It's the Bottom of the Sixth, and the Bases are Loaded!
Hawaiian Youth Baseball Players
The Bases Were Full
The year was 1963.
JFK and his lovely wife, Jackie, were occupants of not only the White House but also the hearts of almost every American. On both domestic and international fronts, the country had never before experienced such contentment and prosperity. Truly, this was the idyllic season of Camelot.
And even at the newsstands, should one get distracted and tempted to fret over headlines of Soviet missiles, a stockinged Khruschev hammering on the table with his size 9 shoes, or the growing body count in Vietnam, the goofy, big-eared, simpleton-grinning, and freckle-faced Mad magazine coverboy icon, Alfred E. Neuman, soon had you grinning like Opie, too.
But for yours truly, a ten going on eleven-year-old boy, it was the worst of times.
I had done the unthinkable, you see.
I had walked the bases full.
Kawaihau Little League Baseball Park
There Were No Outs
I was in the last year of my Kawaihau Little League career. I was an above average pitcher for my team, the Philadelphia Phillies.
But for some reason, I could not focus on this one particular day. I usually had almost machine-like efficiency as a control pitcher, but on this day, I could not get my bearings.
My team was ahead by one run. All I had to do was engineer the last few outs, and we would emerge victorious.
Easier said than done.
There were no outs.
Have you ever been inspired to athletic heroics as a result of someone's encouraging words?
I Braced Myself
I tried not looking at the dugout, but I nervously glanced in that direction. My dad was standing in the dugout door. Dressed in sneakers, white socks, black Bermuda shorts, a maroon and white three-quarter sleeved T-shirt, and maroon baseball cap, he truly looked the part of an assistant coach. He aspired to one day be a head coach, but for the duration of my Little League days, he was content to gain valuable experience and tips from the seasoned Japanese coach, Masa Arinaga.
Truth be told, I wasn't missing by much...which only served to reinforce in my little boy mind that the Portugese umpire was cheating me out of a few strikes. I mean, this was perplexing. I seldom ever walked batters unless it was an overt strategic move.
Now, as the ump yelled, "Ball four! Take your base!" all I could do was stare openly at my father in despair.
I was afraid that he was going to chew me out. At the same time, I needed him to help me get out of this jam. What that help might be, I had no idea. All I knew for sure was that I was stinkin' up the field and probably embarrassing my dad big time! I wanted to dig a deep hole and have the earth swallow me up.
"Ump!" My father called out. Forming his hands in the shape of a T, he added, "Time out!" The umpire granted it.
Dad came sauntering over to the mound. Just under 6 feet tall and at 220 lbs., Dad was a formidable sight. Was he so upset with me that he'd lose his cool and hit me? My face flushed with anxiety.
I thought for sure Dad would chew me out or, worse yet, go on and on about my mechanics not being right. On my own, I had already tried every possible inch of that rubber, trying in vain to change the angle of my pitches. Nothing had worked.
Here he was, his shadow covering me as his body came between me and the grueling mid-afternoon sun.
I braced myself...
With Bases Loaded, a Young Pitcher Strikes Out the Side in 13 Pitches!
I Found My Eye of the Tiger
"Hey," he said. A pause. And then, a simple question: "Did you see Nora and Alana in the bleachers?" Nora and Alana were classmates of mine. They also happened to be two of the cutest girls in school. What in the world? Why was Dad talking to me about girls?
Instead of yelling at me and calling me a "good for nothing" or "hopeless," Dad smiled. I remember thinking, "What's wrong with you? You're supposed to be ticked off at me! I'm making you look bad! You're a cop, and I'm a cop's kid! I'm not supposed to screw up!"
All the frustration of my ten going on eleven years, like lava spewing over the lip of a volcano, was surfacing in my sweat and grime.
All Dad did was suggest that those girls were cheering hard for me and that they must really like me.
Me? Pimply faced, baby fat, and socially awkward me? No way, Jose!
Still, the possibilities found the opportunity in those few precious seconds to conceive and hatch in my youthful pubescent brain, and I began to wonder if the girls had indeed been cheering hard for me...just for me.
My dad smiled at me again, tugged on the visor of my cap, and patted me on the butt--the way men do in the midst of athletic battle and that no one ever deems as inappropriate--and walked back to the dugout.
Time was called back in by the ump.
I rubbed the new baseball with my sweaty palms and felt my fingers and thumb find a new and powerful grip on the ball. No longer caring about my foot placement, I dug deep within and found my eye of the tiger.
Glaring at the catcher's mitt, I summoned up every bit of focus and mindfulness and all of the raw soul grit I could find.
And I pitched.
The bases were loaded because I had walked three batters in a row.
In less than a dozen pitches, I struck out the next three batters.
My team rushed me, cheering victoriously! In the afterglow, the only face I saw was that of my father. And he was smiling, the same way he had smiled at me at the meeting on the mound.
My Coach Dad, 50 Years Later
He Saw Me in My Potential
I never told anyone about that pivotal time out exchange.
Not until today.
We can debate until we're blue in the face about what had made the difference. For me, it's pretty darn clear.
My father put on God's image that long ago afternoon.
He didn't see me in my dilemma.
He saw me in my potential.
And for the rest of my life, I will never forget that wonderful, heartwarming lesson. As a father beginning his seventh decade of life, there have been times when my own children have had that same deer caught in the headlights look that I wore that fateful spring afternoon in '63.
And, like my father, I have known the engaging sweetness of seeing my children in their potential rather than in their dilemma.
We were created in God's image. But, sadly, we have traveled so far from the simple truth.
It's time to get back to it.
It's time to strike the side out.