Baseball is a lot like life. At times it is slow and boring. Other times all the pressure seems to fall on you. There’s nothing like the excitement you feel when you are batting or when a hard-hit ball is coming your way. Like life, baseball requires knowledge, individual skill and the ability to work with others. It’s complex and unpredictable. It requires quick thinking in difficult situations. Sometimes baseball hurts.
This summer I had the privilege of serving as an assistant coach for the Bunny Friend Eagles baseball team, a 9- and 10-year-old New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) team based at the Bunny Friend Playground in the Upper Ninth Ward.
It was great to reconnect with the game that I loved so much as a child and a teenager. All the fond memories of my playing days in grade school and high school flooded my mind. I thought about the first team I played on as an 8-year-old. We went undefeated (10-0) and won the league championship. I won’t revise history and claim that I played a huge role in that team’s success, but I did play a little.
I already knew that while learning the game of baseball is hard, playing it well is even harder. This summer I learned something new. Teaching little boys this complex game is even harder than playing the game well. During the Bunny Friend season, our team amassed an 0-8 record. Winless.
Our team was part Bad News Bears and part Fat Albert’s gang (with a mean streak). The Eagles never gained the focus needed to succeed at baseball. Moreover, they never mastered the mechanics of throwing and catching … especially during a game. As far as the situational aspects of the game, they never learned exactly when and where to throw the ball (or when not to throw the ball). If our only goal was to create a well-oiled baseball machine, we failed.
But that’s only half of the story. I joined the coaching staff to be an influence on these boys from a rough neighborhood. I had worked with most of them before in our church’s tutoring ministry, but there is something about hanging out on the playground. I really got to know them well and I got a glimpse into what life is like for these young men. Several of them have very sad histories.
Practice was difficult. Lot’s of curse words. Lot’s of fights and name calling. Lot’s of distraction and general bad behavior. Very little baseball. Most days I was at the point of utter frustration by the time practice ended. But it is the hope of the gospel that kept me coming. Jesus didn’t say go where it’s easy and go where the children are well behaved (are all the kids in our churches well-behaved?). Jesus went all the way to the cross and He sends us to the ends of the earth. The least I can do is go to the Upper Ninth Ward to invest in these boys.
I was able to connect with the boys in different ways. One conversation stands out. A little boy was talking about playing Wii, so I asked what was his favorite game. He said that he liked to play a Michael Jackson dancing game and started talking about dancing to the song “Billie Jean.” I told him I remembered when the song came out (I was in seventh grade). I asked him if he could do the moon walk. His eyes lit up and he tried it right there on the practice field.
Another neat experience came after one of our games. I had been gone for a while on my various trips (Alaska, Israel, Phoenix) and a new boy had joined the team while I was gone. When I told him to sit down in the dugout at the game he said, “You’re not my coach!” and refused to mind. He did apologize later at the prompting of another coach. I was not happy and that night I wondered if I was wasting my time with the team. At the next practice I made an extra effort to encourage this child. Not only did my attitude change, his did too. I didn’t have any more problems with him. I counted that a major victory.
Something else beautiful happened this summer — my 10-year-old son decided to play with the Eagles. That’s really how I got involved in the first place. He wanted to play with the Eagles because of our church’s connection with the team. I jumped at the opportunity and volunteered to help coach. Despite all their differences – racial, economic, social – Jonathan and his fellow team members got along well. Children have many things to teach us about the value of every person.
This summer was an investment — an investment in the future of New Orleans. It is rooted in the hope that these boys won’t end up as a crime stat in 10 years if they turn to Jesus. It was also an investment in my son’s spiritual development. He already has a missional bent. I hope that was strengthened this summer.
Some investments offer quick returns; others take a steady, long-term approach. The Bunny Friend Eagles are of the long-term variety. But the investment continues. At least six of the Eagles are attending Vacation Bible School at our church this week. And I will begin tutoring again now that the baseball season is over. I guess you could say this one is going into extra innings … and we still have a chance to win this one.