We all have “aha” moments in life. Some frequently more than others, while some less frequent but more game-changing than others. I think I’ve evolved into the latter as my game heads into the bottom of the 5th. You see, I’m what they call a baseball guy. Everything in my world seems to somehow be related to a nine-inch round metaphor, with 108 stitches that determine which direction I travel through life.
My most recent “aha” came on Wednesday, March 18. To say it was one of those game-changing “aha’s” wouldn’t do justice. This one was life-changing. Not in a life and death manner. God knows there are far more important at-bats being taken around our world right now. But in my current game, I was frozen by a pitch that I never saw coming.
Two days after school shut down and our final team meeting, I stopped by our field to drop some equipment off. There were maybe a dozen of our guys working out on their own at the field. A couple of our former players back from college, but mostly our high school players. Some were playing catch in the outfield, some throwing bullpens, some hitting on the field, and some shagging fly balls and grounders in the field. All in their own little groups of three to four guys.
I sat down in the stands and just watched them do their thing. I watched them laughing and talking baseball with excitement in the air. I listened to them ride each other as their preseason arms and swings were still a work in progress being outside for the first time. It was 48 degrees, the sun was shining, and the field was clear of snow and ready for baseball in mid-March in Wisconsin. For twenty minutes I smiled and my heart was full, regardless of what I knew reality was steering us toward.
Then I saw a police car pull into the parking lot and an officer get out. He started walking toward the field, until he saw me making my way over. I’m not exactly sure what was said, but the gist is he was very cordial in explaining to me he was here to kick the guys off the field, as city parks were now closed to congregating groups. I told him I would relay his message to the guys, figuring it would be easier for me to explain to my players than some random police officer kicking them off their own home field. Boy was I wrong when I say easier.
It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds of looking into their eyes that it hit me. I was having to tell my own guys they were being kicked off the only place they could find comfort at that time. Our conversation lasted all of maybe a minute before my quivering voice cut out, as I’m sure my guys could tell I was struggling with what I thought would be easier for me to do than the officer.
I drove away watching them slowly start to gather their belongings. As I drove by St. Bridget’s Church it hit me that I needed to turn back. I needed to have that conversation over again. On my terms. So I did. By the time I got back the guys were huddled in front of the dugout talking. Our second conversation went much better, though not necessarily easier. I prayed as I drove away the second time that would not be the last time I shared the field with our guys this spring. I’ve prayed for that same thing every day since.
Like so many, my mind has been consumed lately by things out of our control. This isn’t the way the 2020 season is supposed to go. On one hand, I can’t imagine what winter sport athletes had to face when their season was shut down in the middle of the playoffs. The team that advanced to their first state tournament in school history, only to have it shut down just hours before it started. Devastating. On the other hand, I’m grateful they had an opportunity to still play a full season. I pray spring sport athletes get the opportunity to play any games this season.
I feel most sad for the athletes who never knew they were playing in their final game. Like former Wildcat Joe Halling, senior outfielder at UW-Stout, whose baseball career ended before he knew he played his final game. Tough pill to swallow as I’ve watched Joe work so hard to earn every opportunity he’s ever been given.
We stress to our players that you’ll never regret working hard. Regardless of how things turn out, make sure your commitment to the process leaves you with no regrets. I know firsthand Joe lives that motto, and I hope senior student-athletes in all spring sports across the country can say that same thing right now.
Regardless of what summer hope brings, the 2020 baseball season will go down as the most challenging in my 40-plus years of memory. Nothing to do with a scoreboard, but that we have been kept starving for the game we love, which for many won’t return until it’s too late. Like so many others, we’re left fighting off a filthy curveball when we were poised to swing away in a fastball count. But it’s baseball, and our game is built around failure. So we’ll continue fighting off this curveball, and eventually we’ll get our fastball.
One thing I’m certain of is when the time comes, and it will, we will be ready to swing for the fences again. The scoreboard won’t matter, we will all feel like winners as we take a deep breath and say “aha!”