About six years ago, I went to a Red Sox game with my father. He had gotten tickets from a co-worker who didn’t want them anymore, and had sold them to my dad for a small profit. To be honest, I wasn’t that excited to be going to the game. Back then, I felt that professional athletes were egotistical, overrated, and undependable as role models; there were far too many of them landing in the news, on their way to jail or rehab. Plus, the Red Sox weren’t going to be in the playoffs, Pedro was out, and already the players seemed to be squabbling about their multi-million dollar contracts. I felt that I was just too old to get excited about over-glorified athletes playing a game. It was just baseball.
When we got to Fenway Park (after surviving the mosh pit on the Green Line), there was a mother and her young son in the row behind us. The boy was about eight years old, dressed in full Red Sox attire, and ready to catch foul balls with a baseball glove. Once the game started, the little boy was absolutely captivated. He would sit as close as possible to the field with his elbows on his knees and whisper words of encouragement to the players three hundred feet away. His enthusiasm was infectious; I found myself at the edge of my seat, springing up every time a foul ball came our way. But by the ninth inning, all my hope had capitulated into moping about another Red Sox disaster. Fair-weather fans in front of us were in their element. “You guys suuuccck! Jeez Nomah, you pay off the ump for that call?” When the game finally ended, I heard the kid sigh and slump back in his seat. “Man, that last hit was so hard, I thought it was gonna get through.” His attention to the sport, his optimism and hope-that made me admire him yet feel sorry for him at the same time.
During high school, I used to coach a program for little kids around the ages of four to ten. In the spring, we played baseball. I watched these determined, diligent young kids try their absolute hardest: they ran out every hit, whether it was a clean single or a little flub in front of the plate. When they came into the game, they mimicked Nomar’s meticulous tidying of his batting gloves, even if they had none. Sometimes I felt an obligation to talk to them about sportsmanship and playing the game right. The way I saw professional athletes in those days was something I hoped they wouldn’t see until they got much older.
But those kids played the game because it was fun for them and they liked it. They would brag to each other about who could hit it the farthest, who could run the fastest. They talked about what it would be like in the major leagues. Back then, some parents came up to me and thanked me for working with their children. They’d say that they were surprised, because I was a teenager and they thought all teenagers just liked to rebel against their parents. One mother actually asked me if I was coaching because I was sentenced to community service. I tried to tell the parents that not all teenagers were like the stereotype, but I’m not sure most of them believed me. I could tell by their nervous looks that they were dreading the day their little angel turns sixteen.
As I reflected over the numerous Sunday afternoons, I realized that although I had never done anything overly spectacular, the kids still looked up to me with the same reverence they bestowed on their sports heroes. Six years later, I understand their parents’ unyielding watch and nervous glances. I had believed that children were naïve to put faith in a character I reasoned to be unworthy. I had presumed that what I read in the news about some professional athletes were vices of all pro athletes, yet I had scoffed at the parents who had assumed I was just like the teenage stereotype. It seems we get more cynical of the world as we get older, and we no longer have faith in our once-reasonable dreams or our once-adored role models. We lose the trusting nature and unconditional optimism we had as children.
Cormac McCarthy wrote in All the Pretty Horses, “…It was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.” Sometimes I want to warn kids today, with their high-flying expectations, so that they won’t be disappointed if they stumble upon failure. I want to warn them against investing too much trust in their role models, since no one is without fault. But, now that the kids I coached are teenagers themselves, I don’t want them to lose their ability to hope, their capacity to dream. I don’t want them to stop cheering when their team is down 7-0 in the bottom of the seventh. I want them to try out for their high school baseball teams, root unconditionally for their beloved Sox, and encourage the new generation of the possibilities out here, in a world that is sometimes far too cynical. I hope they’ll never look at one bad apple and assume the rest have gone bad as well. I hope they’ll have the heart to relive their childhood dreams, even if they don’t believe in them anymore. I hope I will too. Perhaps then the truths of life would not have to be hidden from children at all, but embodied in their heart, in their spirit, in their optimism.