night before, I couldn’t sleep. In my mind, I had looked at the game as a testament to my ability as a pitcher.
When I arrived home after that fateful game, my grandpa was disappointed for a little while. But life goes on, and soon things went back to normal. He still saw the potential in me, and I still worked my butt off during the summer.
Then my senior year came around. It would be a time of change for me. I had moved out of my grandparents’ house and moved back in with my parents, who didn’t care about sports. At the time, I needed my space from my grandfather. Also, like most teenagers, I wanted to be free and choose my own paths. I needed to be and act young. That wouldn’t have been possible under my grandfathers’ roof.
So my senior year was a time that I did whatever I felt was right. I wrote for the school newspaper and rejoined the football team after I had quit during my junior year because my grandpa thought it would interfere with my baseball career. The pressure I had lived with most of my life had suddenly disappeared. I no longer thought far into the future. I just enjoyed everyday, because it was my last as a teenager.
How did it affect my baseball performance?
I would excel.
I started off as a middle reliever that year, but I soon moved back into the starting rotation. My practice habits and mechanics were the same, but what had changed was my attitude. When I stepped on the mound, I enjoy the moment. I wasn’t worried about the future. I just pitched. If I failed that was okay. It had become the game I had always loved.
So I return to the first question. How can I become a great baseball player? Or how can I become a great anything?
I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is to work hard and fear nothing. Don’t fear failure or failing others if you’ve put in the blood, sweat and tears. Don’t allow fear to diminish your potential. The game is the fruit of your labor. Enjoy the game because you’ve earned it, and always remember that the fruit isn’t winning but the game itself.
Now as a father of two young girls, I hope to learn from my grandfathers’ weaknesses and strengths. I want to be involved and have the same belief in my kids as he did of me. I wouldn’t have been half the player or person I was without his teachings. But there comes a point when children need to be free to choose their own path, to make mistakes without fear. This lesson will help them strive for their dreams no matter the obstacles because we’ll always be there to cheer them on.
Photo Credit: All Images From Author