I fell in love with baseball at very young age. I took to jacking plastics balls with a big red bat very early, and the fact that I was 100% lefty was fun for my older brothers; the more they tossed me balls, the more swings I took. Some of my earliest memories are playing school lot baseball and enjoying the feeling of watching that ball fly high in the air, onto the roof of the kindergarten. As we grew up, my brothers designed a home run derby field in back yard, complete with an arborvitae Green Monster in left field. We had great rules and good dimensions for competitive matchups with a wiffle ball. We used to personalize our wiffle bats with electrical and duct tape, making them heavier so the ball would go further and even went so far as to bring a Boom Box out so we could play walk up songs between innings or when the batter changed. Rain or shine, baseball was life.
My brother Mike also taught me how to toss a wiffle ball into the valley of our roof and hammer it against our house as it would drop off over the gutter. I did this for hours at a time. I was that kid that used to sleep with my glove and carry a baseball in my backpack, baseball truly was my first love. Unfortunately, over the course of my career I was often also that player who tossed helmets, kicked dirt and argued with umpires. I thoroughly enjoyed the good games and couldn't sleep after the bad ones. Most of my teammates would probably describe me as a guy who was great in the clubhouse but a distraction in the dugout. My performance at the plate was as inconsistent as my attitude.
As you'd imagine, I have many regrets about my baseball career. To be blessed with a 6'3", frame, born left-handed with soft hands on the infield and above average power at the plate, and to not have gotten a taste of the big leagues in an organization that was starving for producers, is something I will always wonder about. If I had been able to come to work with consistent mindset no matter how things went on the field, if I had behaved more then like I do now, nearing 40 years old, things, maybe, just maybe, could have gone differently.
What if I had been as mentally and emotionally dependable on the baseball field as I am in my personal life and career today? I'll always wonder...
On my way to the minor leagues, I played baseball, basketball and football at the college level. I can tell you from experience that baseball is the most nuanced, mentally arduous and strategically unique sport of the 3. It's the only sport where the defense has the ball and EVERYTHING is tracked and used to measure your performance directly. Baseball is fully dichotomous in that the difference between .05% in your batting average is the difference between "just another guy" and an all-star caliber player, yet when you give yourself up to move a runner to the next base you are willfully hurting your stats. There are many lessons to be learned from the game; below I cover those that are the most poignant for me in my life today with a brood of young kids and a full time career.
Most people don't realize that a full minor league baseball season is 140 games. It's easy to hear that number without really processing it, but think about it for a second. A baseball season has double the game days of the next closest professional season (NBA and NHL are in the 80-game range). Baseball is a sport for daily grinders, there are no days off - unless it rains. And although it isn't considered the most physical sport because of its lack of running and man-into-man contact, it remains the ultimate endeavor of repetition – all those swings, throws and ground balls, day after day, week after week, during the hottest months of the year, take a distinctive toll on your ligaments, tendons, muscles and feet over the long haul. That is why baseball is a sport that requires a marathon attitude – consistent approach, good habits and dependable routines, for months at a time. As your weight and muscle mass drop and your body aches you must stay the course, get your work in, get prepared to play. This is one area where I held my own during my career, I took good care of my body, avoided injury, got to the field early, spent a lot of time in the cages and worked on specific skills every day during batting practice. Balancing life with kids, a career and travel takes the same type of planning and approach.
Raising kids (especially twins) is a daily battle at times, checking one thing off the list at a time until you finally get them to bed, then the next day you do it all over again, and you do that work for years, you can't putter out, have ups and downs or days where you're "just not that into it." It takes effort and commitment over the long haul and there is a level of commitment required that leads to a special level of fulfillment as they grow, learn and develop.
Work life is the same way! Building a career or a business takes time and in order to show your ability you must first show your availability. Consistent emotions, preparation and performance are all required, over the course of many years, to get where you want to go. In baseball and in your work life, its better to be the guy who gets 1 or 2 hits every night than the guy who gets 4 hits rarely and no hits consistently. Best to be the guy who makes every single routine play instead of the guy who makes the Sportscenter play but bobbles a standard ground ball or throws one into the bleachers once a week or when the game is on the line. In baseball, parenting and work life, people who have good routines and perform consistently over the course of an extended period of time stay ahead, live without ups and downs and win in the end, a marathon approach is key.
I remember so many times, sitting in the dugout, 0-3 and watching an opponent or teammate sneak a 15-hopper through the infield for a base hit, and experiencing that feeling of envy and anger, trying to rationalize the fact that other's fortunes appeared to be better. All baseball players know the feeling of hammering a line drive right at somebody when you've been battling and scuffling to get hits, it can be maddening! And speaking of bad luck, during my 3rd season in the Washington Nationals organization, 6 games in, already with 3 home runs on my stat sheet, I was hit by a pitch square on my right hand and missed the next 4 months with a broken middle metatarsal. Over the 25 years I played the game, there were countless bad calls, questionable pitches and tough situations that were out of my control. That is the life of a baseball player and the ONLY WAY to stay sane – which I struggled with – is to only control what you can and go into everyday with a full understanding that CRAP HAPPENS.
A more psychological approach would probably state it differently. Something along the lines of "difficulties exist to make you stronger." It sounds cliche' but boy is it true. If we get in the habit of blaming others, our "bad luck," the company we work for, our wives our children or the "baseball gods" for the things that happen in our lives, that we cannot control, we will drive ourselves mad; and many people do! Blame leads to resentment and resentment will destroy your joy. Towards the end of my career I really struggled to find happiness while being paid to play baseball, how brutal is that?! The sole reason why this occurred was because I forgot that bad calls, tough pitchers, bad bounces, line drive outs, injuries and slumps were all opportunities for me to become stronger mentally. Oh how I wish I could go back with the understanding I have today!
