He slithered through the front door, skulked across the living room and plopped onto the couch, a 10 year-old heap of dejection. Usually a blur of effervescent energy, my son's standard speed of 90 mph with his hair on fire slowed to a snail's gimp following Little League practice.
"How'd it go?" I inquired tentatively after a solicitous snack of raspberry sherbet-- Nathan's favorite. I braced myself for his response.
Nathan's jade green eyes swam as tears dripped off his chin. "Terrible!" he wailed, face crumpling like a deflated balloon. "I can't hit the ball. I can't catch anything. Everything I try to field goes right through my glove" he punched the air for emphasis. "Everyone is better than me" Nathan sputtered. "I can't do anything righ!."
I didn't know what to say. How could I argue with the truth? When it comes to athletic endeavors, Nathan isn't Ken Griffey, Jr. And he knows it.
I offered Nathan a hug which he grudgingly accepted, torn between the need for maternal reassurance and the "Not now, Mom!" horror of a pre-teen struggling for independence. Just like the rest of us.
Recently relocated to the Northwest from California, my four boys had a tough time leaving friends and family and the only neighborhood they'd ever known. Our move was especially rough on Nathan, my second son.
High-strung, easily agitated and insecure, Nathan missed his California friends and home school pals. Feeling clumsy, awkward, and lonely in a new state, my gawky pre-teen's lack of confidence was exacerbated by the easy athleticism of his older and younger brothers.
It was obvious. On a new team in a new city, Nathan was as lost as a stranded runner after a line drive double-play. I don't know who ached more: Nathan or me.
"Lord," I mumbled later, "You've got to do something about Nathan and his baseball team. I don't know how, when, what or who, but please, PLEASE match him with someone You can use on that team." I sighed. "You know Nathan needs a boost. Please use someone to be his buoy."
"Mom! Mom!" Nathan exclaimed as he burst through the front door a week later. Look at this! You won't believe it!" he crowed, proudly displaying his feet. His "Size 8s" were shod with a pair of brand new PONY baseball cleats. Cleats we couldn't afford.
Nathan hid one hand behind his back. "And look at THIS!" he beamed, revealing a brand new MacGregor baseball glove. A glove we couldn't afford. Sure enough, stitched into the webbing of the still-stiff leather was the signature of Ken Griffey, Jr.
Noting my astonishment Nathan explained, "Coach Ken bought them for me! New cleats AND a new glove!" What a change from last week--and from last year.
The previous season in California saw Nathan riding the bench in favor of more gifted athletes. That coach gave the lion's share of game time to his "good" players. Those team members with less than spectacular skills--Nathan among them--made a career out of collecting splinters.
It was an excruciating season for Nathan. And me. I was surprised when he indicated an interest in playing Little League the next year in our new city.
Until God strode to the plate, Coach Ken in tow.
We reinforced Nathan at home, but it was Coach Ken who gave him extra time and attention on the field. Shored up his batting stance. Straightened his swing. Strengthened his throwing arm. Calmed his nerves after strike-outs. Put Nathan on the mound and coaxed him into pitching. Applauded every throw, every play, and every swing--hit or miss. Sought and cheered the most microscopic improvements.
"It's not about winning" Ken declared, "It's about having fun and learning to play the game."
And Nathan learned. Sometimes the hard way.
"I'm never gonna play baseball again!" he wailed following the fourth loss in a five-game losing streak. The Dennis Company Mustangs were losing steam.
Nathan hadn't hit in 15 at-bats. He either fanned, got hit by the ball, or walked. Lacking the confidence to swing, Nathan usually just stood at the plate praying for a base on balls. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes not.
"What does Coach Ken say?" I asked while Nathan complained about everything from "bad umpires" who "keep calling balls strikes" to taunting team mates.
"We need more practice" Nathan said. "Coach Ken says, `You can do it!' but I caaaaan't!" Nathan's enthusiasm melted like butter under a Sahara sun.
At the next practice I expected Coach Ken to run more drills, try new techniques and review base running skills. He didn't. He spent most of that afternoon listening, affirming the kids and praising their efforts, no matter how feeble or listless. He emphasized having fun over winning.
"That's O.K." Ken said after Nathan's third straight strike-out. "The more you practice, the better you get. Keep at it. You can do it! Here, let me show you..."
To my relief, the coach also landed on the taunting of less gifted athletes by stronger players like ugly on an ape, bringing the teasing to a screeching halt.
That settled, Coach Ken reviewed fundamentals. And he did something else. He laughed. Not just Lilliputian little snickers, but big, bellowing belly-whoppers. All the time. Stirring in large doses of applause and "atta boys!", Coach Ken served up a team atmosphere that was as bright and blue as Northwest skies are soggy. He made baseball a game.
"Now, if you're on second base and I bunt, what're you gonna do?" Ken asked Nathan on Saturday.
"Run like crazy for third!" Nathan rejoined.
Coach Ken smiled. Nathan smiled back. Suddenly the season was no longer an exercise in "Chinese water torture." Under Coach Ken's patient tutelage and upbeat style, Nathan lit up like a Christmas tree. He learned to hustle, using his long, lean limbs to gobble big chunks of the diamond in great galloping strides. He learned to return to the plate and try again after striking out. How to encourage another kid who fanned or dropped a pop fly. To keep track of his equipment. Nathan also learned that anyone can win graciously, but the mark of a true champion is someone who can lose graciously, too.
The Mustangs didn't win the league crown that year. That's O.K. Nathan may never be the next Ken Griffey, Jr. That's O.K., too. Because God answered my prayer through a Little League coach, a virtual stranger who gave Nathan something more valuable than any trophy: a boost in confidence, a positive attitude, and a love for the Game--win or lose.
Better yet, Coach Ken helped Nathan progress in the most important "league" of all: accepting himself. And I learned yet again that the Great Coach delights in guiding and giving in the smallest details, right down to baseball cleats and a glove.
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