What t-ball taught me about winning, losing, and loving sports
In the summer before kindergarten I was signed up for t-ball by my parents. This was the first real structured thing I remember doing besides just being sent to daycare or a babysitter. As a five year old whose only responsibility was practicing throughout the week and playing games on the weekends, my lifestyle was imaginably not too different from a pro athlete at the time. The only difference being that I was getting paid in post-game slushies, not millions of dollars.
I was on a team called the Warriors and we were based out the small town of Reynolds, Illinois. When I played for the Reynolds Warriors, I lived next door to the American Legion and its community ballpark where the Warriors played. My father was a coach of the team along with some other dads, including a sixth grade teacher named Jim, whose athletic twin boys were far and away the best players on our team.
Pulling from our town of about 400 people and the nearby community, Reynolds filled out a squad of soon-to-be kindergarteners and first graders. My neighbor from across the street, a local slugger that remained scouted for both baseball and football for years to come, was on this team. Our shortstop was an athletic wonder that carried with him what could only be described as a major league swagger. We had great players for a t-ball team. While not a sport known for quality, t-ball teams usually carry a lot of depth. We had quality and depth on this t-ball team. Especially in the newly minted first graders that ran our infield.
I was probably the worst guy on the team. Although I loved playing baseball, I could never say I came close to mastering hitting or fielding the ball. None of that mattered in t-ball. As long as you could hit off a tee and you understood running the bases, you were decent.
As these things go, I learned to take baseball quite seriously. Not at first, but after watching the older boys play and listening to them talk, I caught on that I needed to be taking it seriously and start learning about teams like the Cubs, Cardinals, and so on.
I also learned that I should be able to immediately respond with my favorite team and player when asked by anyone at any time. Somewhere baseball cards with my stats on them exist. Under favorite team and player it reads: CUBS, Andre Dawson.
I started in a position billed as “right field rover” that year. The rover is basically an extra kid that played in front of the right fielder between first and second base. After letting a number of balls past into right field, I eventually got moved back into the outfield where I continued for the remainder of the my baseball career. Except, of course, when I wasn’t simply riding the pine.
There wasn’t much shame in being benched on this team, though. We were ridiculously stacked compared to the other teams in our division of small town baseball clubs. It wasn’t just Jim’s boys — our center fielder was prolific and our 3rd baseman could actually throw from third to first. A novel feat for a first grader. As it shook out, a good chunk of this team made up the core of what would be our high school baseball team later on.
The American Legion site that the Reynolds Warriors called home is much more Rockwellian than the unkept grade school practice fields that most of our rivals played at. At the Legion there were ice cream socials, wedding receptions, and other events happening inside the Veteran’s Hall. Next to that the pavilion and basketball court hosted teenagers looking for a pickup game or just some place to hang out. Sometimes you’d hear about a fight near the playground. Girls that made me feel nervous in ways I didn’t understand yet would sit at picnic tables and watch the boys play. I’d walk by this scene before and after every game as my backyard lead right into the park.
There was always a big crowd for baseball, regardless of the level of play. People would come by to show off cars or motorcycles they’d bought, just knowing friends would be there with their kids. There were nights where you had the local men’s horseshoe games going well past dusk thanks to the lights from the t-ball championship nearby. At the Legion, baseball and softball seemingly never ended for a stream of teams made up of different aged kids from kindergarten through sixth grade. I only realized later in life that not everyone grew up playing the game in such an iconic way.
The 1988 Reynolds Warriors t-ball team breezed through the regular season and playoffs eventually beating a good team from a nearby town called Andalusia. I don’t remember the score, but I remember it being close. Andalusia played hard and had kids with nicknames like “Hammer” on their team. The merciful 10-run rule that was often called upon wasn’t necessary when we played Andalusia. Honestly, I didn’t much think about what winning or losing felt like that year. There are photos of us somewhere holding our blue ribbons after we won the championship but I remember very little from that championship game.
The game I remember, my best game, was against a club based out of Illinois City, a nearby unincorporated community that played ball at their grade school’s ground. Illinois City did not have the resources or the dedication to take baseball quite as seriously as we did in my town. Reynolds had a bank, an electric company, a gas station, two bars, and a restaurant. We had the American Legion and we had a history of winning in baseball. Baseball in Reynolds was certainly a thing.
Living in Illinois City is to enjoy country living and baseball was more of a hobby than anything for those farm kids. In the Illinois City game, I hit an inside the park home run that was surely the product of a comedy of fielding errors. Nevertheless, this home run was a big to-do that day and every player on my team signed the home run ball. I kept this token for many years, though sadly, I can’t tell you where it is today.
Like all great teams, our unstoppable squad was tragically broken up after winning it all. With the season over, many of our best players would be moving on to the 2nd and 3rd grade team. Here they’d be re-united with some older kids they had played with before. They’d now be hitting balls that were tossed by their coaches. This is what was referred to as “D-Ball” in our small town baseball pyramid.
