Like most American boys I spent the springs and summers of my youth playing baseball. I say “playing” but I think “showing up” does the description of my little league career more justice. I was arguably La Jolla Little League’s worst ballplayer of the late 1980s (possibly of the entire 1980s) and of the early 1990s (but hopefully not of the entire 1990s) matched in my anti-athleticism only by the unimaginable skilllessness possessed by one of my fellow bench-mates from the notorious season of ’89 who should remain unidentified, but won’t and whose name is Mark Bauman. Sorry Mark, I love you, but the record must so reflect…
For some reason recollections of youth baseball stick out more than any other memories from the time. I remember much from those simpler days. Ill-fitting baseball pants (more horse-jockey than major league). Size “youth-small” jock-straps (“youth small” were for 8 year olds and should have offended me at 10, but didn’t). Itchy socks (why the hell I insisted on Civil War-style wool socks, I’ll never know). A snug one-size-obviously-does-not-fit-all jersey (that would grip my soft and lumpy pre-teen body like a polyester saran wrap and should have embarrassed me, but, again, somehow didn’t). Cleats one or two sizes too big (mom always bought clothes for me like she was buying futures at the Chicago Commodities Exchange: “Don’t worry sweet-pea these are for you, and your younger brother!”). We didn’t wear sunglasses (that’s what the glove was for) but having just the right batting glove was a big deal (an important life lesson: if you can’t be good, look good). And who could forget the classic ball-caps of the day? Those Bush I-era caps were unquestionably amazing. Synthetic-netted backs, adjustable plastic head fittings, and that massive billboard-puffy-painted styrofoam front advertising the neighborhood sponsor-de-jeur. Great hats.
I remember other things from my baseball years. Allergy attacks. Big League Chew. Uncomfortable carpools in wood-paneled station wagons. Chewing barbeque sunflower seeds, swallowing that sweet-salty pulp and nearly suffocating to death in right field. Pretty girls I didn’t know I wanted yet (but one day would) not-watching from the bleachers in short jean shorts. Chasing butterflies in the on-deck circle. Sitting on the bench not flirting with the pretty girls in short jean shorts. Leaving each game as clean as I arrived; and, most encompassing of all, being legendarily bad at the game of baseball and not being all too interested in getting any better.
So Why Play?
I played baseball because, like most all good red-blooded American kids, I innately understood that I had to. Somewhere deep down in that chunky little body of mine, there was a chunky little heart that knew there was something that moved me about the game. I think I was called to action by the legacy of what it all meant, by the sights and sounds of the game’s elegant arena, and other mystifying nuances of baseball magic that is the command of this great American pastime over a young man’s soul. And who among us can deny the intoxication of a cold fountain soda and an authentic ballpark super dog covered in mustard and ketchup on a hot summer day? No, I didn’t play baseball because I wanted to…I played baseball because I had to…
The Tribulations of Fatherhood & Baseball’s Life Lesson.
My dad was really the one that had it rough back then. Me? I didn’t know any better. But my poor father. All those game days he had to endure. Man. The sheer misery this former collegiate rugby player and Vietnam Vet certainly suffered watching his (slow, fat, talentless) son strike out at the plate, miss the ball out in the field, warm the bench (not flirt with hot chicks), choke on sunflower seeds, clear his throat violently and put his glove on his head. The terrible indignity! As if coming home three times from Vietnam wasn’t hard enough, now he had to sit stoically by in active support of weakness, next to other fathers whose offspring didn’t suck.
But he was always there for me. Through all the discomfitures. Sitting in those wooden bleachers with that chipped green paint, cheering me on. Doing that very thankless fatherly task of supporting his son’s mediocrity. All this was the tough part. My old man’s ability to maintain a physical presence beside his fellow men under such upsetting circumstances is a testament to the Martin commitment to never showing weakness…even in the face of our own weakness.
No, my dad never gave up; he continued to coach me along with valuable lessons in the game of baseball despite my proven inability to ever demonstrate either improvement or interest.
