I gripped the bat, holding it tight, which was not at all the way I was taught. I was told to hold it loose and easy but I was too nervous for that. I watched the pitcher check first base, and then turn his focus towards me, the little freckled kid at home plate. He wound up and fired the ball. I gripped the bat even tighter, and then did nothing as the ball flew over the plate and smacked into the catcher’s mitt. “Strike two!” the umpire yelled from behind the plate.
My shoulders slumped. I backed out of the box and turned to look at our dugout. My coach, Dickie Willis, was my best friend’s dad, and treated me just like his own. “Swing the dang bat, Stoney!”
I stepped back in the batter’s box. I watched the pitcher check the runner on first base, then wind up, and pitch. And once again, I did nothing. I heard the ball hit the glove. I heard the umpire yell, “Strike three!” I walked away slowly, defeated, back to my dugout. With tears in my eyes, I looked up at my coach. He shook his head and said to me “If you don’t swing the bat, kid, you won’t ever hit the ball.” Disappointed, I took my place on the bench.
On the surface, that seems like some pretty basic baseball advice. I mean, it’s pretty simple, right? If you swing the bat, you hit the ball. If you don’t swing the bat, you don’t hit the ball. You don’t have to be Babe Ruth to figure that out. After that game, I got in the truck with my dad. “You played well tonight, Stone. You made a great catch in centerfield, and you did a good job backing up second base.”
Dad always did his best to build my confidence and focus on the positive points of my performance. His routine was like this: He’d pat me on the back before he ventured into things he felt I might need to work on. But even then, he was kind. I knew he was getting ready to start talking about the places that I needed to improve, so I decided to beat him to the punch.
“I’m not a good batter, Dad. I struck out. I always strike out.” He didn’t say anything for a moment, but when he did, I listened closely. “Whether or not you are a good batter isn’t really in question here, Stone. I have no doubt that if you really tried to be a good batter, that you would be. But here’s what I am seeing. You’re not trying. When you don’t take a swing at the ball, you are accepting defeat without even giving any effort.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, until he asked, “Why aren’t you swinging at the ball?” I thought about the question for a moment and then replied, “He was throwing really hard, and I guess I was just afraid I would miss it.”
What my dad said next would undoubtedly be one of those moments where everything becomes clear, when something in your mind clicks. He said, “Well, let me ask you. Would you feel just as bad right now if you had swung at the ball, but missed it? Either way, you struck out. But would you rather swing, and miss? Or would you rather just not try?”
At that precise moment, I knew that I was disappointed in myself. Not for striking out, but for not trying to hit the ball. This simple piece of advice changed who I was. I made my mind up right that second. I’d never lose for lack of effort. From that point forward, I tried with all of my might, at everything I did. I wasn’t the best athlete in school, but I tried hard. I wasn’t the best student either, but I tried hard. I never wanted to feel that disappointment again. I never wanted to feel like I could’ve given more.
I am who I am today because of one simple talk that I had with my father in his old red Ford pickup on the seven-mile drive home from a baseball game more than twenty-five years ago.
That talk was what I was thinking about just a few weeks ago, while sitting at another game in another state, a long way from my dad. I’m now a thirty-five-year-old daddy with three beautiful daughters. My ten-year-old daughter Emma is the second baseman for her softball team, and she reminds me of myself in so many ways. I am her coach at third base, and I watched as she stepped in the batter’s box, facing a pitcher who throws faster and harder than any other girl in our league.
I watched Emma as she grabbed the bat. I could see the anxiety in her face. I urged her on, and said in a voice so low only I heard it. “Swing the bat, baby. Just swing the bat.” The pitcher delivered a fastball right down the middle. “Strike!” I saw her slump. I hollered at her from third base, “Swing the bat, Em! You can do it! You’ve got to swing at it!” We made eye contact, and she nodded at me. She stepped back in the box, dug her feet in and got set. She suddenly looked different, more focused, and determined. The pitcher wound up and fired a harder, faster pitch at her. This time, she swung. There’s the distinctive sound of a ball hitting an aluminum bat. The crowd cheered as Emma ran towards first base. “Foul ball!” came the scream of the umpire. The ball caught the tip of her bat and flew maybe fifteen feet up the first base line. Her mother and I clapped and yelled as if she’d just hit a grand slam. “You’ve got her speed down now, Em! Just straighten out the next one. You got it.”
The count was 0-2. The pitcher threw the ball. Emma stepped with her left foot and slung the bat in front of her, just like she’d been taught. She rotated her hips and swung through with all of her little seventy-five-pound frame. And the ball hit the catcher’s mitt. “Strike three!” comes the call from the ump. Her shoulders sagged as she wilted out of the batter’s box and headed back towards me. I was prepared for tears, but what I got was something else entirely. A smile. A big, beaming smile. She said to me, “I did what you said. I swung the bat.” I smiled back at her and said, “You sure did. You did great. I think you did just great.”