This is my Little League trophy. I didn’t contribute much to winning it. For me, it was more like a participation trophy. I keep it in a dust-covered box in the basement along with other collectibles from my childhood in Cleveland.
I thought about the trophy when I was covering the Little League World Series this week in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. How my experience of Little League was so different from theirs.
For starters, I wasn’t very good, and that’s putting it kindly. Until I finally hit a growth spurt, I was one of the smallest players on the team. And not all that coordinated, either. The coach would put me in for a few innings. I was lucky if I drew a walk – just reaching first base was a huge thing.
One year, my left hand got hit by a wild pitch, breaking a knuckle and limiting my summer fun. It healed in time to play the last few games. My first game back? I had to bat against the same wild pitcher – really, I’m not making that up. I struck out on three pitches and couldn’t get back to the bench fast enough.
I got a little better as I grew. I actually hit a home run my last season – how about that? One shining moment. I tried out for my high school baseball team and didn’t make it. The team was very good; I wasn’t.
And that’s OK.
I learned about ups-and-downs in Little League.
The teams were comprised of two grade levels – third- and fourth-graders playing together, fifth- and sixth-graders, and so on. The older kids on my team were very good and we’d go undefeated and win the championship. When they moved up to the next bracket the following year, my age group wasn’t very good –I wasn’t alone in the not-very-good thing – and we’d be lucky to win a game.
Frist place to last place, and back to first. Year after year.
But here’s what I remember most from all of those years: the milkshakes. After each game, our coach would take us to the McDonald’s just beyond the outfield fence and buy each of us a milkshake. I always got vanilla, my favorite flavor. And that was fun.
Win or lose, we got a milkshake.
You may have followed the recent social media food fight over something that NFL player James Harrison posted. He made his sons give back trophies they received for participating in sports without winning a championship. I understand his point: We should encourage more than just showing up.
But I also know there’s another side to it: There’s a lot to be said for just showing up.
Isn’t it true that just showing up often takes a lot more courage than winning? Sometimes, just showing up is a grand accomplishment. There are those many mornings when you need two cups of coffee and a double shot of grace just to face the day. And as you go through the day, everything seems to fall apart. You don’t get the results you wanted.
And you summon the courage to say: Screw it. I’m going to sleep on it, get up in the morning and try again.
It’s easy in our results-obsessed culture to get caught up in who’s first. We forget that it’s more about the effort than the outcome. It’s about putting ourselves into something passionately and letting things work themselves out.
As Paul puts it in one of his letters, it’s about doing your best – fighting the fight, running the race, trying to keep a little bit of faith along the way. Faith in yourself. Faith in those running with you. And faith in the One who is with you, especially when it feels like you’re running on empty.
During my time in South Williamsport, former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera was inducted into the Little League Hall of Excellence. He played on a team from Panama that never reached the World Series, but that didn’t matter.
When asked for his fondest memory of Little League, Rivera told a story about staying with a family for a tournament away from home. He drank coffee for the first time because it was offered and he didn’t want to offend the host family by turning it down. That cup of strong coffee made him sick for several days, so he couldn’t play.
Rivera grew up in a poor fishing town in Panama. Just to get a chance to play the game meant a lot to him – not the trophies, not the attention.
“I was happy with what I had, and I didn’t have nothing,” Rivera said. “But what I had was the game of baseball.”
Isn’t it interesting what we remember most? Not the home runs or the wins, but a cup of coffee that makes you sick or a vanilla milkshake that makes you happy.