Opening Day

As the boys of summer return to the field, author and coach Jack Bowen weighs in on how sport allows us to go all in in ways not possible elsewhere.

After 15 years of coaching national-caliber water polo, I still find sport offers surprises. This past weekend, I had my first day on the job in a new arena: Assistant Coach of my 4-year-old son’s tee ball team. Game One with Jake. It was part mayhem, part enlightenment, and part pure joy.

For all its rules, sport, it turns out, truly is built around the abstract. As I watched the gears turning in our neophyte ballplayers’ heads, I could see them pondering: Why confine yourself to running around in a square when you can run to first base and just keep on going? Actually, why not cut back through the pitcher’s mound and head home? Why run at all—I’m already here!

Our catcher made what must have seemed to him a tremendously strategic play. As the baserunner barreled toward home plate from third, he stepped out in front of “fourth base” to grab him. Why, he must have wondered, must I be holding the sacred ball in order to touch this player attacking our home? And, when I finally do acquire this sought-after sphere, why relinquish it to the other team—or to any of my teammates, for that matter?

As I stood in the outfield with one of the other assistant coaches, I realized just how convoluted sport must seem to “outsiders,” be they young people first experiencing it, or someone watching a game for the first time.

But this all plays a part in what yields such joy for those enthralled with sport. The sporting arena exists on a plane separate from our societal endeavors and other activities. With its self-imposed rules—why not throw the ball off the tee?—and internally defined values—home plate is sacrosanct, but only if during a game—everything outside the game becomes momentarily meaningless. That leaves, by definition, the momentarily meaningful, all enclosed in one special place. Rarely does life provide us with such esoteric opulence: a unique moment in which the meaningful is clearly defined, and we—and our children—can relish in the virtues this provides.

With everything defined as such, joy comes to life. Sport allows us to go all in in ways not possible elsewhere: Swinging a metal stick with all your might and knocking a ball into the hallowed field. Running at full capacity, hurling yourself into a slide through the dirt. Throwing a hard, round object with the whip of your arm. Never mind that this particular game saw zero outs—zero. Balls were thrown. Sticks were swung. Joy was experienced.

From this vantage point during Game One, I could see the buds of sport’s virtues begin to open. The team, with the encouragement of our head coach, cheered for their teammates at bat. They applauded their competitors after the game. Two of my son’s new teammates approached him to give a “high five”—4- and 5-year-old boys who had just met, sharing a moment to extend themselves and offer a “good job.”

On various occasions over the weekend, I shared the story of my and Jake’s inauguration to tee ball. In response, nearly every parent had their own memories from their respective children’s Game One. There’s a book to be written here: “My First At Bat: Stories From Tee Ball’s Annals.”

Don’t let me disabuse you: This was a first for me as much as it was for Jake. I sat at our breakfast table that morning, next to Jake wearing his team shirt he’d slept in the night before, and told him how excited I was for him to go out and be his best that day. Be your best: a mantra that has been at my core as a coach and in my daily life for the past 15 years—and I was saying it to my son over a bowl of oatmeal for the first time.

One parent of a player on Jake’s team, clearly a veteran parent, had assumed the most important job of the day: bringing the snacks. This of course included the paragon of youth sport, orange wedges. After the game, the boys sat together to relish the experience of their collective effort. Not for their win—we didn’t keep score and, with no outs, one must imagine the game ending in a tie—but for the joy of it all. Maybe in small part for surviving the mayhem. And, I have a feeling, for the little bit of enlightenment they experienced through it all.

Jack Bowen is a best-selling writer, a member of SCU’s Institute of Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE), and coaches water polo at the Menlo School, a college preparatory school in Menlo Park, Calif. This piece first appeared under a different title on the ISLE blog, where you can read other posts by Bowen.

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