“Hey, Siri. What’s the temperature at Poipu Beach?”
It had been a frustrating hour for my student and me. Romy had been trying his best to copy the stride of Carlos Beltran of the New York Mets, but his body was stubborn and things just hadn’t clicked. Beltran was a nineteen-year MLB veteran who is likely headed to the Hall of Fame; Romy was twelve and waiting for his voice to change.
In the batting cage next to ours, a high school player was hitting balls off a tee, making the net between us flutter each time it absorbed the impact of one of his blows. On our side of the net sat a makeshift desk — a padded hotel chair that looked like it was lifted from the Red Lion’s Cascade Ballroom in 1974 — on which sat my old laptop computer. On the screen were side-by-side videos of Romy and Beltran — single swings of each player, in sync and playing on a continuous loop. Within seconds of being asked, Siri responded, “It’s eighty-one degrees at Poipu Beach.” Romy’s eyes narrowed on mine. Where are you going with this, Coach?
Like all kids his age, Romy has lived each of his dozen years surrounded by technology; he knows nothing else. His cellphone probably has more computing power than the clunky, refurbished laptop I use to analyze hitters and pitchers. He is accustomed to getting what he wants — answers to homework problems or perhaps a game to entertain himself — with the push of a button. The concept of waiting for gratification is as foreign to him as the 3D printer is to me.
That’s a problem.
While relatively few Major League Baseball players will enjoy more success or a longer career than Carlos Beltran, his skills have developed over a very, very long time. Even as he approaches is 40th birthday and 20th year in the big leagues, Beltran works every day — hitting off batting tees and in flip drills — with the understanding that becoming the player he is today has involved non-stop work, struggle, and enough failure to scare off a thousand kids like Romy. As my college coach, Terry Pollreisz, used to say: there’s enough repetition involved to challenge how much you love the game.
Last summer, my wife, Andrea, and I celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with a ten-day trip to Poipu Beach on Kauai’s south shore, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. After a brisk five-mile walk above the magnificent shoreline each morning, we spent the rest of our days moving at a glacial pace — reading on the beach in front of our rented condo at the Kiahuna Plantation, watching throngs of people who had come to Poipu from all over the world, and wading into the tepid Pacific surf when we got overheated.
The morning of our scheduled departure, we woke early and took our coffee on the beach. The sun was just rising over an endless blue sea, and the beach — absent the mid-day crowd — appeared much, much longer. We stood alone where the Plantation’s grass met the sand, admiring the splendor of our surroundings for the last few minutes of our trip.
A moment later, a man my age breezed passed us carrying an old-fashioned carpenter’s toolbox. It was rectangular, had a wooden dowel for a handle, and was, I noticed, filled with a variety of tools: cups, brushes, spoons, knives and other utensils, all of varying size and shape. He smiled and said good morning, then stepped onto the sand and headed west, towards the Sheraton. I looked at his toolbox, then back at Andrea. “The only tools I ever used to build a sandcastle were my hands and a red plastic bucket,” I said. This guy had to be for real.
From a distance, we watched the man as he surveyed the sand until he found a spot he liked. He set down his tool box, took a look at the ocean behind him, then lowered himself to his knees. He began digging a hole, piling up the extracted sand shoreward while periodically glancing back over his shoulder, presumably to gage the tide. In fifteen minutes, he had produced little more than a pile of sand, three-feet tall and at least as broad, and a hole of the same dimensions. We could identify no distinguishing characteristics of his work, leaving us more impressed with the fact that he had looked over his shoulder more than fifty times. Soon, Andrea and I lost interest and began sharing our favorite memories from our married life together while the sun continued its assent in the Hawaiian sky.
As we took our last sips of the Islands, I looked back to find the artist laboring painstakingly on a masterpiece that was now being defined by the brushes and knives I’d seen in his toolbox nearly an hour earlier. He worked carefully and no longer with regard for the tide behind him. Curious, I took Andrea’s hand and said, “C’mon, let’s have a look.” We had taken only a few steps towards the man when the wave crashed, overtaking the receding spume and hurling its way past the previous high-water mark. The water rushed passed, soaking the man to his waist while completely leveling his composition. With his attention focused elsewhere, he had forgotten about the tide — not that he could have stopped it — and now his work was as evident as if he’d never stepped foot on the beach at all. There was nothing left.
I thought about the man at Poipu Beach just as the pilot announced our approach into Portland International Airport. There seemed to be a parallel between his fruitless experience of building a sandcastle and that of athletes of all ages who fail to practice in between workouts. Unlike the answers Siri attempts to provide, becoming a good baseball player does not happen without time, effort, and sacrifice. Effective practice is monotonous and accompanied by an inordinate amount of failure. Often the process can feel like you’re simply digging a hole in the sand. However, over time things start to click, concepts begin to make sense, the mind and body begin to execute correctly, and the “sandcastle” begins to take shape.
Time is the tide that all players have in common: the same number of days, hours, and minutes. How that time is spent determines how much of our sandcastle remains from week to week. A player who practices on his own tends to preserve much of what he learned, enabling him to progress faster over time. On the other hand, players who work hard only under the weekly supervision of an instructor return to find their previous work ruined, like a sandcastle that was flattened by a sea-foamed wave.
Unfortunately, Siri cannot send a Little Leaguer to Cooperstown; immediate gratification no more resides in a Major League clubhouse than it does on the stage of Carnegie Hall or on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The top tier of any vocation has been blessed with the right genetics; it benefits from both timing and luck; and it possesses skills developed through commitment and hard work over a very long period of time. There are, as they say, no shortcuts.
Like the Hawaiian tide, the passing of time is inevitable. I see most of my athletes weekly and can tell when they’ve been practicing. Those who have put in some time usually return to find their sandcastles mostly intact, which enables our teaching and learning to move forward. On the other hand, the athlete whose bat never leaves his parent’s trunk is always starting over because his failure to practice negates retention — a rat on a wheel that never makes progress. This is horribly inefficient, not to mention expensive when private instructors are involved.
Often, the most dominant player on a youth field is the one who is the most physically mature: the success he enjoys is due simply to the fact that he’s bigger, stronger, and faster than his pre-teen peers. I was never that guy, and frustration with my own relatively small stature as a boy had to be assuaged by my mother who would tell me, “Dynamite comes in small packages.” What I lacked in size and strength I made up for with a love and passion for the game that enabled me to study it from a young age, and enough patience to keep playing while my body grew. I never did become physically imposing — 5’-10” and 165 pounds on the day of my high school graduation — but I developed a work ethic that few of my teammates could match. I was the only high school player I knew, for example, who hung a canvas tarp from the garage door rails everyday in the middle of winter just so I could hit balls off a tee. By that time, many of the Little League stars I remembered were no longer playing baseball, having developed other interests or because they had simply peaked early.
The number of balls Major League stars like Carlos Beltran, Mike Trout, and Robinson Cano have each hit off tees in their lives is staggering — probably well north of a million, and mostly on their own time. They continue to do so at the height of their careers in order to stay sharp and to groove the swing that affords them success. The game’s greatest players are not lazy and do not set aside their work for a week at a time. Make no mistake: the tide is coming in on them, too. But by the time the waves crash against their sandy foundations, the castles they’ve built may be tall enough to stay above the surf, where they can be remembered and admired for a few more years.
© Chris Sperry, Baseball/Life, LLC