Friday, October 5, 2012

"Thank you for teaching me the game."

My daughter gave me this gift on Senior Night 2012.
You can’t really measure something like exposing your child to competitive sports (as opposed to mere recreational sports) in dollars and cents. The value to their growing minds and bodies, to their physical development and to their ability to perform under the pressure or rebound from adversity goes far beyond the sport itself.

But you can try. In my case, about 8 years ago my daughter was into soccer, machine-pitch baseball, basketball, and tennis. Soon her focused narrowed. Soccer went by the way-side first. Then basketball. Then the baseball became fast-pitch softball. Then tennis switched from playing doubles to playing singles.

A lot of money could be spent on any of these sports, especially if you play – as my daughter did for several seasons – travel ball. There are professional lessons, learning mechanics that I cannot teach. The travel, occasional lodging, and food adds up quickly. You have to factor in the expense of some injuries. Going to and from the never-ending stream of practices. New cleats and “real” tennis shoes every year. New uniforms. New rackets. New bats and gloves. It easily adds up to thousands of dollars. And it adds up to a lot of time waiting around too. Waiting for the next game or match. Waiting for the practice to end. Time is money…and boredom.

This can pay-off, of course, if your daughter is immensely talented and can land a college scholarship somewhere. But, that doesn’t happen for most girls. And, except for perhaps a chance at tennis, it won’t happen for my daughter. So, the pay-off ends up being more about building character and preparing your child for the competitive world and the challenges of just making it through daily life when errors are made and things don’t always work out.

For my daughter, the pay-off will reside in the things she has learned without even realizing she has learned them; just because she was exposed to game situations when her specific actions mattered. She can carry those moments all her life. The pay-off is also the memories. State tournaments, region tournaments, specific big games or matches against rival opponents that are part of a school meta-narrative that transcends my daughter’s participation but in which she deeply immersed herself for a time.

Last night, on the verge of going to the state tournament, my daughter’s team was eliminated 1-0 with the tying run on third base. It was a close-fought game and we certainly had our chances.  My daughter's last hit was a nice bunt single.  She made a couple of good running catches in right field.

Her softball career is now over. She still has tennis season to look forward to – another year of playing at the number one singles level, which she is really better at than she is at softball. It makes me nostalgic about all those hours she and I spent in the back yard throwing the ball around, working on over the shoulder catches and making accurate throws.

So, now is when you look back. Three seasons stand out in my mind. In sixth grade she made all-stars as an outfielder and scored the winning run in a tight 7-6 region championship decision against an arch rival from a near-by county. We got to go to the state tournament afterwards and finished in third place. Her first taste of “the big win” whetted her appetite for more ball.

In eighth grade she was the MVP of the team, playing left field. Girls develop at different rates of speed, of course, and she was really at the peak of her abilities compared with other girls. Not extraordinarily talented by any means. But solid. She could hit. She could catch. She rarely made an error. She batted clean-up and drove in a ton of runs.

Her sophomore year she was red-hot with the bat – at both ends of the season. The team finished second in a large pre-season region tournament due in no small part to her fielding and surprising power with the bat. She had several doubles and drove in a lot of runs. She threw a runner out a third and had two hits with a double and two RBIs against a cross-county rival that we had never beaten before in high school softball. It was a rival that was used to going to state regularly and they all had a bit too much attitude for our tastes, which made the extra-inning 8-7 victory all the sweeter. My daughter and her teammates were ecstatic and still talk about that win to this day.

Then the season started and she went totally mental. She couldn’t hit anything, struck out a lot, and came home crying, threatening to quit when her painfully whimpish bat went stone cold. It was the first true slump of her career. She kept at it though and by region tournament time she was red-hot again. Blasting the ball. The team went far but fell just short of going to state, similarly to this past season.

The next two seasons taught me something about the game. My daughter had lackluster years. Moments of greatness were fewer and farther between. It was not a source of friction between us. I knew she probably wasn’t going to play softball in college. This was the end of the road and her best seasons were behind her. So, what I learned was to treasure the moment as it happens. Treasure the greatness when it occurs – because no one knows about tomorrow.

A recent, final home game was “Senior Night” and my daughter was honored along with five of her fellow classmates. She got a hit. Made a great catch in right field. We won the game 7-1. Everybody contributed. But, this has just been a so-so season and even my daughter has said more than once at the dinner table “I suck at hitting.” Well, not in the grand scheme of things she doesn’t. But, this season hasn’t been her best.

I appreciate her staying with it though. She never complained this season, as she has in years past, about practice going on forever, or the long road trips to schools far away, or what so-and-so said, or about the coaches. This season, despite her comparative offensive whimpiness, she has been upbeat, showing a level of maturity I haven’t seen before.

It is easy to stay up when you’re hot. It takes character and perspective to stay positive when things are not going so great. That stuff is more important than winning, especially by the time you are my age. It is the root benefit of any competitive sport for a young person. The winning eventually stops. The character built by the sport (or not built depending on the parent/student relationship) is all that remains.

Anyway, all this was swimming around in my mind after the Senior Night ceremonies. Jennifer and I joined the other parents out on the field with our daughters. Jennifer got a bouquet of roses and I got something in a gift bag. I only took it out later, and reading it in a singular moment brought many feelings and memories and revisited emotions back to me through the vast span of faceless time. “You’re going to cry,” my daughter warned me before Senior Night. I doubted her.

But, I did tear up. And I wasn’t the only dad who did. She gave me a softball with her thoughts about her own softball journey that stretched back as far as anything I have mentioned in this post. This was her perspective. This was what she had to say:

Dear Daddy,

Thank you for all your love and support throughout the years. Thank you for teaching me how to catch and throw a softball. Thank you for pushing me to my limits even when I complained. Thank you for staying by me throughout all my strikeouts and my bad plays. Thank you for teaching me the game.

I would have never became the athlete that I am today without you. I'm so thankful to have you as my dad, my rock. I'm truly blessed with the BEST Dad! Even though I never could run right, I think you did a pretty good job teaching me everything. I'll always be your baby girl, I love you so much. Thank you for always being there for me.

Love always,

So, softball is over now. We fell one win short (again) of going to state. Of course, when you are winning you want it to go on forever and nothing seems as important as winning the next game. But, the time comes, as it does for every athlete sooner or later, when there is no next game, then the winning part pales in comparison to the stuff that stays with you – in this case the little, neatly handwritten words that grace a softball offered as a gift from her heart to mine.

Yes, you will always be my baby girl.

If I taught you the game, then you taught me how to be the fan, and the father.  I will treasure that forever.

My daughter's last base hit.  A bunt single.  She caught the third baseman napping.

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