Ted Williams and The Knucklehead

The Knucklehead is 10.

I love baseball, but I can’t play it to save my life. As a kid I had zero confidence in my athletic abilities, which translated into fear at the plate and fear in the field. I love to talk baseball, read baseball, and watch baseball, but I’m absolutely useless to The Knucklehead when it comes to helping him out with the skills required for the game. There’s both an up and a down side to this. The disadvantage is I can never really be a coach to my son. The advantage, of course, is that I can never really be a coach to my son. So I’m his cheerleader, his confidante, his sounding board. When I do have advice, it’s of they more esoteric kind.

Early on in his baseball career, my son had a pretty decent on-base percentage. He never hit much for power, but he could skillfully put the ball in play, but also had a good eye at the plate, so he’d draw lots of walks. One game, I watched from the stands as he struck out looking at every plate appearance. And I knew why. The umpire had a huge strike zone, and The Knucklehead didn’t agree with it. Every strike called, I’d see a quick glance back at the umpire. Nothing disrespectful, nothing overt, nothing said, but knowing The Knucklehead, I could tell he was silently telling the umpire, “That was NOT a strike.” And, since it wasn’t a strike, he was not going to swing at it. After all, by swinging at the pitch, in effect, he’d be announcing to the ballpark, “Why, yes, I can see that was indeed a strike exactly as the umpire indicated, otherwise why in the world would I ever swing at it?” He was claiming the moral high ground. Even if nobody else in the ballpark knew it, The Knucklehead himself could sleep soundly that night knowing he was right. Unfortunately, he was taking the moral high ground with runners in scoring position, and was learning that the phrase “moral victory” is often synonymous with the word, “losing”.

We’re Red Sox fans, so naturally I thought of Ted Wiliams. Ted Williams was simply the greatest hitter who ever lived. He was the last hitter to hit over .400 for the course of a season, and since I’m convinced no one will ever do it again, that’s good enough for me. Williams was a samurai. He believed in perfecting his craft*. He was really the first to apply scientific principles to putting the ball in play, researching obsessively over his past at-bats. He also had a legendary eye for the strike zone, and would absolutely, under no circumstances, swing at a pitch outside the strike zone. It didn’t matter if he could get a pitch outside the zone into play, Wiliams wouldn’t do it. Throughout his career, he would take a walk when other players might have risked swinging. A lot of people called Williams selfish because he seemed to be putting his own performance ahead of the needs of the team. But Williams’ answer to this was that in always developing his skill as a player was the best way to help his team. He felt that it was more important to discipline yourself as a hitter to never swing at a pitch outside the strike zone. He believed that finding those exceptions was to weaken the discipline. In the short term, you might have some luck, but in the long term, you would turn into a sloppy, undisciplined hitter. And that would hurt both your individual stats and the team. You can see that Williams was pursuing an ideal, and whether that’s laudable or foolish in the real world will always be up to debate. I always gave Williams the benefit of the doubt because, well, he’s Ted Freakin’ Williams.

Now the temptation for a lot of parents is to hang this all on the umpire, but I don’t think that’s going to help your Knucklehead. For starters, the guy may actually be right; after all he’s got a better view of the strike zone than I do from the stands. Many Little League umpires deliberately set big strike zones for all kinds of reasons. Maybe they want kids to learn to hit, and practice that by swinging at more “borderline” pitches. Maybe they just want to get home in under four hours. But to blame the umpire is to hold someone else accountable for your kid’s performance. That’s not useful information for your kid; she can’t control the behavior of others. That doesn’t teach her how to control the one thing she can: her own behavior. There’s no game plan in just saying “the officiating sucked in that game.” What does that teach your kid except to find an excuse for her own failure?

After the game, The Knucklehead and I are driving home. “Did you see that strike zone?” he asked me. “That umpire was calling pitches way out of the strike zone.”

“I did see that,” I told him. “What did you do about it?”

“What could I do?”

“Hey, I saw what was going on. You were respectful, but you were letting the umpire know you disagreed with his strike zone. The problem is, you’re always going to lose that argument. The umpire is perfectly happy with his strike zone. He has no reason to change it just because you don’t like it. He’s not going to change. So that means you’re the one who’s got to change. Maybe you have to adjust to his strike zone. Your team needed those runners in. Swinging at an outside pitch may or may not have given you a hit. But striking out looking is guaranteed not to get them in. Even if you were right. For what it’s worth, I think you were right about those pitches being outside. But being right didn’t help your team. And it didn’t teach you how to get a hit out of a bad pitch.”

Until that moment, I had always defended Ted Williams. I’m a cerebral guy, and I respected the theory, and I thought Williams was a Samurai. I still think he is. But all of a sudden, I found that The Knucklehead had taught me a lesson about being a teammate.

I think Knucks was hoping I’d join him in bitching about the umpiring, but he’s a good guy, and he got over that. Of course I had absolutely no advice for him about how to get a hit out of a bad pitch, but he’s got coaches for that. I’d felt bad initially about not being able to coach The Knucklehead in the skills of the game the way all the other dads did, but I found there were other ways I could help the kid out. I think that’s true of parenting in general. They have coaches or teachers or instructors whose job it is to know more about how to improve their throw to first, or their sonnets, or their oboe articulation than I we do. But we’re often the only ones in their lives keeping the big picture in mind, and that’s what they need most of all.

*Williams defined his craft as “hitting.” Fielding, not so much.

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