The earlier mentioned center fielder also moved to a rival team, Edgington. Another unincorporated community, Edgington had a ball team that played at the local high school’s field in the center of their town. If memory serves, they were the only other team in our division that played on a properly maintained baseball ground with a fenced-in outfield, batting cages, concessions, and bathrooms with running water.
Players from Reynolds also went to the same grade school as a lot of the kids from Edgington. If someone were to switch from Reynolds to Edgington, it was considered a Judas move even though we all knew they couldn’t control where their parents lived or what team they played for.
The next season was quite a bit different than the first. While the first season was all about winning and the romance of falling in love with the game of baseball, this second season exposed me to the realities of the game. I learned a lot more about losing in the second year of t-ball than I did in the first.
The new coaches that joined my dad brought along their kids and a new crop of kindergarteners were also in line to play. As it stood, there were more kids signing up from our class than the year before too. So many kids that Reynolds found itself with enough players to field two teams. The Warriors wore blue shirts and hats with a gold Native American chief logo on them. A second squad wore red hats: a rivalry of Reynolds Blue and Reynolds Red was established.
As far as the division of squads is concerned, I am not sure how things worked out. I’d have to ask my dad about this, but I think they may have actually drafted players. A dad that had also been coaching with my father took over the duties of coaching Reynolds Red that season. We had one less coach and several fewer players.
The slugger that lived across the street ended up on Reynolds Red but aside from him, the Red team was arguably a lesser squad with fewer players from last year’s championship side. I imagine the logic was that this kid would offset the rest of us. Truth be told, he nearly did, as Reynolds Red and Reynolds Blue met in the semi-finals of our baseball playoffs later that season.
By this time I was now a senior member of the squad and given regular duty in right field. I remember winning a close game against Reynolds Red in the semis and I think I may have even driven in some RBI’s that game. Up next was Andalusia in the final.
I had an ominous feeling about going up against Andalusia having beaten them in the championship the year before. Again, I couldn’t tell you much about the game (it was a t-ball game) but I can tell you we lost. I remember crying during the award ceremony. I remember storming off the field and walking home about 15–20 feet ahead of my dad, throwing off my hat and glove as I walked away in a dream state of shock and confusion at what had happened. I’m sure the teenagers and kids at the playground saw this but at the time I could care less who was privy to the scene.
I remember crashing onto my bed, still in tears wailing and my dad standing at my doorway in silhouette telling me not to cry. I remember yelling that it wasn’t fair that we had lost (it was totally fair and deserved) and I remember my dad trying to explain to his 6 year old why it’s okay to lose in sports.
Of course, we all know that in things like t-ball, its more about how you play the game than anything. I don’t remember everything that he said but my dad was known to filibuster, so I’m sure he went over all the things parents had to come up with back before everyone simply opted out of this and decided to stop keeping score in t-ball. Perhaps it wasn’t worth it, in the end, to subject kids to this kind of tragedy so early in their sporting careers.
It’s clear that this incident must have shaped me in some way, because I remember it quite vividly almost 30 years later. For that reason, regardless of the trauma, I’m okay with what happened. Eventually, I’d have to play in a game with winners and losers and come to terms with this. Had I been a second grader, I may not have had such a strong reaction. This is doubtful though as baseball was always serious business.
To this day, whenever my favorite teams lose in big games, I think about that loss and how it influenced me in the years to come.
The main thing I take from this is that whether you’re 6 or 60, it still sucks to lose in sports. I don’t intend to turn this into a rant about how we do things today, protecting t-ball players from the pain of losing. I will say this: the day after losing to Andalusia in the t-ball championship, I woke up feeling pretty good. The birds still chirped, the sun still shined, and I still lived next to the American Legion park where the Reynolds Warriors would play next season. I woke up with a hunger to take another shot at beating Andalusia.
Over the years, especially since relocating to Chicago in 2006, I’ve watched my teams win and lose many times. I’ve paid to watch the Cubs, Bears, Bulls, Fire, and White Sox lose games. I’ve enjoyed my time and never once felt cheated or angry that my team lost — only hopeful that more wins will come on another day.
As I’m writing this, the 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs are down 2 games in the 2017 NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Though the stakes for the Cubs may be higher than they were for me in American Legion baseball, I feel like I can relate a little bit to their current situation. Winning has come naturally to this team, but they aren’t the same as they were last year. The honeymoon of winning that first modern championship has passed, and the team is now much more serious going about their business. Winning has come to be expected, but we cannot take it for granted.
Whether or not Cubs lose this series, I am confident they’ll come back stronger next year. If they do lose, hopefully they can follow in the footsteps of the Reynolds Warriors, who later went on to win back-to-back D-Ball championships beating both Andalusia and Edgington in what I remember to be some of the most fun baseball games I’d ever participated in.
Tomorrow, when the Cubs take to Wrigley Field for Game 3, I will remind myself that this is all a big game and we’re supposed to have fun with it. Such is life. Such is sports. Still, I can’t help but take the game almost as seriously as I did back on that fateful evening in July of 1989 when the only thing that mattered in life was playing baseball.