As a child, I don’t really remember when I knew I was a shy person, although I do recall when the realization of being that way hit me at full force, the 4th grade. It was during that time in school when others from teachers to classmates started to comment about my nervous twitches, the constant blinking of my eyes and my chapped lips as “ring around the mouthy.” Then in that same year, the final ingredient to the formula for this internal dilemma of being shy, I got those ugly black rimmed glasses. The reason for bringing this up is to set the backdrop for a discussion I’ve had many times with other people. That discussion centers on the value of children participating in competitive team sports. How this type of social experience helps them to become cooperative adults, who have come to understand group dynamics well enough to work with others successfully in everyday society.
When discussing this matter at length, I’ve often talked about my experience when playing sports and the positive effect it has had upon me during my adult years of life. Being shy as a child was absolutely devastating for me. For awhile I wrestled with its cause by blaming it on the way I was raised under the tutelage of a patriarchal Scottish father. However, I’ve had to accept that many of my father’s traits thrust upon me as a child have led to my success as a leader in life. Actually as the premise for this discussion, its cause is immaterial and the means that helped me overcome my shyness is far more relevant.
As a shy boy growing up in a small farm community called Freeland located near the thumb of eastern mid-Michigan, my favorite sport to watch and play was baseball. My grandfather was an ardent Detroit Tigers fan and would religiously listen to their games play by play as announced by the legendary Ernie Harwell on the radio. The day I got to play little league baseball on the ball fields that were a part of the playground belonging to the elementary school in town, was a joy so immense, to this day I find it hard to relate fully to others the feeling. I showed up for the minors with my worn-out, hand me down glove of which had no back strap to prevent it from flipping off my hand when catching a baseball.
By the next year, I was with the big boys (as I viewed them) in the majors on a team known as the Giants. Even though I was small at this age in comparison to everyone else, because of my athletic prowess, I got to play first-string in my favorite position called shortstop, highly regarded as the most dynamic defensive position in baseball. This position on the field is naturally easier for right-handers to play and I was naturally born a left-hander, yet according to the traditions of old, my father made me a right-hander by forcing me to use that hand exclusively. Ironically, this overly strict methodology became quite advantageous for me through the years. Its overall effect has made me rather ambidextrous not only in body but in mind as well. During this first year in the majors, my father bought me a brand new glove. In the pocket of the glove was written the name of Don Demeter, who played three years on the Tigers in the mid-sixties. Getting that new glove met so much to me, I used it not only in little league, but all the way through high school ball as well. As a matter of fact, I still have that glove, which at the time of this writing, would make it about forty-one years old.
When I was out on the ball diamond, playing with my teammates and hearing the cheers of the fans, my shyness seemed to be cured or at least in a remission of sorts. My nervous twitches, the constant blinking of my eyes and my chapped lips, didn’t appear to matter as much to those around me as it did while attending school. Out on the baseball diamond, how I performed and played with others was the determining factor more than anything else. It is there on that field, when you are so entrenched in battle along with your comrades, against the opposing team, all working together as a finely tuned unit, you begin to learn the benefit of participating in competitive team sports. When you walk off the diamond covered in dirt, grass stains, with scrapes and bruises as a winner or in defeat after giving it your all, you know one thing, you didn’t do it alone.
Even if it was the bottom of the last ending, score tied, two outs, you at bat, a 3-2 count, the last pitch and you hit the game winning home run, guess what you still didn’t win the game all by yourself. Only a person, who remains an egotistical soul and some do, wouldn’t realize that it was a combined team effort that led you to that unique situation in time. The adrenaline rush of the team spirit resulting in victory as a whole with a feeling of satisfaction for a job well done can far surpass that of the individual achievement. Why? As part of a team you realize, you can’t control all of the variables that come up while playing with others during the game. As they say, “shit happens,” and in the end, what happened, makes the gaining of the prize, oh so much sweeter. You learn through the team experience that what you do as an individual no matter if great or in failure has an effect not only on you, but your teammates as well. As an individual, I have never experienced the lessons found through emotional pain like that felt as part of a team, which gave it their all and still suffered defeat.
In little league, one of the most remembered times I felt the hurt of loss as a team, is when the little league teams of Freeland combined players and went as an all star team to play in Bay City, MI. We were all so excited and hyped up about playing there in that baseball tournament. We were so confident we would win and then go all the way to play the Japanese kids in the little league world series. I was honored to be picked to pitch that game and even though we gave it our best, we were eliminated in a close game. We were so devastated on the ride home that evening because of thinking we had let our town and ourselves down. We learned as a team that there are times you get to shine ever so brightly in the rays of the sun. At other times as a team, we had to learn to lick our wounds hidden under the shadow of the clouds. We had to stay there to build each other up to mend, until once again we got the opportunity to shine in the sun.
