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In my youth, baseball was the only game in town. The fields were built and maintained by caring parents. Umpires and coaches volunteered their time and each kid learned how to handle a rake and to pick up rocks.

Since my Dad and my older brother were left handed pitchers, with high leg kicks and wicked curve balls, someone had to catch. So it was that I put on the tools of ignorance, as the gear was called, and I set out to be the best catcher that I could be. I palmed a sponge when I was catching a pitcher throwing heat and I used the same catcher’s mitt through all of Little League and when I caught some in high school. I gave it back to my Dad when he left this life.

As a catcher, I had to learn to read the pitchers and to determine how good their stuff was on a given day. From that the coaches, pitchers and I made decisions for the team. I knew how and when to call for the high heat or chin music and when to try to send the opposition back to the dugout by getting them off balance with a curve, sinker or a slow change.

For plays at the plate, I learned to catch the throw first, and to not block the plate. I gave the runner half of the plate, the third base line and everything outside of the line. This placement assured that I didn’t have to look for the runner or to wonder where he would be, just catch, sweep and tag.

We didn’t know that our parents, older brothers and coaches were teaching us life lessons, we were just playing baseball.

I was fortunate enough to be selected to catch for the All Star team several times. My All Star coaches were excellent mentors, teachers and they cared about us. During All Stars we practiced twice a day and we didn’t look at winning as just a thing; winning was the only thing. We went to the Virginia State Little League tournament twice, we won it once.

Once in a local district finals game, we travelled to the manicured field of our district rivals. Their community was well healed. We wore old uniforms that were passed down from year to year, some had been patched and some had moth holes. The only thing we were issued new was an All Star cap. The sun glare we used didn’t come from a tube; we took the cork from a soft drink cap, burned it, and used the charcoal as sun glare.

In this finals game we took our pregame warm ups and noticed that our rivals were not in their dugout to observe us. Our warm up session was flawless. As we entered our dugout a gate in right field swung open and in walked the opposing coaches and players. They wore new Yankee pin striped uniforms and it was the first time I ever saw individual bats bags. They paraded in front of our dugout and they looked at us like we were someone’s trash ready to be taken out.

By midgame we were losing 6-0. We had been intimidated and we couldn’t hit, throw or catch. As we entered our dugout after another lack luster inning, our Coach said “Get the Bats.” To us this had always meant to start bunting, hitting, catching, stealing bases and playing baseball, but this time something was different. The coach said “No get the bats and put them in the bag, we are going home, we don’t belong here and these guys are way too good for us.”

We won that game 10 to 6. Get the bats.

What are the life lessons of this simple game played with a ball and a stick? Here are a couple of lessons that I won’t forget.

My wife and I entered a local steak house for dinner and as we were being taken to our table, a man greeted me with “well here comes one of the best catchers to play in this area.” As I returned his greeting, I reached in my pocket to jokingly give him a tip for the compliment, when he finished his statement with “the best and the laziest.” When I questioned him about the lazy comment, he reminded me of a Little League game from some thirty years prior when I had loafed to retrieve a wild pitch and the speedy runner advanced two bases instead of one. I didn’t enjoy my dinner that evening, I remembered too.

A friend of mine was a great local baseball player. He later played on a number of national championship level softball teams. I asked him once for his most memorable game. Without hesitation, he told me about an American Legion baseball game where he was one of the star players and his Father was the coach. He had fallen behind on the pitch count and he then hit a towering fly to right field and he jogged around first to watch the ball sail over the fence. Instead of sailing over the fence, the ball hit the top of the fence and bounced back into play and my friend ended up jogging in to second base.

His Father called time out and had his son meet him on the third base line. He asked if he was injured, tired or sick. Finding that his star son was none of these, he sent him to the bench immediately and put in a substitute player for the rest of the game. My friend said his Father never talked to him about hustle again, he never had to. Get the bats.

If you have a talent or knowledge, offer it as a mentor or a coach – it may change a young person’s life.

Even star players need to warm the pine, rake and pick up rocks in order to always play like a champion.

Don’t ever loaf, your team will suffer and people will remember. You will too.

Practice for excellence and stay home if you don’t come to win.

Make the best of what you have, grow where you are planted, it’s not how you look – it’s how you play.

Call correct pitches for the team. Give a little chin music when necessary, but it can’t be your only pitch.

Don’t be intimidated or surprised by the opposition – play like you have been there before.

Keep the opposition off balance by maintaining yours.

Know the game, know your players, care about them, come to play, come to win and teach winning.

Get the bats.

Thanks for reading and sharing.

Have a great day – it’s a GREAT day for it.

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