Have you ever been frustrated by some skill that seemed beyond your reach? Who has not, especially in those ability-driven activities, sports and music? I have had three such notable lifetime experiences – two in sports and one in music. As of this post, and, late in life, I am batting two out of three, with one more meaningful challenge left – the art of hitting a baseball. I just purchased this baseball bat!
Many fellow retirees might ask, “Why concern yourself with THAT now, in the golden years of retirement?” Are you contemplating a new career in major league baseball? Hardly, but I have a grandson now playing Little League baseball (his first experience), and our whole family is enjoying watching. Athletics come naturally to Matthew – we realized this rather early, with him. He and I enjoy throwing footballs and playing “catch” in the backyard with a baseball and glove, but team athletics pose a different challenge. So far, so good. Early in the season, Matthew was awarded the game ball for catching a pop fly for the final out in a close game with runners on base. He can field, he is fast on the base path, and he meets the ball pretty well with the bat. Lurking in the back of my mind is the challenge of becoming a good hitter at the plate. I hope Matthew has more success than his Grandpa did on that score!
I vividly recall my challenges in freshman/sophomore high school baseball, and the biggest of all was hitting the baseball. Baseball came along before I found my true calling: Running the hurdles in track during my last two years. I had little confidence hitting at the plate because I had no clue as to “batting mechanics.” I wrote a personal memoir some time ago which included my early sports experiences. Here is a brief excerpt which relates one memorable and somewhat comical experience which accompanied my adventures in the batter’s box: My debut in frosh-soph baseball at San Mateo High benefitted from my treacherous learning curve that previous summer with the Lions. Our coach, Jack Alexander, was a good man who appreciated my effort; he also appreciated the fact that I was only going to help the team by the good example of my attitude and hustle. There was one time, however, when I surprised him – and good! It was a late inning substitution again. I do not recall the game circumstances, but we were playing Capuchino High School from Millbrae/San Bruno. I suspect we were losing decisively late in the game, given the situation. On the mound for them was a pitcher with the reputation of having the best fastball in the league; his name was Daryl W. He was going through our batters like a hot knife through butter. I could see he was a hard thrower for sure, so I stepped into the batter’s box with considerable trepidation. As always, hitting the ball was not something that came easily for me, and even our best hitters were striking out against this pitcher; so expectations were low all around. I stepped in, took a few practice swings, and waited. He went into his windup with a high kick and delivered. From what I could tell, the ball was coming very fast and it looked like it was coming toward my hands; I jumped back from the plate. The pitch came right over the plate with awesome velocity and terminated with a loud tha-WACK! in the catcher’s glove. Despite the great velocity of the pitch, the ball apparently had some real lateral movement as well because it ended up a perfect strike. My first reaction was ….GEEZ! Then, I felt slightly embarrassed for having jumped back from the plate on a perfect strike. My confidence was now even two or three notches lower, and I was just hoping that his control would not falter and that I would not be killed by a fastball to the temple. I steadied myself as he delivered again. I got a peek at the ball coming – this time seemingly right over the plate – and swung for all I was worth. Crr-AACK! I opened my eyes to see that baseball take off like a shot very deep to center field. When I recovered from my surprise, my legs began to churn toward first base. Why, I do not know, but the center fielder was playing back around 350 feet from home plate. He drifted back a bit and caught the ball. I suppose his thinking might have been as follows: in the unlikely case that anyone is able to hit this fastball pitcher, it is going to go deep. There was a lot of excitement on our bench as I trotted back to sit down. I am certain that no one else hit that pitcher harder than I did that day. Some time later, Tom H., who was one of our better first string players, told me how clearly he remembered the way I crushed that pitch. He said Coach Alexander literally fell off the bench when I hit it as did others of my teammates. My baseball experience was both valuable and humbling. I felt quite certain that I lacked the eye-hand coordination required to be a good hitter. In a way, it was much like my inability to hit high notes on the trumpet because of a poorly-suited embouchure [Note: Later proven untrue!]. As with my first athletic experiences at Lomita Park school, it was even more obvious that there would be no easy tickets for me in sports and that hard work and dedication would take me only so far in baseball. Besides, baseball was a team sport where an aura of personal confidence went far in promoting achievement as well as solidarity with one’s team mates. I always got along well with my team mates, but confidence was not one of my personal assets. Nothing breeds confidence like success, and nothing breeds success like confidence; it seemed I was just not able to get a foothold in baseball.
End of memoir excerpt
The other two especially significant “doing” challenges in my life besides hitting a baseball were: Playing the trumpet, especially in a higher register, and acquiring a strong and reliable tennis serve. My ultimate breakthroughs in these last two endeavors happened long after I began taking trumpet lessons in my early teen years and long after I started playing tennis in high school. Those two personal “triumphs” came about only after careful study and analysis of the technique utilized by trumpet players and tennis stars who had what I wanted – proficient ability. I finally learned how to learn things.
“Learning how” to Finally Do Something Well:
Perhaps the Greatest Feeling in the World!
The renowned author, David McCullough, expressed it very well when describing the elation of becoming proficient in a challenging task by doing it: “I can do this…and I am getting better!” He stated a canon truth when he maintained that skills like painting and playing the piano cannot be mastered by reading a how-to book; one has to do them! I agree, but I also maintain that the optimal method of learning for us not-naturally-gifted mortals is to supplant the doing with critical analysis of how to do it vs. how we are doing it. Further “doing” then becomes an attempt at experimentation with different approaches and a verification of what works best – working smart, in other words. My experience has revealed, in no uncertain terms, that practicing the same, possibly ineffective approach, over and over and expecting different and improved results is bound to frustrate…been there, done that. When my wife took home movies of my long-term lousy tennis serve many, many years ago, I was astounded at just how lousy it looked, as well. I had no idea – no concept of the inept body mechanics at play. I could immediately see why my serve was so weak and unreliable. Until I made major changes to my body mechanics which were in concert with motion physics (yes, science!), I got nowhere. Starting from scratch on a completely new serve was not easy and required hours of backyard, slow-motion visualization of my new service motion. It was difficult training new muscle responses, but it worked. The result: A classic-looking, reliable serve, and most important – one with power that really benefitted my tennis game. Back to baseball! I am rising to the challenge, once more, in search of optimal body mechanics… like those of the great hitters in baseball – players like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial. Often, great natural athletes like these know little about the physics of baseball; they instinctively visualize the appropriate body mechanics and efficiently proceed to convert them into automatic reflexes. The rest of us can truly benefit from watching the slow-motion and stop-action films so readily available today which reveal the instinctive secrets of the great ones. So…it’s off to the backyard with my new baseball bat for some slow motion visualization of what it takes to produce an efficient and effective batting swing. This stuff keeps me feeling young! I love investigating the whole learning process in sport, and I have high regard for the great coaches in any sport who can quickly and efficiently improve the athletic performance of young athletes by sharing their hard-won knowledge and insights into optimal technique. I have aspirations that I might even finally learn how to hit a baseball: Hmmm….better late than never. Yes, I am confident that I can learn to do that – the last remaining item on my lifetime big-three list of personal challenges. Make no mistake, there have been and remain many others, as well. These three were merely among the most vexing.
More importantly, I hope that I can be a baseball resource to my grandson, should he ever need any extra coaching. It may happen that the tables might be turned and Matthew will be the one who shows me how! Either way, it’s a win-win situation.