It’s become conventional wisdom that organized sports teach kids very valuable lessons. In my childhood, though, informal pickup games were far more valuable.
I grew up in New England with parents who had been Red Sox fans all their lives, so a love of baseball was part of my identity from the beginning. It was cold in pre-Global Warming Maine, so we didn’t have too many opportunities to play, but we did our best. I would often play with my friends from down the road all afternoon and all evening after dinner—or, if they weren’t around, I’d throw a ball against the garage wall for hours on end by myself.
I gradually built up some good baseball skills with all of this practice. In third grade, my dad became the assistant coach for the farm team at my school, so I tried out for the team. I made it, and the coach started me at shortstop, one of the most important positions.In my first game, I struck out, then struck out again, then struck out again. In my second game, I did the same thing. Struck out, struck out, struck out—in fact, I struck out all season until my last game, in which I walked and scored a run. To his credit, the coach kept playing me because I tried hard and was good in practice, but I just couldn’t hit during the games.
Why couldn’t I hit? I believe it was because I had dozens of opposing players, their parents, and their supporters yelling at me. Sometimes they yelled the typical, “No batter, no batter, no batter” kind of stuff, but I’m sure there were other jibes—and maybe even a few encouraging words from sympathetic on-lookers—mixed in, too. It didn’t matter: the pressure was simply too much for my shy eight-year-old self. So, since I never tried out for a baseball team again, you could say I pretty much sucked in my career as an organized baseball player.
A few years later, my friends and I played pickup wiffle ball almost every day all summer, and I played much, much better. Unfortunately, though, every game seemed to end the same way, with one of us getting mad and storming off because of a “bad call” or someone trying to cheat (often the player who did the storming off). I really wanted to play more, but it seemed like we only ever ended up playing a few innings before someone’s feelings got hurt.
One day I realized there was an easy solution to this: Always Tell The Truth. I knew deep down that I tried to cheat just as much as anyone. I would want to be safe so much that I would insist I had been safe no matter if I had seen my buddy’s foot come down on home plate before mine. I would want my hit to be a home run so much that I would say it had cleared the raspberry bushes even if I had seen the red smudges on the ball after I had picked it up. So, you know what, I thought, if we just always tell the truth, it’ll even out in the end, and we’ll get to play for three hours after dinner instead of one.
So the next day I told my friends that I would always tell the truth when it came to disputable calls. They were dubious, but I stuck to my word. If I thought I was safe, I would say so, and if I thought I had really been out, I would say so. Eventually they figured out that they almost always agreed with my call, and that I really was being honest. So, one by one, they started to tell the truth, too, and for the rest of the summer we got to play at least twice as much baseball—with only a few tantrums thrown in—than we would have otherwise.
Structured, high-pressure baseball was a failed experience for me. I don’t think I learned anything other than that I would probably fail when the pressure was on. On the other hand, in pick-up games in my friends’ backyard, I learned that sometimes sacrificing your own selfish desires and being totally honest gets you what you want in the end—more fun and better friends.
These lessons have never left me, and, though I have subsequently learned to thrive under pressure, it wasn’t organized baseball that taught me that. It followed directly from the belief, developed out of moments like my truth-telling baseball epiphany, that I had some neat ideas the world just might benefit from hearing.