Remember the Ice Cream
I still remember running out to left field on opening day of my very first team. I can still see my brother Tommy's smile as I ran past him at shortstop on my way to left field. I remember feeling sorry for him, stuck at shortstop. I thought sluggers played corner outfield positions. Little did I know those outfield spots were for the guys who played three innings and then earned a seat on the bench... and the best athletes were placed at short!
Still, at that moment—opening day—I felt like Cleon Jones, the left fielder for the New York Mets. I was Cleon, the guy who caught the last out in the 1969 World Series.
The words "Gristede's Supermarket" were on the front of my uniform shirt. But Gristede's closed right at the beginning of the season, leaving us as the no-names! My dad came to the rescue and sponsored the team. Dad owned an exterminating business, so my mom collected the uniforms, removed the old name and stitched "Rainbow Pests" on our jerseys.
Dad and Mom went to all our games. Every one. Carvel Ice Cream cones after every game, win or lose. We lost most of the games that year, and the post-game ice cream helped to ease the pain of the losses, and helped to build friendships.
There were many lessons I learned that season. I learned humility. Sitting for half of most games was humbling, especially since my healthy ego told me I was one of the greatest hitters of all-time. I increased my math skills. I remember doing the division to learn I batted .429 that season (so what if I counted errors as hits!), making a note I would have won the batting crown in both the National and American Leagues.
Even though I was one of the youngest kids on the team, I got one chance to pitch, in relief, late in the season. The bases were loaded, bottom of the sixth, two outs, up by two runs. I had to put out the fire. Get one out and I'd be the hero. I walked the first two batters and hit the third in the middle of his back.
I heard the shouts at home plate and watched the other players jump on one another as I walked off the field with my teammates in silence. All because I couldn't throw strikes.
I didn't talk much that night. The chocolate ice cream cone was OK, but it didn't feel as good as the hug Dad gave me before bedtime. His smiling Irish eyes told me he loved me, and in an unspoken way helped me realize it was only one game. That encouragement helped me to eventually develop into an above-average player.
I got a game ball the following season, given to me by the opposing coach of the league champions. It says "1 hit shutout, 11 K's." I guess the batters couldn't catch up with my slow fast ball. But no walks and no hit batsmen – a big turnaround from the year before. And it started me on a life-long love of baseball.
So as you begin this year, remember not to write off our little leaguers. This year's strikeout victims and wild arms may be next year's stars. As our girls and boys develop their skills, keep pitching to them and playing catch with them. And keep on talking to them. Hugging them. Telling them how much you love them.
And win or lose, remember the ice cream.