Monday, March 2, 2015

Baseball and the Civic Life

By Dr. Mike Williams

I love baseball.  I love watching baseball, listening to baseball on the radio, and playing baseball with my kids and my friends.  Curiously, I was never a particularly good baseball player and I decided to forgo my senior year on the team in order to take a role in our spring high school musical – Damn Yankees! [a play that is about baseball nonetheless].  The closest I have come to being a real baseball player is working as a “balldude” with my dad for the San Francisco Giants.

For the past three years, I have been a coach for my son’s baseball teams (tee-ball and rookie ball).  This year, I am “the manager” of his CAPS baseball team.  While volunteering as a coach and manager is time-consuming, and there are aspects of the job that are frustrating, it is without a doubt one of the most satisfying things I have done in my life.  It also relates to changemaking.  Let me explain.

Each February, all coaches are encouraged to come to the little league field on a Saturday to “clean up” the field before opening day.  This usually happens one week before the season starts.  At our little league facility, we have two fields – one for the 4-8 year olds and one for the 9-12 year olds.  There are usually thirty of us who come out and spend most of the day working on the fields.  We paint, we pull weeds, we clean out the dugouts, and we cut back bushes.  The first year I volunteered I spent about five hours pulling weeds on the warning track of the upper-field (the one for 4-8 year olds).  It was hot and it seemed as if I would never finish – but eventually, I did.  The warning track looked fantastic.  I was so proud of myself when I imagined my son chasing a ball to the warning track and being able to retrieve it without any weeds or grass in his way.  Better yet, I thought, when he hits the ball to the warning track, the ball will roll to the fence without being slowed down by anything.  It only took one week of games for me to realize, however, that there was no chance of any of our players to hit a ball to the warning track.  The fence was over 200 feet away from home plate and there was simply no way any four year old was going to hit a ball, off a tee, to the warning track.  At first, I was disappointed, but then I realized the bigger picture.

I did not volunteer my time only for my son.  Of course, the fact that he was playing in the league is what convinced me to coach, but I was coaching many other kids as well.  Also, while none of the four year olds would hit a ball 200 feet, there might be an 8 year old who could do it – so the warning track might actually get some use by another group of kids.

But this was not it either.  The real reason I spent those hours pulling weeds off of the warning track was because I wanted the players – all of them – to walk onto the field on opening day and feel like they were a part of something bigger than themselves.  I wanted them to imagine they could be major league ballplayers who competed on magnificent fields.  I wanted them to have pride in the field because the field was a representation of their community – our community. 

One of the features of the process of changemaking is imagining the type of world we want to live in and then taking actions to make it happen.  This rarely happens when we act alone.  No one person had the time or energy to clean up two fields on one Saturday.  It took a group of us to get it done.  I remember how nervous I was when I first came to the field to volunteer because I did not know anyone except for my other two coaches.  Also, let’s just say that I am not a “handy man” at all and I was nervous that I would be asked to do something that I did not know how to do.  But what if I had decided to stay home because of these fears?  What if everyone would have stayed home because of these fears?  Obviously, if this were the case, the fields would not have been cleaned.  It was only through working together than we were able to accomplish our goals. For me, this is an important lesson about the process of changemaking – it only happens when you work with others in a collaborative fashion.

The other point relates to why any of us were out there in the first place?  Were each of us there only for our kids?  Were we each pulling weeds because we imagined “our kid” benefiting from a clean field?  Perhaps.  I know that I was motivated to go at first because my son was in the league.  But there was more to it than this.  I was also there for the other members of the team.  I was there for the players who we would play against.  The truth is that I was there both for my son and for others.  Tocqueville, a French social scientist and philosopher, coined the term “enlightened self-interest” to explain why people do things not just for themselves but for others.  The truth is that it made me “feel good” to “do something” for the broader little league community.  It was about my son but it was also about something much more.  I remember coming home from Saturday clean up exhausted, hot, dirty and very proud.  I told my son what I had done.  I was excited for him to see the field on opening day.  In other words, the process of involving myself in the community actually made me a happier person.

The practice of changemaking involves working with others for a larger purpose.  While the reason for your passion about a topic or issue may be based on some level of self-interest, I bet that you also care about something larger than yourself – about somebody other than yourself.  What is your passion?  How can you work with others to have an impact on a broader community?  These are the questions that changemakers ask of themselves and others.

This will be my third year in the league and my first year as manager of my son’s team.  Unlike my first year, I now know what to expect.  I actually look forward to clean up day because I know how I will feel at the end of it.  More importantly, I now have a better understanding about why I am coaching.  It is not just for my son.  I envision myself coaching even after my son is too old to be the in league.  I like being involved in the community.  I like educating young people about teamwork, sportsmanship, and dedication.  But there are aspects of the league that may need a fresh perspective and some changes.  This is the next step in the process that I will return to in a future post.  For now, let’s be thankful that pitchers and catchers have reported for spring training, that clean up day was last Saturday and the field looks great, and that the first game of the little league season is this weekend.  Play ball!

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