My father likes to say, "People are like glasses of water; what's inside comes out when we're all shook up." It is critical in baseball and in life that we meet unexpected challenges, over which we have zero control, with grace, patience and grit. It took me 30 years to learn this and I can still do better. The earlier you are able to control your reaction to what happens to you even when you cannot control what happens, the better off you'll be as an athlete, employee, father and husband. Do not dwell on the unexpected hurdles you encounter, just be prepared to jump when they enter your path.
Never Too High, Never Too Low
During my career I did a solid job of staying within myself emotionally when things were going really well, that's because I knew the next downturn could be right around the corner. You see this with golfers sometimes as well, the reason they never seem too excited after victories is because they understand that when you're playing a game of chance, no matter how hard you work, the putts can stop falling at any given moment, during any given round. In both baseball and golf, games where chance is involved, where you have to wait for opportunities to present themselves and hope things go well when those opportunities arise, you cannot get too high when you experience success. I understood this concept well.
In contrast to my behavior in good times, where I really struggled during my career was in times of trial, when I couldn't buy a hit or wasn't seeing the ball well, when that inevitable 6'3" lefty came out of the bullpen in the 7th inning tossing fastballs hard inside juxtaposed with soft, elusive sliders on the outside corner. During these difficult situations, I would talk so negatively to myself and become a slave to destructive emotions. Even worse, I would pull my teammates down with me and resent their success - terrible I know. Baseball was the only thing I've ever participated in in my life that brought that type of behavior out of me. That habit of going into deep valleys of despair during tough times hurt my performance and damaged my reputation. It wasn't until my mid-30's that I could compete like hell at something, lose and be fine with it soon thereafter.
So what changed? Well, with maturity, I learned to respect my opponents. I began to understand that they were also working hard at their craft, that they possessed specific talents and abilities to neutralize my own. I also learned what successful people often learn at some point: failure is the most important catalyst for success. Messing up, striking out and making errors are all part of the journey no matter who you are. Failure isn't personal, its human.
As a parent, we mess up, as employees we miss the mark, as husbands we flat out fail at times. We also experience great success in these areas of our lives, not only when we prepare and perform, but also when things just go our way for reasons completely out of our control.
If we are able to stay in the middle (calm, collected and grateful) no matter what is going on around us, we give ourselves the best chance to succeed when opportunities come our way.
Success Comes in Many Forms
Self-talk is so important in sports and life. We all have dialogue within our own minds and the tone of that dialogue possesses unrivaled power. As we evaluate ourselves it is so important to understand and celebrate the fact that we can contribute to our teams, organizations, families and children in many different ways. If we approach everything we do with preparation, enthusiasm and effort, we will have a positive effect even when our job is stagnant, when things are tough at home (balancing marriage, kids, travel) or when we aren't feeling our best because of sickness or other factors. Baseball is the same way. It is the only sport where teams will sign players to contracts or keep them in the organization only because of their positive impact in the locker room. Players who provide this type of emotional and professional constructive impact are referred to as "clubhouse guys." In a sport with the types mental challenges I've discussed in this post, you need people on your team who provide comic relief, blue collar work ethic, enthusiasm, experience, leadership or whatever other attribute you feel your team needs. This is their way of helping the team succeed.
You'll also have other guys on your roster who get paid to do very specific things on the field. Some guys are on the team just to pinch hit. They are usually older, switch-hitting veterans with playoff experience or a world series ring or two. There isn't a pitcher they don't believe they can't get a hit off of nor is there a baseball situation in which they feel uncomfortable. Their opportunities are rare but they can be life-changing when things go well. You'll also see a speed guy at the end of the bench; he can usually play a few different positions, but his main value is pinch-running for slow pokes (catchers, first basemen, pitchers) late in games. He can steal a base, score from first on a double or from second on any base hit. These pinch hitters and speed specialists have shaped the history of baseball with their specific skills sets and individual value.
As a hitter, you can contribute (succeed) by getting hits, driving in runners, seeing pitches, drawing walks, hitting the ball to certain parts of the field to move runners, hitting sacrifice flies, getting hit by pitches or getting the bunt down. As a superior defensive player, you can earn your keep by making every routine play even if you're a below average hitter. Let's put it this way, the more difficult your defensive position, the less is expected of you as a hitter. Pitching has become just as specialized! Spot relievers who come in just to get one hitter are as integral to the success of the team as starters or closers are, they get paid well for it too. Success is different for each one of these players and we get to decide what success is for us because only we know what we're trying to accomplish.
Because of all the different and specific ways baseball players are asked to contribute, they must practice positive self-talk. Take the old veteran pinch hitter or the spot reliever for example. When you're called upon rarely, for a very specific purpose and you don't get the job done, think how difficult that can be mentally! They have to turn their attention to "succeeding" in other ways; by building up their teammates, concentrating on preparation through training and film study, watching game after game and going through mental repetitions, thinking situationally, until they once again get their chance to contribute directly.
We can do the same thing in our own lives. We aren't always going to perform our best, we will fail many times as employees, parents and spouses, but with positive talk and good routines (exercise, healthy eating, contributions at home, enthusiasm at work, consistent effort no matter the situation) we can succeed daily and in many different big and small ways.
Baseball is often described as a game where many attend, but few understand. I hope this post gives you some understanding of a few of its many intricacies and how they can be applied to work and family life. I'm grateful for the opportunity to share them with you. I hope these lessons provide some value to you and that you can look within yourself to discover where you may be able to improve, I know there is lots of room for improvement in my life.
If you'd like to learn more about the ups and downs of minor league baseball and my involvement in it you can watch a 6-part independent documentary a great friend of mine filmed here:
Rise. Shine. Crush.