Play Like a Kid

Mike McGough
October 2016

His season was off to a crummy start. As a pitcher he had started three games, lost two, and didn’t get the decision in the other one. His speed and accuracy were fine--90 miles an hour plus and only two walks. But there was something missing.

This was his first year in the new league. The competition was stiffer. He was being watched and he felt it. Jugs guns were on his every pitch. They counted his pitches, plotted his pattern, and made notes on his intuitive sense of the game. The stakes and the competition were high.

After the first game an older man wearing a tattered Yankees cap, caught his attention as he walked off the mound with one out in the fifth inning. The older man, sitting just behind the dugout, nodded and touched the brim of his cap. He also flashed a knowing smile to the dejected pitcher.

In his second start, the young pitcher only made it to the third inning. With two men on and none out, the coach pulled him. As he walked off the mound, the old man nodded, tipped his hat and smile as if to say, “Been there and know how you feel.” The look the young man flashed back said, “This is no fun, what are you smiling at old man?”

There was a week of rain, so it was almost two weeks until he was scheduled to pitch again. The third game started off with a five-run first inning. For whatever reason, the coach made no move to the bullpen. If this was to be a lesson in pain and humiliation, he was learning. The second inning was a little better, but they still scored two runs off him. And they were clearly on him--a walk followed by a homerun that was still rising as it left the park. The third inning was a six-run frolic, so the coach began the fourth with a reliever.

After the game he walked out of the stadium with his head hanging as low as his spirits. As he made his way to his car he noticed a 1951 Studebaker President parked near his car. The old man wearing the Yankee hat was sitting behind the wheel. At first he saw him as an aggravation for which he was not in the mood. He was going to get in his car, head for his apartment, and spend the evening sulking.

“Tough one kid,” the older man said. The kid didn’t respond. “Highest and loneliest sport on the field, that pitchers mound is.” The kid stopped and looked at the older man, but still said nothing. “Tough season so far.” Then after a pause during which he looked right at the kid, the older gentleman said, “Want to change it?”

The kid shook his head in disbelief at the question then said, “No, I want keep losing every game.”

“Don’t get smart with me. I’m offering you some help, and God know you could use it. Pitched a game or two myself, and if I learned anything I learned that my fears were a bigger threat than any batter I ever faced. You got the speed and the accuracy, but in the self-confidence department, you’ve got nothing. And these last three games have only convinced you that your initial fears in this new league are right.”

The young man’s shoulders dropped. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Your fears are your biggest enemy. Fear is holding you back. Everything you do is tempered by it. I can see it on your face.”

“Okay, so what do I do?”

“Remember when you played for fun; just because you loved the game? No jugs guns, nobody counting pitches, nobody watching every move, no money, no contracts, and best of all no fears. It was just you, the batter, and the catcher. It was all about playing the game.”

There was a silence that neither man quickly broke. The older man started his car and released the emergency brake. As he pulled away he said, “Play your next game like you did when you were a kid and nobody was watching. Play for fun.”

Four days later, the rookie pitcher had his fourth start. It wasn’t a no-hitter or a shutout, but he pitched eight innings and got the win. As he walked off the mound after the eighth, he looked behind the dugout for the old man in the Yankee hat. They exchanged nods. This time their smiles each said something different. The old man’s smile asked the question, “Lesson taught?”

The winning pitcher’s smile replied, “Lesson learned, and thank you!”

In life, just like in baseball, fears and self-doubt are emotions that seldom serve you well!