Run Willy, Run!
What Really Matters in Youth Sports
America’s great pastime of the ’70s was baseball, and my family was right in the middle of preserving that pastime. Dad loved the game, and Mom endured it. We spent most summer nights at the local baseball fields enjoying the game and the community.
The game was more enjoyable than today because parents, coaches, and players didn’t generally take it quite as seriously. There was a better realization that every kid wasn’t the next Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, or Pete Rose. Most parents held their expectations in check. T-ball certainly didn’t have parents charging the field and cursing at the umpires.
I was fortunate to play with great guys, thoughtful coaches, and supportive parents, however, support looked different than it too often looks today. We ended this memorable season well, but not well enough for our moms. My mom, and her close friend Sharon, didn’t care about wins and losses. They only cared that all the boys were growing in character and having fun, and they had a particular concern for little Willy. They decided the season would end by reminding us all that people are more important than a game.
For Willy, butterflies and dandelions were more interesting than the game. Willy was a little younger than most of the team and typically found himself in right field in the last innings of the game. It was not uncommon to see him sitting in the grass with his back to the batter picking dandelions and blowing the seeds into the air. He would play catch with his glove throwing it up and down while the game was underway. He never caught the butterflies he chased, but he sure tried. Although his inattention frustrated the coaches, they wanted to provide opportunities for him regardless of what he did.
Willy didn't have many opportunities to bat because he typically only played in the last two innings. Throughout the season, he struck out game-after-game, which meant he was unable to contact the ball sitting stationary on a tee. He would swing the bat and fall. He would swing and spin around, hitting nothing. He would swing, knocking the tee over. Everyone would cheer him on to no avail. I hit three, in-the-park, home runs in this single game. That didn’t mean having to hit the ball far, because the opponent was brimming with boys like Willy.
The game was nearing its end. We had two outs, and Willy was at the plate for a rare third time in a single game. Everyone wanted Willy to get a hit, and thus everyone was cheering. We all stood at the dugout fence chanting Will-y, Will-y, Will-y. The parents were clapping and encouraging from behind the backstop. The coaches on first and third were cheering, “you can do it,” “keep your eye on the ball.”
Willy brought his bat all the way around his body with his hands choked up about a quarter of the way. He swung wildly and missed everything. The cheering and encouragement continued. He swung again, and this time knocked the tee over. Willy was down to his last swing of the season. The roar was the biggest it had been all season as Willy had yet to hit a ball into fair play.
The tension was great, but the anxiety for Willy to hit the ball was greater as everyone wanted to see him have success. He wound up, took his last swing, and for the first time in the season he hit the ball. It trickled off the tee and rolled about three feet into the field of play. The catcher stood there looking at the ball. The pitcher stood there looking at the catcher. Willy stood there looking at the pitcher as the umpire yelled “fair ball”. Still, no one moved except the players in our dugout jumping up and down and the coaches at first and third yelling, “run Willy, run”. Dad was at first base and finally got his attention with his booming voice. Willy’s eyes got big as he realized his success. He began his slow sprint to first base.
The catcher, with prompting from his coach, finally realized he needed to get the ball and throw it to first base. He scooped it up and threw it just as Willy reached first, but threw it well over the first baseman’s head. Dad was yelling, “run to second Willy, run.” Willy seemed shocked as he’d never been in this situation before, but he continued to second with arms and legs in a full windmill motion. There was no way he shouldn’t make it, but somehow his pace and gait were such that the first basemen managed to get to the fence and throw the ball to second before Willy reached it, but like the catcher, he overthrew second base. His ball went all the way beyond the left fielder, who had his own butterflies to catch. As Willie neared second base Dad began yelling “run home Willy, run home” realizing that there was plenty of time for Willy to get to third and on toward home base. I’m sure Dad just wanted him to have the experience of scoring, and it was clear by this point in the game that the left fielder wasn’t going to have the arm or the accuracy to get the ball to the infield, much less home plate. First, he would have to chase the ball that had rolled well beyond him in left field.
Dad kept yelling, “faster Willy, run home.” Willy, having never been on first base, much less second, followed his coach’s instructions as carefully as he understood them, taking a hard-left turn on second base, running straight across the pitcher’s mound and tagging home plate. Mom and Sharon were jumping up and down, cheering along with other reluctant moms, while the Dad’s sat with their hands on their heads in shock. Willy threw his hands up in celebration just as the umpire threw his thumb into the air proclaiming, “you're-oooout”. Dad just shook his head and smiled, not guessing Willy would think he meant to skip third base.
Willy had no idea what had just happened. Our moms were furious that he’d been called out. The dads were quietly aghast that a boy could make such a mistake with this American pastime. Our coaches put their arms around him saying, “great effort Willie,” while gently explaining his mistake. The inning ended with three quick outs for the other team as Mom and Sharon schemed how they could rectify this mayhem that they were certain must-have traumatized Willy. A couple of days later, a final game was orchestrated by Mom and Sharon that would pit the boys against their mothers. The moms arrived at the game decked out like goofballs. One looked like Rosie the Riveter ready to catch the ball with a bucket and hit the ball with a hammer. Another looked like Lucille Ball in a polka dot skirt over sweatpants. They wore their “uniforms” backward, inside out, mixed and matched looking like a bunch of misfits. Clearly, one of them had seen too many episodes of Little Rascals, and they were far too worried about making Willy’s mistake look normal. They ran the bases like Willy. They ran the bases backward. They ran the bases with water buckets and squirt guns that they emptied on us. They seemed to be having lots of fun while we were thoroughly embarrassed that some of our buddies on other teams were watching this fiasco.
In the end, we are left with great memories of our mothers, whose priorities were right. We are left with memories of Willy, who taught us to laugh and take life a little less seriously. We are left with memories of fathers who celebrated effort and encouraged improvement. Although this game wasn’t the way America’s pastime was supposed to be played, it certainly felt better than much of what is seen along the sideline of youth sports today.
I can only wonder if this COVID-19 created gap in sports brings some perspective to what really matters, or if it only deepens a bad behavior pandemic of overzealous parents. As we turn the corner and hopefully leave a pandemic of destruction behind, let us also return to sports with a new perspective. May our perspective find the joy and compassion of our moms of the 1970s. May our perspective be like Willy, finding joy in the little things. And may our perspective reflect the support and encouragement of these coaches and the little titans of t-ball.
May we build new memories in a context of compassion, encouragement, and support of each other. May our actions build integrity and character toward pastimes worth remembering.