Sunday, July 26, 2015

Graduating Little League

Before the actual day, I worried about the arrival of my 40th birthday. But when that day came, it felt like any other day. I was still me, just a day older. I felt the same for “Y2K”, the year 2000. After months of doomsday scenarios, January 1, 2000 was just like any other day that saw the sun rise and saw the sun set. All our computers still turned on. Partly because these were so normal, I am caught off-guard that today does not feel like any other day. As strange as it may sound, the end of my son's 12-year-old Little League year feels like I thought age 40 or Y2K might feel; like the end of an era. In many ways, my son and his baseball buddies are no longer children. Today, our boys have graduated Little League.

It is true that Little League goes on past age 12. But the 12-year-old year is the privileged year. The name of the 12U division is simply “Little League”, as if to assert the 12-year-old division is Little League. In our town, the 12 year-old division is top dog. It's considered first in scheduling games and practices and batting cage time. It's the only division without a time limit on games. At 12, Little Leaguers traditionally play their final year on the small field, where T-ballers and mini-minor kids also learn the game. Next comes a big transition to a full, major-league-sized field. Many kids do not make the transition to the more demanding field and they leave baseball behind. There are other reasons to stop Little League after 12. Some of the best players leave to focus only on more competitive club teams. And so the 12-year old year is the peak of Little League participation and competition. The kids fortunate enough to be selected to represent their league as All-Stars extend their regular seasons with summer tournaments against other leagues. For the 12U Little League division, the tournament is truly world-wide, culminating in The Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, watched by millions each year on television.

This year, my son's 12-year-old Little League year, he and I were especially fortunate. He represented his league as an All-Star, with me as a coach. It was a special team that exceeded expectations and got significant contributions from every single player. It was a special team because the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, with strong leadership and strong families. Most of all, it was a team of great boys who worked hard, who played hard to win, who never gave up, and who had fun. Had these boys lost in their district (the first tournament), not many people would have been surprised. Defying expectations, these boys breezed to the District championship, even winning that game 11-0. Then they went even farther. They won a Sectional championship with two comeback, walk-off victories in a row. One of the Sectional victories was against a power house team, last year's 11U state champions. In so doing, our team became only the third in our league's 47-year history to be Section champions as 12-year-olds. As Section champions, they were one of ten teams to remain alive in all of Southern California, usually one of the very strongest regions of Little League baseball in the world.

Our team celebrates their walk-off Sectional Championship.

For all but a handful of players and coaches, the Little League tournament ends in defeat. We know all along that the odds of reaching a Williamsport dream are very long, and we assume that defeat will come eventually. Yet with every win, the dream stays alive. Why couldn't it be us? Why shouldn't it be us? We could be the team of destiny. These boys deserve to be the team of destiny. With every win we keep working, every day. We keep practicing and we keep playing hard. We do not give up and we focus on getting better. In every game, we expect to win. In every game, we plan to win. And so we do not mentally prepare for losing. Until we lose. Then it all changes in an instant.

It is not the loss of a game that is so difficult. Perhaps it is the loss of an opportunity. Maybe it is the loss of our summertime family, with whom we cheered and celebrated. When players finish their season at age 10, they look forward to moving up to the Little League Majors division. When they finish at age 11, they look forward to their privileged year, when their Williamsport dreams become most vivid. But when they are 12, and their season comes to its inevitable end, they will never again be little boys playing on a little diamond. My son is someone I can still play catch with, but no longer can I play catch with my little boy. Today, our little boys have graduated.

Even though I will miss the days of playing baseball with a great group of boys on a perfect Santa Barbara summer afternoon, I know that graduations are also a time to be proud. We are so proud of what these boys accomplished. We know they will become strong young men. These will be young men who strive to win. These will be young men who will always do their best, and who never give up. These will be young men who support each other and who contribute to communities and teams in ways that maximize their individual strengths and gifts. These will be young men who know that sometimes, a whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. These are young men who today graduated Little League.