One such essential baseball lesson became an essential life lesson and was the most important and basic message of them all (more important than the lesson that instructs a father must stand behind the real-life embarrassment he knows he’s half responsible for)…this lesson was to keep your eye on the ball.
A Story that Proves Valuable Life Lessons Aren’t Always True
Sometime during the summer season of 1990 I was traded by the coach of the blue team to the coach of the red team for a warm six pack of Miller Light, a September 1987 edition of Playboy and a Jimmy Buffett CD. I learned this in the summer of 1998, when I was dating the daughter of the coach of 1990’s yellow team. Somehow, even all these years later, this is more sad than funny. But besides my own management’s heartless dealings, another thing happened in the summer of 1990: I got my very first hit.
I’ll never forget the pageantry of that at bat. Walking up to the plate, digging in my cleats (they were bought just before the season of 1988, so they fit just fine), gripping the bat, and closing my eyes tightly as the pitcher released the ball. Next I remember slow motion and white light, some b-side arena rock song by Queen and feeling the pain ringing in my hands from the sweet connection of that leather-coated rubber and string with aluminum. The bat slung the ball deep into the outfield (it should have, I had the physique of a Tely-Tubby), I opened my eyes, smiled (probably even giggled) and trotted to first base.
What for every other kid in the ballpark that day should have been a stand-up triple, was, for this young braveheart, a very long single. And my very first hit. It was a great day. It was the day I learned that skill, hard work, training, dedication and adherence to the fundamentals and principles of the game required for superior performance and execution (principles like ‘keep your eye on the ball’) could all be overcome by (quite literally) blind luck.
Yes, that day I learned that sometimes shortcuts do work. I was so happy with myself I think I waved. I probably even bowed. And I tucked that little gem of a life lesson deep down beneath the delicate architecture of my own moral courage, should life’s later challenges once again require such blind-luck-swingings.
I’m not sure what my dad did after that hit – he probably told everyone in those bleachers that the kid that finally hit the ball was his son; which if I was my father, would have been news to all of them.
The very next play I was thrown out at second. And I struck out every other at bat that season.
Luck gets you only so far.
I never did learn how to follow a baseball from a pitcher’s hand to the face of my bat (or anything else about baseball really); but I also never forgot the importance of keeping your eye on the ball.
And this, the keeping your eye on the ball part, has everything to do with Afghanistan.
Keep Your Eye On the Ball
Our decision to authorize 30,000 more combat troops into Afghanistan was a wise one. Our decision to set a timetable for July 2011 withdrawal was not. With the effects of the approved surge still unknown (the last of the combat surge units don’t even finish arriving until the end of this month) we mustn’t set dates not associated with achievement.
If success in this war is indeed critical to our national security (it is), then we must let General Petraeus, and the rugged men and women in his charge, do their job.
The General’s approach to this war has been that “any troop withdrawal would depend on the situation on the ground” and last week responded to the President’s announcement explaining that the July date “is not the date when the American forces would begin an exodus.” Which is a good thing; and Vice President Biden later back-pedaled saying it would be a “transition.” All this is semantics.
Our message simply must be one of commitment to win a war we are in fact capable of winning. And as far as fighting a successful counter-insurgency and subsequent nation-building goes, it’s the Commander in Chief that should say so.
The President must do what the Bush Administration couldn’t do with the Iraq War: ask for the patience of the American people, make his case, stress our commitment to success there, enable the mechanisms that will provide for such a thing, assure Americans, Afghanis and NATO that together we will prevail in war, and then lead us in the winning of it.
And this will be no easy task. With 155 Americans lost in the past 3 months (the most violent in this war’s history), things are as violent as ever. We’ve got to keep in mind though the reason for the increase in casualties is related to the increase in offensive operations. And with 6 out of 10 Americans opposing the war, we’ve got to keep in mind why we went there in the first place.