As an individual player involved in team sports, no matter how good you are, to be successful, you have to prove yourself valuable to the team as a whole. You have to show you can get along with others even if you don’t get everything your way. You learn when you get knocked down, it’s not happening to you alone and that it’s your team members who help you to get up, clean off the dust and go on. In my case, I especially learned these lessons during my high school years of playing baseball. I remember my first year on varsity, even though the coach told me I was the better player at the position of shortstop, it was the custom for the senior on the team to play that position. Well I had to go suck it up and play left field my junior year.
During that year, this same senior while hot-dogging to catch a fly ball hit directly to me in left field, ran into me with his head and knocked both of my front teeth into my mouth. Due to my teeth being loose, this injury sidelined me for awhile and then I had to suck it up again and go play right field. Along came my anticipated senior year to redeem myself from the mishaps of the previous year in baseball. First came football season and as if fate was not going to leave me short-changed as to lessons to be learned, I broke my right hand during practice. Being as competitive as I was, as well as not wanting to let my team down and against my mother’s best wishes, I played the whole season hurting my hand again and again. Over the winter, my hand seemed to have healed by the time baseball season rolled around.
The 1975, Freeland High School baseball team, is by far the best team I’ve ever played on and the coach was the best I’ve ever played for since. The main reason for our success was because we were a very close team, like brothers of a family that started for many of us when playing together or against each other in little league baseball. We knew each other’s strengths, weaknesses and personal traits during the test of competition inside and out. Our coach for four years had taken a personal interest in each of us and had honed our skills to play the positions we played. Our skill level as a team was never truly appreciated by most of our other schoolmates at the time. The previous year, this baseball team from a small school in Michigan made it to the state regional’s and almost to the state finals. So going into the ‘75 year as a team, our expectations were to finish what we hadn’t did the year before, go to the state finals and win everything. However my year personally, didn’t workout that well. My hand that was broke earlier in the year in football started to bother me and affected my swinging the bat. I don’t remember if I told my teammates about my problem or not, like before, I sucked it up. As my batting average plunged during the season to a modest 315, I had to refocus my efforts more on my teammates to encourage them to step up their game to fill for my lesser play. This was an important challenge as to the future development of my true character as an adult. For me, it was a defining moment in my life to really step up to the plate as a leader.
The lessons of life didn’t at all disappoint, putting me in the most humbling of situations throughout the season as if I was destine to prove my worth in this role as a leader through example. One of my toughest challenges did arrive in the form of the ultimate sacrifice, literally. It was during the closing innings of a baseball game in the state district tournament, where elimination for our team seemed forthcoming, I came to bat. As I stepped to the plate, as usual I looked down the left field line at the coach for a sign and then it happened. Coach gave me the sign to lay down a sacrifice bunt to advance the base runner. In the following seconds my thoughts raced back and forth questioning what I was going to do. In my mind’s eye I could clearly see myself swinging away and hitting a home run making me the hero of the game. Then the ball was suddenly pitched and in the manner of a leader by example, I put aside personal glory to make the ultimate sacrifice for the team, I laid down the perfect bunt. The runner advanced and as things worked out, we still lost the game. Afterwards as we got on the bus to head home, it took all of my self-control to not reveal my disappointment to my fellow teammates. Especially knowing our season had ended on a bad note and this was the last game I would ever play with my longtime teammates. Later that year I represented Freeland in a game playing on the area all-star team and that was the last time I played competitively as part of a baseball team.
As the years have passed by the many lessons lived during the experience of participating in competitive team sports has proved time and again invaluable to me in adult life. No doubt from being thoroughly dowsed in the zeal of the competitive team spirit, is where a shy boy so paralyzed with fear was socially baptized under fire to become well versed in the ways of group dynamics. I had been adequately prepped to confidently communicate and fully use the skills learned during the trials of competition to become a capable team player in other aspects of life. Through the experience, I had to learn self control by dealing with the good with the bad, the positive with the negative, the egos with the personality conflicts, etc., more than enough to prepare me for the future. All to equip me with the proper mindset and forbearance to be able to work well with others to successfully accomplish a purpose. Without hesitation, I have been able to step up to the plate to take on the role of leader and then like in the past, I’ve been able to do it well by starting with the sacrifice of personal example.
So tell me the critic, what is wrong with a youth acquiring these kinds of social skills while playing competitive team sports? ‘Cause gosh, me, I really, really don’t know.
Words by ~Keith Alan Hamilton~