The Real Meaning of Sports

This issue of Sojourners focuses on sports, faith, and human rights. But I am going to write in a little more personal way, as a Little League Baseball coach.

I’ve coached my son Luke in baseball since he was 5 years old, and now he is 10. I just started coaching my other son, Jack, last season when he was 5. Coaching my kids and their friends has been one of the great experiences of my life. The community that gets created around sports and school becomes what my wife, Joy, calls “the village,” where everybody is looking out for each other. If I am “the coach,” Joy has become the “village priest” when necessary.

It’s that relationship with the kids and their families that has been so rich and sustaining. When I am coaching, I am in “the zone,” and nothing from the rest of my life interferes. I actually schedule my spring and fall travel now around baseball. This has become sacred, even contemplative, space for me, when I get totally focused on the kids and their game. Of course, this is Washington, D.C.—I’ve actually had reporters come up to me on the sidelines and say something like, “Aren’t you Jim Wallis? I’m the new White House correspondent for a national newspaper. Do you have a reaction to what happened yesterday?” I just stare back incredulously, “I’m coaching! Call me at the office tomorrow!”

We have developed three goals for our baseball team: first, to have fun, second, to be good teammates (if we have an iron-clad rule on our team, it is this: no negative talk, especially when someone makes a mistake, because we all make mistakes—even the coaches), and third, to learn to love the game of baseball. Later in life, a kid will less likely remember the scores or the standings from their Little League years than they will the kind of experience it was for them. Although some of my players (my son for one) dream of a Major League Baseball career, that is unlikely. But the lessons they learn as Little Leaguers will stay with them for a lifetime.

The parents often tease me about how the things I am constantly telling the kids from the sidelines are “lessons for life.” For example, you can hear me calling out things like: “Pretend the ball is coming to you!” “Know what you’re going to do before the play begins!” “Get ready for every pitch, even if you don’t swing!” “Run out every hit!” Or my favorite, “Look alive out there!”

One of the most important things Little League can teach kids is to separate achievement and love. When my clean-up batter Luke powers one of his monster hits over the centerfielder’s head to win a playoff game, he can feel his coach’s delight and pride. But when he goes for a too-high pitch and strikes out with guys on base, he needs to never doubt his dad’s love and support.

In our league championship game, there was an incident that reminded me why I coach Little League. We were up 3 to 2 in the top of the sixth. The other team got a runner to second with one out. On the next play, a ground ball skidded to our third baseman, “Timmy,” who missed it, leaving the tying run safe at third. You could hear a collective gasp from the crowd and see how crushed Timmy felt. On the next play, a pop fly went to the same kid! He dropped it, and their runner dashed home to tie the game. This time the 9-year-old was devastated and began to cry.

I called time and went over to third. The sobbing little boy pleaded with me to take him out of the game. “Let me just sit on the bench, coach. I can’t play any more!” “Timmy,” I said, “You’re here because I believe in you. I am not taking you out of the game. You’re a good ball player, Timmy, and all good players sometimes drop the ball. Just remember, your next play is much more important than your last play. You can do this.”

I could feel how upset the boy was, and I could just sense his parents’ pain from the sidelines, knowing that an experience like this could last a long time. The umpire yelled “play ball.” We got another out. Unbelievably, another fly ball soared up over third base. I heard a voice, small but with authority, cry out, “I got it!” And he did. End of inning. And, in our last bat, we scored the winning run, on a dramatic steal of home.

I quickly gathered the kids together and said, “First we need to thank a player who made a mistake and then made the game-winning catch. Let’s hear it for Timmy!” And all the kids cheered for Timmy. I also gave Timmy the first trophy at the celebration after the game with the players and parents. What could have been one kind of life-time experience got turned into another. His parents e-mailed me to say that Timmy is going to do summer baseball camp and has already signed up for the team next season. Little League Baseball is like the drama of life, and the lessons learned are about courage, friendship, hard work, teamwork, and ... having fun.

Sports certainly has its downside (even in Little League, where we have all seen some terrible behavior by coaches and parents), but I will always be grateful for the ways that baseball has changed our family’s life, given us a real sense of community, and taught my boys some of life’s most important lessons.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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