May 26, 2017

Finding Our New Seats At The Ball Game: A Baseball Parable for Parents of Young Adults

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Any resemblance between this essay, and events occurring in my life as a parent of a young adult child is entirely intentional. I have a wonderful wife who helps me to keep thinking and talking when we come to new chapters in our journey as a couple and as a family. As we’re facing good changes where our role as parents has changed from “managers” to spectators, we’ve talked about what kind of parents we want to be, and not be, both now and in the future. Perhaps this will help other middle-aged parents who want the present and the future to be good chapters in life’s story to see a new and good place to enjoy the game.

When I was a young man, my father, who had never taken me to little league or encouraged me in any kind of sport, starting taking me to baseball games. The games were a local “American Legion” league made up of current high schoolers and boys who had just graduated. It was there, as a fan, that I learned to love baseball, but it was there that I also learned to watch the people who surrounded the game, and to learn from them.

Of course, the players on the diamond should always be the focus of attention for any baseball fan, but one of the glories of baseball is that the game is slow, and there is plenty of time to watch people. Various kinds of fans, players, coaches, vendors, passers-by, etc, all become part of the game, and parts of my memories…and my way of thinking about life.

What does any of this have to do with being a parent? Plenty. Be patient; there will be a payoff. First, let’s go to the ballpark; then to the parenting class.

There are some basic divisions among the persons at a ball game, and it is important to know and understand those divisions. People who do not honor those basic differences are going to have an experience that’s less than enjoyable, and actually, you might even wind up at the hospital or in jail.

For example, fans aren’t players. They may have been players once, but they aren’t players now. A fan is “on the team” only in a supportive, positive sense. The players should hear encouragement from the fans. Yes, fans are allowed to urge a pitcher to pitch well and to urge a batter to hit the ball, but keep it positive. You’re a fan.

I’m not one of those fans who believe that, since you paid your money, you can say whatever you want at a ball game. I’m not going to boo my team. I may moan, groan, writhe in agony, put my head in my hands, mumble, roll my eyes, stare at the heavens, and otherwise demonstrate my suffering sympathies with the situation on the field, but I’m not going to boo unless I’m booing the umpires, the opposing manager or the lady singing the national anthem like Rosanne Barr.

The point is, I’m not playing the game. Even if I’ve played, know how to play, get paid to write about baseball or otherwise have a recognized expertise, on game day, I’m a fan. I get my seat. I watch. I encourage and I applaud the game that others are playing.

Fans aren’t managers either. That’s somewhat different territory, because it is recognized that all fans are honorary managers and are permitted to pretend such, as long as they keep it off the field, don’t get to near the dugout, and generally, don’t get weird about it.

Baseball managers, if they are mature and mentally healthy, know that everyone following the team- EVERYONE- is convinced they could do a better job managing than the current manager. If he steps out of the dugout and looks into the stands, he’s aware that everyone looking back at him is second-guessing, criticizing and analyzing his every decision. That’s part of managing.

The fact is, however, that most fans aren’t anywhere close to being competent managers, and good fans know it. Managing a baseball team is a very difficult job. It’s more than filling out a lineup card. It’s psychology, war, predictive science, statistics, tactics, lying, deceiving, public relations, being a parent and keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs. Good managers, like Torre and Larussa, are mystical figures in the minds of a true fan. Yes, you may disagree with the occasional decision, but you know in your heart that YOU ARE NOT A MANAGER.

That goes for former managers of younger players most of all. If you once coached little league or church softball, you should be the first person to look with pity and embarrassment over at that guy screaming from the stands. Fans can call managers idiots and throw their cups on the field, but they just look foolish and childish. Don’t they know who they are and aren’t?

Fans also aren’t umpires, though we can be grateful that, short of doing anything illegal, you can still be a fan but pronounce whatever curses and derisions you care to bestow on the umpires. The fact that we have very human officials, placed in the position of making perfect judgments in a patently unpredictable and difficult environment, doesn’t take away the right of every fan to call the umps blind, bribed or bumbling.

Yet, even here, a mature fan who loves and knows the game should have respect and appreciation for the umpires. (Most of them 😉 They are trying to do the right thing, and they have no stake in creating chaos and misery. I’ve learned to applaud the umps, and I appreciate managers who keep their interactions with the umpires civil and calm.

After years of watching baseball, I’ve found my favorite fans, and I’ve decided that as a parent watching my child move on to the adult years, I want, as a parent, to be like this kind of fan.

Who are they? They are that older couple sitting over by the first base line. They aren’t in the bleachers. They brought their folding chairs. They want to sit as close to the dugout as they can. They wave at the players, and because they are at every game, the players know them. Maybe not their names, but their voices and faces.

