Keep Your Eye on the Ball--Have Patience

March 25, 2017

     George rolled up his sleeves and pulled his ball cap down further on his head to shield the sun from his eyes.  He felt a wetness on his foot and realized the can of beer he was holding was sweating profusely.  Sitting in the highest row of the bleachers, he squinted and could barely make out the players on the diamond.  The sun was glaring and he felt nauseous.  He took another sip from his beer. George reflected on the days when he used to coach little league. He had led his team to the championship four times, but had never won.  George sat quietly and every once in a while, muttered something to himself.  No one ever seemed to want to sit with him at the games.  He didn’t really mind, but rather enjoyed the quiet opportunity to focus on the players.  After the game was over, George stayed long after the teams packed up and the fans left the stands. He threw his empty beer can away and headed to the bar.

     George pulled his 2003 black Tacoma into the dusty gravel parking lot and took his usual spot right in front of the bar’s only entrance.  An old Ford pickup truck and a Jeep with a shattered headlight were parked on either side of him.  The small old green building did not draw attention or even seem inviting.  A wooden sign that needed a new coat of paint with the letters “B-A-R” hung above the door and muffled country music seeped through the brick walls.  George walked in and took his seat at the bar--third stool from the back.  He let his eyes adjust to the dim lighting.  The brown leather on his stool was cracked from wear and the padding was worn thin.  The bar was clean and the fake wooden countertop reflected bubbles of condensation from sweating drinks.  He used to come to this place with his friends when he was much younger.  They sang karaoke, crowded around the single television during baseball games involving their favorite teams, and sometimes caused such a raucous that they would get thrown out.  Every person who entered the bar had a story to tell and George sometimes ended up talking with them for hours on end.   He heard about wars, divorce, unruly kids, places never visited, regrets; he heard about everything. George referred to this bar as “home,” as he always felt comfortable there. The soft neon lighting, the musty smell of beer, the wooden furniture and worn leather seats granted him peace he rarely found anywhere else.

     George waved the bartender down and ordered his drink.  The old man, who had worked at the bar for as long as George could remember, brought him the glass and dropped three cubes in it. 
     “How was the game?” the bartender asked.
     George replied, stirring his drink before taking a sip. “Team is looking great.  They won their game today. They need to win one more to get to the championship.” 
     “Any news on the bank job you applied for?”
     George sighed and muttered, “The bank thinks I am too much of a risk to hire.”
     “You know, you don’t have to keep coming here,” the old man suggested. George let out an exasperated sigh, finished his drink, and left the bar.
     The next week was rough for George.  He applied for a few more jobs, but no one showed interest in him.  To take his mind off the job search, he went to watch other little league games that were played sporadically throughout the week.  George thought back to the time when he was coaching. He remembered crying after one ceremony because his team hadn’t won the championship.  He had always told the players that the game is not about the trophy, but about their individual skill improvement.  But it still would have been a highlight to win the championship.
     That weekend, George attended his old team’s semifinal game, which the team had to win to make it to the championship.  He drove to the ballfield and took his usual seat in the highest row of the bleachers.  The first three innings were rough for George’s team. Outfielders dropped fly balls, the pitcher hit opposing batters, and the team just seemed lethargic.  A mother behind the dugout comforted her son who had teared up after he struck out.  George barely heard her say, “Just remember what your father always said, keep your eye on the ball and have patience.”  Her son looked up at her, gave a slight nod, and ran back to the dugout.  The team got their act together and miraculously ended up winning the game by one run. 
     At “home,” George sat and watched a group of friends sing karaoke.  They had terrible voices, but they sang like they were the Rolling Stones.  George remembered many nights of karaoke at this bar.  At the table to his right, a man and woman were having a very serious conversation.  They sipped their drinks in silence and every once in a while spoke.  Later in the evening, they were yelling at each other.  The woman took off her wedding ring and left it on the table in front of the man. 
     “It never is easy,” George thought.  Taking his place at the bar, the bartender poured him his one drink.
     “How was your week?” the old man asked. 
     “Rough.  Slow as usual.  I went to some of the ball games, but it’s just not the same as when I was coaching,” George replied. 
     “I don’t think it’s about coaching. You need to get yourself together.” 
     George thought long and hard about that advice without replying.  He reflected on what a mess he had made of his life and how his decisions destroyed his relationship with his family and his career.  It was hard to change, but he knew he needed to refocus his life. As he exited, George paused, “Thanks Dad.”
     The following week, George focused solely on what his priorities should be.  He applied for more jobs and submitted his application to coach little league again.  A local middle school invited him to speak to the students about making good choices. Even though this was a difficult topic for George to talk about, it made him feel like a huge burden was lifted from his shoulders.  George began to feel a sense of purpose, but he still had the hardest task of restoring his relationship with his family.  He knew this would take time.
     That weekend, George got to the championship game early.  He wore the ball cap he used to wear when he coached.  He stood next to the fence and watched his team warm up.  They all looked very nervous as the coaches yelled out the practice drills.  The league had decorated the field with patriotic banners, added more bleachers, and hired an announcer for the game.  As parents began to arrive and take their seats, George noticed the mother who was comforting her son the previous game sit down.  He decided to abandon his usual seat and join her in the front row of the bleachers. 
     She didn’t say a word to him until the second inning began, “I see you have changed your drink of choice,” motioning towards the red Gatorade George held in his hand. 
     “Yeah, I need to make a lot of changes and this is the first step,” George replied. 
     As the bottom of the ninth inning approached, George’s team needed to score to break the tie.  The first batter walked up to the plate and struck out.  The following batter hit a high fly ball to right center, but the outfielder caught it.  With two outs, a nervous young boy stepped up to the plate. 
     Sitting beside George, his mother yelled out, “You got this, Henry!”
     George added, “Keep your eye on the ball. Have patience.” 
     At this point, Henry called a timeout and stepped out of the batter’s box.  He looked over to the stands with a huge grin on his face, and said, “Thanks, Dad!”   The first pitch came in faster than Henry was expecting: strike one!  The following pitch was a slider that moved away from Henry, who gave a mighty swing but was unable to make contact.  Henry thought of what his dad had told him.  He focused and intently watched the ball come into the plate.  He saw the ball hit the meat of his bat, and then the crowd jumped and cheered as the ball sailed over the fence.  Henry’s whole team was waiting to celebrate with him at home plate as he rounded the bases.  George looked down with pride at his son, smiling as he thought, “We finally won the championship.”

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