It should also be pointed out that we already defeated the Taliban and al-Qaeda there once, soundly, in 2001/2002. We defeated them at Mazar-I Sharif, in Kabul and Kunduz, at Kandahar and Tora Bora. Then Iraq became our main effort, and they had 7 years to reconstitute, refit, and counter-attack. This a predictable strategic consequence of a country faced with a two-front war: a main effort is assigned, and one stalls at the expense of the other. But now our focus is back to Afghanistan, and so we must accordingly rededicate our commitment to make it a place that resists the influence of evil al-Qaedists.
General Petraeus’ strategy will focus on mapping the human terrain, engaging key leaders and mullahs, conducting precision strikes on principle enemy lieutenants, engaging the intelligence activities of neighboring countries, surging combat power to essential population areas to provide the blanket of security needed to reenergize the local political and economic machines, and mobilize the local police and national Army.
Another essential aspect of his strategy will be to reconcile with the Taliban, which was instrumental in Iraq’s turn. “It’s the case in a counter-insurgency that you must sit down with those who were once your enemy in order to achieve success,” General Petraeus said. “We sat down with many in Iraq who still had our blood on their hands – but this is how counter-insurgencies are waged and won. It is how things were done in Northern Ireland. It is how it was done in Iraq. It is how they are done with any counter-insurgency. And it is how we’ll have to do it here.”
Too much is at stake for us to leave Afghanistan prematurely. Al Qaeda will regain their former sanctuary they enjoyed during the anarchy of 1992-1996 and beyond, there will be heightened regional and global risks associated with the Pakistan-India-global-terrorism equation, and a battleground to continue to engage this evil transnational enemy will be surrendered.
As the Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano points out, “Fighting terrorists in South Asia is not easy. But it is a worthwhile effort that offers the promise of a more enduring peace and a safer world for our civilians and allies. Now is the time to vanquish al-Qaeda and its affiliates, not give them a second lease on life. Running away would end nothing. Indeed, it would be but the prelude to more 9-11 style misery.”
And this has everything to do with the virtue of the lessons of little league baseball.
AFGHANISTAN: AMERICA’S BASEBALL.
A withdrawal in July of 2011 would perhaps bring us a moment of national calm; those of us in uniform would come home. The casualties would stop. The money that daily pours to our efforts there would be freed up for other use. But all this, should we not proceed with a conditions based approach, will not last for long.
Al-Qaeda will grow stronger. Attacks will increase world-wide and at home and we’ll find ourselves asking why we left Afghanistan before the job was done.
So what’s the solution? Aside from allowing General Petraeus to do his job; aside from mobilizing an economy deeply rich with natural resources to replace the opium trade; aside from daily killing al-Qaeda in place; aside from nation-building; aside from a calculated and aggressively waged counter-insurgency; aside from a national recognition (led by our President) that we are a nation at war – that this is not a war of choice, but a war of necessity – aside from all of this we must all remember that this is a war we simply cannot afford to lose.
If there’s one thing my experiences as La Jolla’s worst youth ballplayer (arguably of all time) taught me it’s that a lack of dedication and focus can really only get you to first base (and then only sometimes, and rarely gets you noticed by the pretty girls in the stands), and that it’s the commitment that counts.
In the case of war in Afghanistan there is no virtue in pursuing policy that amounts to the blind-luck-swingings of my youth. Here the most essential of little league baseball’s life lessons persists: that we don’t do this because we want to, we do this because we have to…
All the rest is just keeping our eye on the ball.
 Though I’m now completely traumatized by this, it’s hard to argue with such prudent logic.
 This makes more sense when drunk. And in between tears.
 Something obviously other than girls in short jean shorts. Which these days, is about all it takes.
 Sorry dad.
 I have since vowed to myself that if I’m in a similar situation with my own son, I must be present, but also wildly intoxicated.
 To this life lesson my dad would later add: “don’t get anyone pregnant” and, “don’t worry about that grade son, the world is run by C students.”