As the manager of a 5-7 year old baseball team, I have spent the last six weeks teaching the rules of the game and the fundamental ways to play the game to a dozen children, most of whom have never played before this year. One of the first things I had to teach was the requirement that they look like baseball players, which means that they wear the uniform: every player wears grey pants, tucks their shirt in and wears the hat when we play our games. Part of learning the game is the requirement that the players practice, both individually and as a team. I have also explained that there is a point to the game: they are playing to have fun but ultimately to win. Without having to be explicitly told, these children all understand that the game has rules that need to be learned and followed. Even if they didn’t understand the point of a rule at first, through practice and playing they soon came to understand. Not once has any of the players ever suggested that the game should be played without the rules, or that the rules made the game too hard to be played, or that they wanted to make up their own rules.
When I agreed to be the manager of the team, the League also gave me rules that I had to agree to follow. One of them is that the team plays or practices at least three times a week. I take my commitment seriously and so we have been regularly practicing. My wife tells me that I have too much practice, not understanding that this is what the League requires of me. I have the feeling that some of the players’ parents feel this way also, yet most of the players are at most of the practices. At the practices and before the game, where I ask that everyone arrive 45 minutes before the start time, we practice the fundamentals of how to field the ball, how to throw it, how to run the bases, how to stand at the plate and swing a bat to hit, and how to work together as a team.
Without knowing the rules and how to play the game, baseball is pointless to adults and especially more so to children. The players have quickly learned that within the confines of the rules they have quite a bit of freedom to play their own way and according to their abilities, and they are developing and growing, in their confidence and in their skills. Now six weeks into this program, many parents have mentioned to me, sometimes in sincere awe, that the time spent practicing has made a big difference in them. I’ve done this with my other boys over the years, and I’ve seen this phenomena before, but to the parents going through this for the first time it’s actually a surprising and pleasant thing to see a child quickly grasp what the point is and how to accomplish the acts that lead to the goals. People really don’t give kids enough credit in their intellectual and physical abilities, particularly their abilities to learn and apply that very quickly through practice and focus.
We played a game last night against a team that clearly had not practiced much. Before the game as both teams warmed up I stood back and could not help noticing the contrast between the teams. Every one of my players looked the part. Most of the other team’s players looked sloppy with little concern, it seemed to me, about how they dressed, with untucked shirts and hats turned backwards, and they showed very little skill. My players were going through their tossing and trying to catch the ball, but they were also doing the practice drills with each other without any direction from me. I also noted that the other team’s manager and coaches, as well as the parents, were watching my team’s warm-ups; I imagined mental comparisons were being made. One team looked like a bunch of kids rounded up an hour before to play a pick-up game and the other team looked like a team that had been practicing together for a purpose.
At this age, the main focus is instructional. The games are normally three or four innings, the coaches are on the field to direct and encourage and instruct and every player is on the field and often moved around to different positions. Before the game, I met with the other manager and agreed that for the first inning all players would hit without regard to the outs made, and after that we would play three outs. For the uninitiated, according to baseball rules, the hitting team gets three outs before they have to take the field and the fielding team then gets to hit.
The first inning, every kid hit for both teams. Then we took the field for the second. After five batters, we had made three outs and I told the players to go to the dug-out and get ready to hit. One of the other team’s coaches asked what we were doing. I told him that we got three outs. “But everyone didn’t get to hit.”
“These are the rules of the game and we agreed that we were playing by the rules after the first inning.”
The manager confirmed this, but the others weren’t happy.
So my team hit and the other team couldn’t field the ball or make the outs. Once every player hit, we then took the field. I wanted to insist that we keep hitting until they made the outs, but I knew that the team couldn’t, and we would have been hitting until the sun went down.
So we took the field, and quickly made the three outs. With quick prompts my players knew where to make the plays and did. I could see that this was becoming frustrating for the opposition’s coaches and parents. It was apparent that this bothered them that my players seemed to know and played like they knew the rules and how to play.
After we played three innings, which was about an hour and fifteen minutes, I was getting my team ready for another inning, but the other team wasn’t. We are supposed to be playing about two hours. I asked the other manager if they still wanted to play since we had a lot of time left. He told me that his kids were done. I looked at the kids and they didn’t look done, but he did and the other coaches did. My team was far from done and wanted to keep playing.
The funny thing was that the other team’s coaches were annoyed with me for having my team ready to play baseball, for knowing how to play, and for completely outclassing their team. The reality was that they were embarrassed by the fact that they had not made the effort to practice with their kids, to teach them how to play, and to have them ready to play. Instead, coaching was a lark and their only role was to kind of control the chaos at game time. Teaching the rules and the fundamentals of play was not a goal. Instead, they were bothered that my team would try to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, and played to win. To them, the rules weren’t supposed to apply and organized chaos was “good enough” for the kids.
I can’t help thinking since last night how similar this is in the Church today. For many, it’s not worth the effort to teach the rules and to practice the Faith, and to accept organized chaos as the goal, with no concern for living by the rules for the ultimate goal of being a winner, obtaining salvation. Others learn the rules, live within the rules, practice and care about the ultimate goal. And so many managers and coaches, bishops and priests, are quite content to barely teach the Faith and not expect the players, the Faithful, to know the rules, to practice, and to live according to the rules, giving them little credit for their ability to learn, practice and apply them in their lives, believing erroneously that to do so is just too difficult. Instead, they get annoyed, like those other coaches last night, that some take it seriously, that it is important that the players know the rules, know how to play through regular practice, and that they perform when it’s game time.
Not everyone will be an all-star, a superstar, or a saint. Some will excel from time to time, some will flub and blunder more than others. But at various times, everyone will rise to the occasion, will make the right play at the right time, will be able to hit the ball well and experience the blissful moment of grace when they succeed because they knew the rules, because they had practiced, because they strove to make the play by putting into play what they had learned and practiced.
A baseball game played without skill becomes an embarrassment, particularly for those players, but also for those on the other team and those who are spectators, particularly their parents when they realize what might have been possible had their kids been given the knowledge and the practice time. The practice of the Faith is even more so, particularly when the stakes are much higher than a seven-year old baseball game.