Yes, with (almost) all of our pro sports teams winning and winning and winning, it’s a great time to be a young sports fan in Boston. Winning feels so darn good, doesn’t it? But losing is part of sports too, no matter how good our teams are, and its potentially painful effects are most transparent in the way kids respond to losses.
When he was six, my oldest son cried and cried and cried into my shoulder as we left Fenway Park following the last out of game three of the 2005 A.L. Division Series, a loss that gave the Chicago White Sox a sweep of the Red Sox. And when the Patriots lost the Super Bowl earlier this year, his whole 8 year-old body crumpled into a weeping blob in front of the TV. Losing was clearly a concept that he found difficult to grasp, let alone deal with.
But those were losses of teams he was merely rooting for. Losing a big game in which HE had played a major role hadn’t happened to him yet…. until last week, when his 8 year-old summer travel team lost its first game of the summer (after starting with five wins).
What a scene, as our opponents piled up runs at the end of the game to complete their impressive comeback. Boys sobbing on the bench, boys sobbing into their gloves in the outfield. Deep down, each boy had believed in the possibility of an undefeated season, so to them, it felt like an elimination playoff game. As they saw their hopes slipping away, the tears flowed and their bodies shook uncontrollably. It was almost comical.
And what can a coach say to an entire team of 8 year-olds that’s bawling, down by five runs with its last at-bat coming up? Part of you wants to say, “There’s no crying in baseball! STOP IT!” Part of you wants to say, “Come on guys, focus on your next at-bat, we can still come back,” and part of you wants to just hug them all and say, “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s just a baseball game.” After the last out of the contest, the other team celebrated as though they had just won game 7 of the World Series, which made the loss even harder for our guys. Their distress was palpable.
I recently heard the famous, veteran Channel 4 sportscaster, Bob Lobel, say that that over the years, he learned a lot more from Boston’s biggest losses than he did from Boston’s biggest wins. I have no doubt that my son and his teammates learned a lot more from that loss than they did from any of their wins. And since it was my son who came in to “close” the game (after doing so successfully in two previous games) and ended up allowing the eventual winning runs, then striking out to make the final out of the game, I suppose he had the greatest learning opportunity!
I’d love to know the content of other parents’ conversations with their demoralized children on the long drive home from the game, but here’s how ours went:
Me: “Son, you should be proud, you did what we asked you to do – you threw strikes. That’s the only thing you could control. You did your job.”
My son: “All the coaches said the same thing. You did great, Crawford, because you threw strikes. But I know they really don’t mean it. What they really wanted was for me to get outs, not just throw strikes. I mean, it’s better if I throw balls out of the strike zone and the batters get out, than if I throw strikes and they get hits and score runs.”
Me: “But if you throw pitches out of the strike zone, you’ll walk batters and those always turn into runs. All you can do is throw strikes, and you did that.”
My son: “Daddy, the bottom line is that a pitcher is supposed to get people out. I mean, I don’t care if I strike out a kid or if he lines out to center field, an out’s an out. Just like it doesn’t matter if we win 20-0 or 2-1, a win is a win and the score doesn’t matter.”
Me: “Well, I won’t argue with that. But listen, it’s not your fault that the team lost. There were some errors behind you and the umpire made a questionable call. You had to pitch much longer than was necessary to get out of that inning. And give the other team some credit – they won the game by getting some key hits. It’s not your fault.”
My son: “You can say it’s not my fault, but the bottom line is that it IS my fault. I had control over how the game ended up. I could have made different pitches at different speeds and at different locations that would have made them not hit the ball or not hit it hard. And I also made the last out. If I had gotten a hit, maybe it would have started a five-run, two-out rally. So it IS my fault, Daddy, no matter what you say to try to make me feel better!”
And as he drifted off to sleep in his booster seat, clutching his blankie, I said to myself, Losing a close game just stinks – whether you’re an 8 year-old in little league or a 28 year-old in the Major Leagues, and there’s nothing a mom or dad can do to help his/her child avoid losing, nor anything he/she can say to eliminate losing’s sting. A good night’s sleep and another game to play, it turns out, is the only remedy. Children, welcome to the wonderful world of competitive baseball, the most spectacular roller coaster ride ever invented…
To read a classic series of poignant articles chronicling a father’s observations of his 12 year-old son’s little league season (by Mark Kramer, featured in The Boston Globe), click here.