My son prefers not to swing.
He plays second base in a Powder Springs, Georgia, youth baseball league with 50 or so other 11- and 12-year-olds, none of whom are very good pitchers.
These kids aren’t East Cobb Astros, the budding major leaguers on the other side of metro Atlanta whose parents fund year-round multimillion-dollar showcases and tournaments. This is a seasonal community youth sports program, more like what I remember from my late 20th century parks-and-recreation childhood than any example of the 21st century’s spiraling $19 billion youth sports industry.
These kids aren’t likely to play professionally, or even collegiately. Most probably won’t even play in high school. Most of the team’s parents just want their kids to have fun, and beyond that, to learn something about themselves—how a person with a certain set of limited skills, on a similarly limited team, might develop within an imperfect system to get a little bit better at performing a physical task under pressure. Or at least, that’s what I want my kid to do. I want him to learn how to use hard work and ingenuity to develop skills that might be applicable to other areas of life.
But that is not what my son wants to do. What my son wants to do is win.
The surest way for him to get on base, and to score, and, therefore, to win, is to just let these pitchers pitch. More often than not, out of the six or seven pitches they’ll throw, four of them will be balls. It makes sense, then, for a small-for-his-age 11-year-old to simply dare these kids to get the ball over the plate, especially if you have, like this particular small-for-his-age 11-year-old, watched Moneyball and become enamored with its lesson of brains over brawn.
My son likes the idea that the world’s problems are waiting for some new, ingenious, data-driven solutions from unlikely thinkers. In the absence of might, he’s formed his personality around being right. He and his friends idolize people like Elon Musk and Kyrie Irving, men who feel, like my son and his friends do, that the various asinine participation requirements of the world are beneath them.
My son, for example, will sometimes deign to do his math homework, but then he often won’t turn it in for a grade. Why should he have to? His test scores are good. But then, when he actually gets his test scores back and they’re not good, he’ll say, in his defense, “I know how to do it, I just got the answers wrong!”
Like many sixth graders, his inner conception of himself is starting to run into conflicting outer realities. He feels misunderstood. When I reply to his math test defense with the old Bill Parcells line—”you are what your record says you are”—he stares at me in disbelief. His record does not reflect who he thinks he is. Bill Parcells, whoever that is, sounds like an idiot.
In practice, in the batting cage, and out in the neighbor’s yard, my son swings freely, striking the ball hard and spraying the field with sharp grounders and line drives.
He’s not an East Cobb Astro, but he can hit, and he could most likely really hit if he put in a little more practice time and, crucially, if he could risk being temporarily misunderstood as a failure.
But he won’t. So, in games, he refuses to swing.
He’s halfway through the season, and so far, he’s had 15 trips to the plate. He’s walked 13 times, scored five runs, stolen eight bases, and struck out twice—both times looking.
In his first game, he walked on five pitches. Once on base, he stole second, then third, and then scored on a wild pitch. This has become the routine. He either scurries home on an error, gets hit in to score, or the inning ends with him stranded out there on third, no fault of his own.
He’s seen roughly 100 pitches, and he hasn’t swung once.
According to the official Little League rulebook, the strike zone is the “space over home plate which is between the batter’s armpits and the top of the knees when the batter assumes a natural stance.” My son says the reason he doesn’t swing is because the pitches he’s seen—“technically,” he says—aren’t strikes.
We’ve been over this—that if the umpire calls it a strike, that’s what it is. But he knows as well as I do that these umpires are, at best, inconsistent. Sometimes, they’re strict originalists, calling anything even slightly above the armpits or below the knees a ball. But then there are other nights when it’s hot and late and the umps clearly just want to go home. The ball can skip into the dirt before reaching the plate and still be a strike. On those nights, the coach of the hitting team will put his hands on his knees, shake his head, and say, “Rick, you’re killing me.”
The truth is that regardless of what the Little League rulebook says, if Rick the Umpire says a pitch is a strike—even a pitch in the dirt—the bulb on the scoreboard in right field lights up. It’s officially, technically, a strike. You only get three of them. But my son is adamant: These pitches are not in the strike zone. They should not count against him.
