Tonight one of the most important episodes in the life of the Gregg family came to an end. With Nolan (12) throwing a newly developed knuckle ball toward home plate, thirteen years of Little League came to an end for us. The emotions and memories flooded over us as his mother and I sat on one of the bleachers where we spent so many countless hours watching our four children play the sport we all loved. Those cold March nights and those broiling hot summer days are behind us and I miss them already.
Baseball was formative in my experiences and for the last thirteen years I have seen it help form countless boys and girls into young men and women. Sport itself teaches incredibly valuable lessons but baseball is different. Baseball is republican; baseball is deliberate; baseball is particularly American.
Baseball teaches the value of merit while giving almost everyone a chance. The most gifted athlete can share the baseball diamond with the most under-coordinated weakling; the tallest giant can share the field with the tiniest squirt. Last year Nolan, one of the smallest guys in the league, played second base next to his team’s first baseman who weighed as much as I do and was nearly as tall. Nearly everyone can play baseball, which is less true of violent sports like football where aggression and size count so much or soccer, which demands too much for so many asthmatic lungs. Everyone is given a chance and might make a play—and yet merit triumphs in the batting order, in play time, and in All-Star picks. As much as giving everyone a trophy in t-ball has become a standard joke about our culture of indulgence, playing baseball through Little League teaches the value of meritocracy and the need for excellence.
Though it teaches competitiveness and can fuel a youngster’s drive in many fields later in life, it is also a team sport that demonstrates the importance of community. Except for the rare pitcher who can strike out an entire line-up, no single player can win a baseball game. Unlike individual sports like tennis or cycling, only communities win.
Little League also helps build communities as people who otherwise wouldn’t know each other end up cheering, laughing, and crying with each other on the bleachers. My family lives outside of Louisville, Kentucky, in a community where almost everyone leaves home in the morning and heads to Louisville to work and then back to their subdivision homes where they might barely speak to their neighbors. But at the baseball park, communities come together. Catholic and protestant, Republican and Democrat, factory worker and professor sit side by side as essential equals and, to one degree or another, share in community through their boys on the field.
Good coaches build character. But bad coaches also build character. We have all seen the horror stories of overly competitive parents and coaches. I have witnessed a few of them myself. But I have also witnessed some of the most important mentoring I have ever seen of older men to the next generation of human beings. My most important memory as a coach came after one particularly difficult loss. My kids were not the most talented and they had to battle their tales off against the best team in the league. It was the most intense game I think I ever experienced and we lost it on the last pitch. On that team was an overweight kid of meager talent but a lot of heart who after the game came up to me and said, “Coach, I wanted to cry but then I thought ‘would coach want me to cry?’ and I didn’t!” I’m not saying I was a model coach, but that is a memory of touching another soul that I cherish and know they happen every day of summer at Little League parks across the land.
Bad coaches can also teach character. Life is not fair. Bad people will be encountered throughout life. Much better that our young people experience it in their formative years than be blindsided by the unfair and unrealistic boss or spouse later in life. And, I have seen coaches make profound transformations through their time in Little League. I have seen the guy we all would rightly call an SOB develop into a more caring, open, and nurturing adult leader. Sometimes it’s the coaches and the parents who are in need of having our hearts tuned by the game.
One of the aspects of baseball I value most, however, is the slowness of its pace. To some degree Little League has succumbed to our culture by time-limiting games (Baseball should never be a timed sport. Unlike soccer, football, hockey and basketball, time should never run out and hope should never be taken away in baseball.) But otherwise, it retains the slow, deliberate and republican pace of life. Our kids fed on video games, the flashing images of TV, and the now ubiquitous text message are forced to slow down on the baseball diamond. Kids sometimes have to stand quietly through numerous innings waiting for their chance to prove themselves. Where the fast pace of soccer feeds the destructive speed of our culture and aids in the warping of our children’s thirst for constant action and hyperactivity, baseball helps remind us that true progress is slow, that life is not about being entertained all the time, and that sometimes we have to wait patiently for our turn or to achieve our goals.
The number of African-Americans in the major leagues or among college baseball teams has plummeted in recent decades. Many are puzzled by this development and numerous hypotheses have been put forward to explain it: from the lack of fathers to play catch with to the thought that baseball is too slow for the basketball and soccer and video game generation. Whatever the cause, with the communities and kids that need the lessons of baseball the most, Little League programs are the weakest. This is probably not just coincidental. I think the original “compassionate conservative” understood this when he built a t-ball field on the White House lawn a dozen years ago.
As I end this little reflection on thirteen years of watching life unfold on the Little League field, I must give a special commendation to our own particular Little League. Under the leadership of Brad Clifford and all the volunteers who give countless hours, North Oldham Little League in LaGrange, Kentucky is a model of what Alexis de Tocqueville would understand as our local institutions upon which character, families, and a thriving nation are built. Thank you all for helping us raise the Gregg children and for all you have done to make our community and our nation a better place to live.
May Little League baseball endure as long as the Republic it supports.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.