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The Night Before the Game

Using baseball to teach the importance of failure

Published on: May 25, 2018

father son baseball

The night before my son’s first real baseball game, I seized the moment.

Here’s a chance, I thought, to be a “real dad.” To teach a life lesson. To connect with him in a common language we share — the one of balls and strikes and protective cups. That last one especially. His mom could never identify with that.

And so I looked my 7-year-old in the eye and dropped the huge news on him: “Starting tomorrow, other kids are pitching to you for the first time. This isn’t dads kneeling down in the dirt and lobbing it to you underhand until you hit it. Now they’re going to be throwing hard. Now they’re trying to get you out. And guess what? They’re going to succeed. A lot.”

His eyes widened, maybe from the somewhat sudden and serious injection of life and all that bigger-than-baseball stuff. Or maybe I had a piece of lettuce stuck in my teeth. Either way, here was some wisdom about the discovery of something that would ride shotgun with him for the rest of his life: failure.

I asked him if he knew who Mike Trout was.

“Duh,” he said. “He’s the best baseball player in the world. Do you think I’m stupid?”

Here was some wisdom that would ride shotgun with him for the rest of his life: failure. 

Already we were getting somewhere.

He was right about Trout. He knew that the Angels center fielder, who wasn’t even 24 years old, had already won one American League Most Valuable Player award and finished in the top two of that vote in the past four consecutive seasons.  

But occasionally we fathers tell our sons things that even they don’t know. And occasionally, albeit significantly less so, they listen. “Trout hit 36 home runs in 2014,” I explained, reading statistics off my phone. “He led the American League with 111 runs batted in. He had 173 hits. He scored 115 runs. He stole 16 bases. These are all amazing numbers. But you know what else he did?”

At this point, my son, I’m sure, was wishing he was anywhere but talking to me, but somehow he had absorbed enough of my line of questioning to respond. “What?”

“He struck out. A lot. Mike Trout struck out 184 times. The most in the American League. That means he struck out just about every third time he was at the plate. And he made outs other ways enough times that he was out more than 70 percent of the time. Which means most of the time.”

My son couldn’t believe it. The great Mike Trout?

“But, but, but … ” he said.

For once in our coexistence, I did the interrupting: “But,” I said, “I have some good news for you.” During the boy’s first two seasons of “coach pitch,” prior to this seminal moment, I’d watched in silence from the wooden bleachers as kids succumbed to pressure — some from within, but mostly from overbearing parents.

Kids would make errors at shortstop and cry. They’d whiff at 12 straight pitches and cry. They’d let a line drive into the gap in left center go right by them because they were looking at a 737 making its final approach to Sea-Tac. And they’d keep looking at the plane, not even realizing they were maybe supposed to cry.

So I knew what was coming. Tougher competition. Kids hitting kids with pitches because they had no clue where the ball was going once it left their hands. And a lot more crying.

“You’re going to mess up,” I told him. “You’re going to swing and miss. But you’re also always going to get another chance. Another at-bat. Another game. There’s no reason to get bummed out about it. Get in there the next time and hit.”

He smiled. He got it. But there was one last thing he needed to know.

“Dad,” he said, “do you mess up a lot, too?”

“Yes,” I told him. “Just ask your mother.”

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