What childhood baseball taught me about life
By Steve Savant
Ash Brokerage Corporation
Watching the Major League Baseball playoffs over the past few weeks has caused me to muse over my time playing baseball when I was 10. That’s when I started playing — pretty late, in baseball terms. I never played in the Tee Ball or Pee Wee Leagues, and the consequence of missing those early formative years was riding the bench most of my first year. I wanted to play, but I just wasn't good enough to start.
During my first off-season, I played countless sandlot pickup games and spent my money from odd jobs over the summer living in a batting cage. There was a small improvement, but I still wasn't good enough to be a starter.
I was raised in the 1950s on the south side of Chicago as a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic. I dutifully went to Mass and confession like clockwork. I prayed every day to become a better baseball player. My relationship with God seemed to improve, but not my athletic abilities.
At the beginning of my second season, I noticed that some of my teammates were being promoted to the next level of competition. I realized this could be my first real opportunity to play. So, instead of praying to become a better baseball player, I began praying for the advancement of others to create a slot for myself in the starting lineup. I don’t know if such selfish prayers are answered, but two players were promoted and I was able to start in right field.
Sometimes, the advancement of others can be your opportunity. “Carpe diem,” Sister would say. Seize the day.
I played right field like a hockey goaltender. My coach always told the outfielders, “Don’t let the ball get by you.” I was so afraid of letting the ball get behind me that I blocked it with my body stretched out on the ground. Then, I would quickly stand up to throw the ball to the second baseman. My method was clumsy, but effective. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. I was so happy to be in the starting lineup, even batting ninth — dead last, but at least I was in the lineup!
Sometimes, just starting in the only position left, means you’re not left out.
Then one day, we were at practice running around the bases, when my coach took me aside. He said, “Steve, you’re very fast; maybe the fastest person on the team.”
I can’t express how elated I was. I almost cried at the thought that I might be the best on the team at something.
Sometimes, you have to leverage the gift you've been given and make everything work around that.
He continued, “We just have to get you on base.”
I felt deflated again. I thought to myself, “I knew there was a catch.” Then, he asked me a curious question. Did I know what the term "on-base percentage" meant?
I replied, “Do you mean hitting percentage?” (My hitting percentage was just below .200.)
He answered, “No, on-base percentage includes all the ways you can get on base.”
I immediately responded, “There’s only one way to get on base, and that’s to get a hit.”
He said, “No, you can also get on base with a walk, a dropped third strike by the catcher, or being hit by a pitch.” That last option didn't strike me as particularly appealing, but I wanted to get on base so badly, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I thought to myself, “There are four ways to get on base, and I might actually be able to use three of them.”
Three days later, I was starting my first game against an evenly matched opponent (we were both .500.) I ran out to right field at the top of the first inning and prayed that no one would hit the ball to me. We retired the side without them scoring and, better yet, no one hit the ball to me.
The second inning was just as uneventful; but then came the third inning. The visiting team had a man on, one out and the batter hit a line drive out to me. I stood there like a statue, as if I were posing for holy pictures. As I waited for the ball to come to me, I prayed that I would be able to stop this ball. Using my goaltender style, I laid out on the ground and blocked the ball. I stood up and threw to the second baseman as the batter slid into second base.
“You’re out!” the umpire yelled, and everyone on my team pointed to me and cheered. I was now more nervous than ever due to my teammates’ new expectations that I could actually be relied upon to make a play if the ball came to me.
Sometimes, the day’s success can put undue pressure on you to perform in the future.
I came into the dugout and my coach said, “You’re up. This is the third inning and the pitcher hasn't been throwing strikes. We've been swinging at bad pitches all night. Don’t swing at anything. Got it, Steve?” I said, “Yes coach.”
The first pitch was a strike. I was worried, but the next four pitches were balls, and I was on first base. I was ecstatic. The first base coach had to calm me down. Our lead off man was up and hit a little fly ball into right field. I could hear my coach screaming at me, “Go, go, go!”
I ran as if I was being chased by the devil himself. I kept going all the way to third without sliding. Our next batter struck out, but then our cleanup hitter hit one up the middle and I ran home and stomped on home plate. It was the first time I had ever seen home plate from that angle.
Sometimes, just showing up and standing tall in the box is enough. My new methodology of not swinging had worked, so I stuck with it. For several games, I refused to swing and walked to first base more than half the time. But then, we started playing better teams with better pitching and I was striking out without a swing.
So, coach told me that whenever I had two strikes, I should swing wildly at the next pitch and run to first base no matter what. The next time I had accumulated two strikes I swung like a madman, missed the ball and ran as fast as I could to first base. I fully expected the plate umpire to yell, “You’re out!” Instead, I heard the field umpire cry, “Safe at first!” The catcher had dropped the third strike, confused by my erratic swing, and I beat the throw to first. I later scored. Now I had two unconventional, but successful, methods of getting on base.
Sometimes the unconventional swing works. Remember Happy Gilmore.
At midseason, we were facing the number one team in the league. They hadn't lost a single game. They had the best pitcher, who threw at speeds up to 55 mph. It might as well have been 100 mph — I wasn't going to hit it. And their catcher, who seemed like he could be 16, looked like he had the makings of a mustache! Worst of all, he was catching everything. By the time I came up to bat in the third inning, five of my teammates had struck out. Three of them were our best hitters.
I was heading for the batter’s box when coach called time out. He looked at me and said, “I want to ask a favor. You don’t have to do it. But I want you to crowd the plate and stand on the inside line of the batter’s box.”
I was terrified. I knew if the pitcher threw an inside pitch, I might be hit. I turned to coach and said, “OK.”
I baby-stepped my way into the batter’s box. I had never been so close to home plate; I generally stood as far from the plate as possible.
The first pitch was like a rocket. Strike one. The second pitch seemed even faster. Strike two. But the third pitch was inside. I couldn’t get out of the way in time and it hit me in the leg. I collapsed on the ground, grimacing in pain and trying not to cry. My eyes were welling up with tears, but when I stood up, the crowd applauded.
I couldn’t recall any time in my life when someone cheered for me. It made the pain easier to bear. My coach asked me, “Are you OK?” and I answered, “Yes.” (Even though I was hurting something fierce.) I ran to first. Later in the inning, I stole second and scored sliding into home on a deep fly ball off the fence. Now I had three ways to get on base.
Sometimes, taking one for the team is also taking one for yourself.
Every game, I would think about what I could do to get on base: walk, run on a third strike, or crowd the plate and get hit by the ball. My batting average that year was .217, but my on-base percentage was .544.
One last thought: After I made the starting lineup — albeit as the last batter and playing right field — I had an experience that set the tone for my life. We were the visiting team, so we were seated in the first base dugout. We had just retired the side and I came running into the dugout from right field. I saw one of the benchwarmers, a teammate who hadn't played in a single game all year. Up until that moment in my life, I had never felt such compassion for another human being. My heart just broke for him, and I remembered what Sister said: “Give comfort to those who are suffering.”
I sat down next to him and put my arm around him and said to him, “Let’s play some catch.” He stood up immediately and we started throwing. He was delighted, as if we were in a real game. To him, in that moment, he was in the game.