Friday, May 15, 2009

Defining "Winning"

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Yesterday was as tense as 10-year-old baseball can be. An undefeated home record, the most consistent batting order I've seen in six years of coaching and a season of tremendous ups and downs led the Blue Jays to the final game of the season with the Division Title on the line. A win, and we're guaranteed either first or second place. A loss or tie, and we place fourth.

The Mets were on a white-hot winning streak, having risen through the ranks from seventh to a second-place tie, having taken down several formidable teams along the way. The Blue Jays had a solid record, but the Mets had the momentum and the desire to pull off yet another upset.

The Blue Jays dug an early hole for themselves: a 6-run deficit at the bottom of the second inning. When it was time to take the field, the Jays were crowded in the dugout with their hands in a bag of Doritos instead of taking their usual, eager positions at the on deck circle with gloves in hand. This was the first time in my career in which I wanted to hand the clipboard to my wife and watch the kids while she took care of "business" for a while.

At some point in the third inning, however, I saw the passion and desire return in my players' faces. It was as if they suddenly realized that a title was on the line, and they weren't about to go quietly into the obscure ranks of mediocrity. Suddenly our hitting, base running and defense were flawless, and the Blue Jays fought down to the wire with a 9-8 victory.

During the post-game huddle, it occurred to me that the chances of our backing into the first-place spot were slim. Second place is typically an awkward place to be (a friend of mine describes second place as being the "first loser"), but there were two things that made this a remarkably sweet victory.

First, I considered the first place contender. The team that "won" the first place title did so with a number of "bush league" tricks up their sleeves. As a matter of fact, we watched the team's final game, and you could hear their players, coaches and parents laughing as the players took advantage of their opponent's weaker kids. We finished our season half a game behind the first place team, but we did it with integrity.

Second, I considered the team we had just defeated. While my batters were warming up in the cages, I saw the Mets' Assistant Coach approach one of my players and extend his hand.

"Good luck," the coach said. My player, a nine-year-old in his first year of organized baseball, thanked him. The coach's response made my jaw drop.

"You're going to need it."

For the next 30 minutes, this Assistant Coach, a grown man who had pledged his time and efforts to the development of young athletes, proceeded to boast and prod the kids on my team! All I could do at the time was hope that his hubris would be repaid with a nasty fall from the heights of egotism.

At the end of the day, at the end of the season, this group of kids with whom I've been entrusted are a winning team. The Blue Jays are not a winning team because they'll have another trophy on their shelves. They're a winning team because they respected their teammates, their opponents and their adult volunteers. They are a winning team because they looked adversity square in the eye and found the courage to play just a little bit harder. They are a winning team because I had the privilege of seeing even the smallest shift in each of them toward the confident, determined and dedicated adults they will all too soon become.

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