He’s insisted on it so often, usually with tears in his eyes and an anguished look on his face, that I finally used my phone to take a slow-motion video of one of his at-bats. I wanted irrefutable, objective evidence to show him where the pitches were, and the fact that they were, “technically,” strikes.
The first at-bat I recorded turned out to be the first time he struck out looking.
Afterward, in the dugout, he insisted, fighting back tears, that even though the ball popped into the mitt without the catcher seeming to have to move an inch, the pitches were all high, including the called third strike.
I got out my phone. He leaned over my shoulder, and together we watched the ball enter the upper right corner of the frame, move down toward the waiting, poised batter, my son, who tensed, raised his front foot a little, then—“See!”—relaxed, seeming to already know he wouldn’t swing.
But then the timeline advanced, and I saw the ball cross in front of him at eye level.
I saw the ball fall, like a rock, down into the catcher’s mitt, and I saw the catcher’s mitt also move down, framing the pitch to look even better than it was, especially to an imperfect vessel like Rick the Umpire.
It was a called strike, but to hit that pitch, my son would have had to reach up and chop at the ball like he was slicing down a giant dragon with a broadsword.
It was high. It was not a strike.
“See?” he said, and I did.
As we drove home, I tried to tell him that even if these aren’t the Platonic ideal of strikes, even if they don’t represent the final good here on earth, the ump calls them as strikes, so he has to learn to hit them.
He looked at me with disgust.
“But they aren’t strikes.”
The truth is: The world is not fair. Its systems are flawed, at best, and administered by imperfect, sometimes corrupt, humans. Morons, a lot of the time. But we cover up this fact with lies because this truth is often too painful to bear. And yet, when we blunder into battle, we might just learn how to win the war.
What I worry is that my son isn’t learning the lessons I hoped he would in this youth baseball league. I worry that instead of learning how hard work and ingenuity can lead to extra bases, he’s learning how flaws in a system can give you built-in excuses to avoid blame and responsibility. I worry he’s learning grievance. I worry he’s learning the worst kind of cynicism, the kind I see in the Infowars bumper stickers on the cars in the baseball field’s parking lot, the kind I see on the “Don’t Tread on Me” T-shirts of the other parents.
These parents are here beside me now, cheering on my son’s team in their last game before the midseason break.
He stands in the on-deck circle, watching the opposing pitcher and taking practice rips as the ball crosses the plate.
He has nine games left, two at-bats per game, about six pitches per at-bat.
Let’s say 108 pitches.
From the on-deck circle, he cheers on his teammate, either yelling consolation or encouragement, depending on the call, and when his turn comes, he strides into the batter’s box. He screws his cleats into the clay and taps the tip of the plate with his bat. He sways a little, bouncing on the balls of his feet, waggling the bat in anticipation.
He looks like a hitter, like he’s just waiting to crank the right pitch into the outfield.
The first pitches—108, 107, and 106, respectively—obviously aren’t the right ones.
They fly past the catcher’s outstretched glove to rattle off the backstop. Once again, things look like they’re going to go according to my son’s Musk-y plan.
But then a strange thing happens.
Pitch 105 is a wild fastball, high and inside, clearly ball four, but when my son ducks out of the way, the ball dings off his bat.
Foul ball. Strike one.
My son looks perplexed. This is a new development.
The next pitch, number 104, comes in while he’s still processing. Strike two. His coach, an ex-military man whose preseason training regime consisted mainly of having the kids swing as hard as they could at a piñata on a broom handle, stands beside third base, yelling in a baffled whine, “You gotta swing the bat, dude! You gotta swing!”
The next pitch—number 103—comes in.
From my vantage point behind the chain-link fence, it looks good—straight and clean and right down the middle.
It’s hard to learn what you can and can’t do, what’s real and what’s imaginary.
It can seem better to stay in the safety of your comfort zone and not risk being misunderstood. But out on the field of play, nothing ever looks quite like you imagined or hoped it would. The pitches are imperfect, the calls are bad. The heartbreak and confusion are real. But no one—not me, you, Elon Musk, or Billy Beane—knows what will happen when pitch 102 leaves the pitcher’s hand. No one knows which version of the world will show up, given the chance.