I should know better by now. I’ve encountered it in my own life (and in the lives of others) more times than I care to think about. I’ve thought (and written) about it – a lot! I’ve counseled others to avoid it or, if in its grasp, to distance themselves from it as quickly as possible. And yet, as the date for the publication of my book draws near, I can sense its presence yet again. It’s rearing its ugly head, creating apprehension, filling me with self-doubt, making me second guess my decision to put myself out there. I’m talking, of course, about fear and, more specifically, the fear of failure. That not-always-so-small voice inside that causes us to wonder: “What will happen if we’re rejected, if we fall flat on our face, if, despite our best efforts, we fail to hit our mark?” “What then?” Curiously, the debilitating power of that fear was made clear to me on, of all places, a youth league baseball field many years ago in an unforgettable series of events that ultimately became the cornerstone of my first book, The Bunt.
Every year, the coaches in our local league picked 15 all-stars to play in a countywide, end-of-the-year tournament. Not surprisingly, most of the boys came from the top two or three teams in the league. But one of them, the team’s smallest member, came from my team – a team that had lost its final 11 games and finished in last place. Still, he was the all-star coaches’ only unanimous selection – a very talented player who had led our team in hitting and fielding and had become known throughout the league for his fiercely competitive spirit, his constant hustle and his unique ability to bunt. No one who had seen that young boy play that year questioned his right to be an all-star – no one, that is, except the boy himself.
To this day, I’m not sure whether it was our team’s poor record, the unkind remarks made by a few of his more successful all-star teammates or simply his size, but from the minute the boy learned of his selection, he doubted whether he belonged on a team with the league’s best. When the day of the big game finally arrived, the boy’s sense of self-doubt and fear of failure was so great he could barely play. He struck out his first two times up and his fielding errors in the top of the 8th inning allowed the visiting team to tie the score. During the regular season, such “failures” would have fired the young boy up, made him all the more eager for one more chance to be a hero. That night, however, there was no fire, only fear and a quiet prayer that he wouldn’t get another chance to let his team down.
Things didn’t work out quite the way he had hoped. With two outs and the score still tied in the bottom of the eighth, the boy’s teammates loaded the bases! He was due up next. But, as he started out of the dugout, he froze, doubled over as if in pain, and tearfully told his coach he was “too sick to bat.” The opposing manager saw the mystery illness as a ploy to enable our team to skip over its weakest player. He protested, insisting that the umpire either force the boy to bat or declare him to be the third and final out. Soon, several of the coaches and parents had joined in the argument at home plate, and within minutes, the little boy, who had long since retreated back into the dugout, wanting only to be left alone, became the center of attention. Having no place else to hide, the little boy buried his face in his hands and cried.
I happened to be sitting with his dad in the bleachers that night. He leapt to his feet to run and attend to his son, but, at my urging, he sat back down and allowed me to try and handle the situation instead. I walked over, stuck my hand through the wire mesh fence and tapped the boy on the shoulder. I greeted his face, which was riddled with fear and anxiety, with a gentle and disarming smile. Sensing what was happening, I explained to the boy that he had a choice: he could either stay on the bench, in which case he was certain to be called out, ending his team’s rally, or he could step up to the plate and at least give himself and his team a chance to succeed. “Better yet,” I whispered, “you could deliver one of your famous bunts and really create some excitement around here!”
His eyes said it all as he returned my smile. Then, grabbing his helmet and bat and amid a thunderous round of applause, he silenced the ongoing debate at home plate by quietly taking his stance in the batter’s box. On the very first pitch, the boy stunned almost everyone in the park by laying down a near-perfect bunt! When the dust settled, the little boy was on first base, the pain in his stomach was gone, and what turned out to be the game-winning run had crossed home plate! The lessons the two of us learned that night were simple but no less powerful and are etched in my mind to this day.
First, the uncertainty and the magnitude of the challenges that all of us are asked to confront from time to time and the anxiety and fear of failure that they carry with them are real. What is not real, what is a lie, and yet what sometimes keeps us from being able to move forward, is the idea that we have to tackle all of these challenges at once – that (to borrow a baseball analogy) at every turn we need to step up to the plate and knock the challenge or the task at hand “out of the park.” However, the truth is that every journey, short or long, simple or complex, starts with the smallest of first steps (a bunt, if you will); and, lest any of us be concerned, there are many people standing behind us ready to pick us up if we should stumble or fall.
Second, if we aren’t willing to get off the bench and at least create an opportunity for success and self-fulfillment, we almost certainly, albeit paradoxically, will realize the very thing we fear the most: failure! In the case of our little all-star, had he not crossed the threshold of the dugout, stepped into that batter’s box and mustered the courage to square around to bunt, he would have been called out, and his team’s rally, indeed, the entire game, would have ended. As it was, he changed the game (and I suspect before all this is over the course of my life) by moving a baseball a total of six feet. Fortunately, as my own turn to “step up to the plate” draws near, the image of that young boy’s ear-to-ear grin as he stood triumphantly on first base is still as vivid in my mind today as it was that magical night 17 years ago.