My favorite fans keep it positive. They encourage. They applaud. They don’t throw tantrums at the manager or insult the players. They know the team well enough to know the strengths and the weaknesses of the team, and how they match up against the opposition. They want the team to succeed, but they are prepared for failure, too. Losing some games won’t make any difference. These fans will still be there.

It’s not that these loyal fans can’t see mistakes or misplays. They do, but they understand their role as fans. They aren’t players, or managers or coaches- even if they were in the past. They don’t run the team. They support the team as fans. They rejoice with the team as fans. They hurt when the team loses. They are concerned about their favorite players if they are hurt or doing poorly. But they aren’t at the game to rescue, coach, manage or behave like an owner. They are loyal fans of the team, and for as long as their team is on the field, they will be in their place, offering what they can to the success of those they support.

One of the worst of all possible kinds of bad fans is the parent who won’t let the manager manage. (Actually, a drunken former manager without respect or restraint would be the worst, but this is already complicated enough.) Parents who don’t know the limits of their influence, and who won’t let their child be a player WITHOUT THE PARENT BEING THE MANAGER are embarrassing and often out of control. No one enjoys having them around, and the young player often wishes such a parent would never come to the game if they can’t enjoy their new role as a fan.

Those two folks, over by the fence, sitting in their folding chairs, eating popcorn and not really seeming to be all that upset that the second baseman just threw one over the first baseman’s head and into the dugout? That’s who I want to be…especially when my GROWN, ADULT child is on the field.

Alright; confession time. As you may have guess by now, I’m not talking about baseball, as much as I am talking about being a parent. Particularly being a parent of a child who is now an adult, and who is making choices on his/her own. Choices where I must admit, for the first time, that I am not the coach, or the manager and that this is no longer my team.

My child is an adult, and adults get to choose what team they play on and what managers they will now listen to. They get to choose how they will play the game, and they take responsibility for the wins and the losses. If I was a good parent, that was one of my goals for my children: the ability to make adult choices and to make judgments for themselves that no longer include me as the primary “coach” calling all the plays and correcting the errors.

When this comes down to purely adult decisions, I’ll be the first to admit, I sometimes want to be like that fan over there shouting at the manager, booing the team and generally making an idiot of himself. If it’s one of those situations where some of my coaching instincts disagree with the play that’s unfolding on the field, that is exactly where I have to look at those two folks sitting in their folding chairs, and understand how much better everything is for them. The game, the experience, their blood pressure…all of it.

And when the game is over, the players still want to talk to those folks. The crazy guy in the stands? They hope he never comes back…even if he really, really cares.

One of my jobs is helping young people make transitions. Predictably, I’m a poor example. I don’t like transitions, and I don’t do them very well. One of the reasons is that every transition requires me to give up what I am holding onto, and to pick up what I’ve never taken hold of. I like to think that the world depends on me staying right where I am and being exactly what I’ve always been.

Not so.

My happiness, and the happiness of others in my family, depends on my choice to put down one role and pick up another. I must be able to get past the stubborn illusion that everything changes, except for me, and that my determination to make others acknowledge my unchangeable role in their life is vital to everyone’s happiness.

Dad needs to change. He can be a former player. He can be a former manager. But today, for right now and the immediate future, he needs to be a fan of the game others are managing; the game my adult child has chosen for him/herself.

Comments

  1. With two adult kids leaving home within the next two weeks I really needed to hear this. Thank you.

  2. Mike,

    As a former teacher of your children and a fellow parent who entrusted his children to your children’s care, and your former neighbor, I must say that you and Denise have done/are doing a great job. We always gave Denise’s name and your phone number as the emergency contact on those forms because we knew that your family had its collective head squarely on its shoulder and would know how to figure out what to do in any situation that would have caused our children to fall in your care. In my opinion, we have yet to find that same comfort level in our new hometown. As I currenly “manage” my “team” and consider the time when I will hopefully be in “folding chairs” and not the “crazy guy”, I have tried to emulate you two in many respects especially where the two of you gave your “team” the skills to positively deal with the “fans” and the “game”. Keep up the good work “coach”.

  3. Well said!

  4. Very well said, indeed. It’s scary to see parents who don’t seem to understand when to let go. Their constant interference in their adult childrens’ lives makes things harder. As the parent of some adult children and some who will (hopefully) be adults soon, I know how hard it is to move into the fan’s seat, but how essential it is, too. And it’s great when you see one of your ‘players’ making good choices and fulfilling God’s purpose in his or her life.