Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Rules of the Game

This little story was first published in the Laurel Leader in June 1998. I think it's one of the best of my early stories. It got picked up years ago by a couple of Internet Journals. I still find it around the web once in awhile.

The Rules of the Game

by Rick Wilson

It had been thirty years since I cried during a baseball game, but I wasn’t the only one choking back tears at last Saturday’s Laurel Boys and Girls Club Junior Division championship. The emotion I felt was not for the game’s winners or losers because any worthwhile contest must be decided. No, it was because two men and a boy played out a last inning drama that reminded me and everyone else that a baseball game can teach us about so much more than winning and losing.

I need to set the stage and introduce the characters:

It was a hot, sticky, June morning. The coaches arrived early to try to rake Friday night’s rain from the infield. The green team, sponsored by One-Hour Moto Photo, was undefeated. The blue team, sponsored by IQ Systems, had lost to them twice in the regular season. Baseball chatter echoed on the field and in my own memory from games played half a lifetime ago. “Protect the plate, Tyler, ” said Ken Cook who coached the blue team. “Be a hitter, David, ” encouraged Walter Coleman, leader of the green team. Both teams were ready and just a little nervous about the final game of the season.

Walter and Ken are both successful coaches but they brought very different styles to the final game. Ken is a calm, disciplined man with a written game plan and a belief that you win games by sticking to the basics. Walter is a passionate competitor who tells the boys that to win - “You got to want it more than the other team does.” Some people think that Walter’s win-at-any-cost intensity is a little too much.

The junior division is made up of 11 and 12-year-old boys. Everything needed to be just right for the championship game. Even the umpire, Bob Bain, was handpicked. Bob is a big guy with the booming voice of a Senior Chief Petty Officer, which he is. He is also one of the most respected umpires in the club. A 20-year navy career has given Bob a keen respect for rules and raising three children has taught him fair play.

Our last character is the most important. David Silverman is one of the smallest kids on the green team. He loves to play baseball. His coaches said that he attended every practice and has been ready to play every game this season. However, for all of his tenacity and love of the game, David cannot play quite as well as the other boys on his team. David is developmentally disabled.

The score in the early innings stayed close. Good pitching, solid hitting and nervous anxiety kept both teams focused on the game. Every time David got up to bat, he drew a base on balls. Bob Bain might have given him an extra small strike zone. “It’s hard for me to call a strike on him, it just isn’t fair,” Bob said during the game. In the middle innings, the blue team got a healthy lead, but by the last inning the green team fought back to within one run. What happened next caused my tears.

It was the bottom of the last inning and the green team was up for their last at-bat. The score was 12-11 with the blue team leading. Walter was coaching his team from third base. There were two outs. The green team needed one run to tie, two to win, and there were two runners within easy scoring distance at second and third, when David took his place in the batter’s box.

The pitcher fired the first pitch right over the plate. Everybody saw that it was almost perfect, belt high and right down the middle. David didn’t swing. There was a long pause. Bob didn’t say a word, but signaled a strike with a hand motion. The second pitch was a carbon copy of the first. David stood rock still again. A short pause and then, “Strike two” came the call from Bob. This is when David turned away from the plate, buried his face in his arms and began to cry. Bob called time-out.

After a moment, Walter walked down the line and knelt close to David. On another day, in another place, the easy thing might have happened. It would have been easy to pull David out of the game at that point and substitute another player. A sub would have made it easier on everyone. David would not have any more pressure. Walter and the green team would have a better chance to win the game and Bob would not have to call David out. I don’t know what Walter said, but David’s tears stopped. Then the intense competitor and the little boy who loved baseball hugged each other for a long time.

With his tears dried, David took his place in the batter’s box. Walter took his place in the coach’s box. Bob crouched low behind the catcher. David held his pose as another perfect pitch crossed the plate. “Strike three,” came the soft call from Bob. The game ended. The blue team had won. David and Walter’s green team lost the championship.

In this rare moment, through all the tears, we won something much more important than a baseball game. David showed us that it’s ok to be afraid and that getting back into the game with two strikes on you is often the most courageous thing you can do. Bob taught us that playing by the rules is what makes a contest worth winning. Walter showed us that competitiveness doesn’t come from needing to win at-all-costs but from loving the game and the simple joy of playing.

Sometimes in life as in baseball, we need to dry our eyes, dig in and wait for the next pitch, even if we think we might strike out.

Rick Wilson - Laurel, Maryland - June 1998

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