Bottom of the 9th - Something You Cannot Be Taught
Something That Can't Be Taught By Matt Patston Valor Baseball Alumnus
I'm now two whole years removed from my playing career. When I think about this, from an intellectual standpoint, I know that two years might has well have been a decades”since leaving Valor in 2012, I've grown up (at least in some capacity). For four years in high school, I built memories and experiences that I shared with the same group of people. Since then, I've had to experience things on my own, or at least without the support group I'd came of age in. I suppose this is a necessary part of growing up - but my heart still constantly stretches back, affectionately and reverently, to the four years I spent playing Valor Baseball. After being removed from the program, certain immaterial ideas have had time to ripen, and I've found that my memories of playing now interact with my life in such a way that I can now verbalize concepts that I could only feel when I was playing - previously ineffable things, one of the many discreet things that make up the silent poetry of baseball. One of these things - and trust me, there are many I could write on - is the love you feel on the baseball field.
Coach Wahl gave me the opportunity to speak to the Varsity team at the 2014 team banquet, which unfortunately fell only a few days after we were scratched from the state playoffs. Sometimes life isn't fair. This year's varsity class will be the last group that I actually played on the same team with, and from here on out, every team will have a story and a brotherhood that is not mine, which is tremendously exciting for me. The following is adapted from that speech, more or less:
I'm a little bummed, since when Wahl asked me to do this, I was hoping to give a rousing, theatrical "go get 'em" type speech before the championship games this weekend, like they do in sports movies and such. Mostly I think I wanted to do this for my own ego's sake, so I could feel that I have some part in such an amazing team. Unfortunately, as we've all experienced, baseball is a very humbling game. That just wasn't part of the plan this year.
But I am happy, and very honored that I get to talk tonight, and I'd like to start by saying how proud I am of all of you. Having seen you all from the time you were incoming freshmen, which for some of you wasn't so long ago, I think that this group of guys, through their talent and dedication, really set a new standard of excellence for Valor baseball, and every group that comes after you has a higher reputation to live up to. I honestly mean that, and nobody can take that away from you.
I don't know how much consolation that is. I know how much the end of the year hurts, and I know how much the end of your high school playing career hurts, because I've been there. I've cried into my teammate's sleeve after shaking hands, and I can clearly remember the last van ride that I took in my uniform. I don't mean to say any of this to elicit sympathy or pity, and I certainly don't mean to say that my experience can, in any way, speak for somebody else, especially you guys. I only say this because I think the only person who can really empathize with one Valor baseball player is another Valor baseball player: Everybody who's ever put on that uniform, I think, shares something that nobody else can really imagine.
I didn't really realize this until I was done playing here, and I went off to college. I go to the University of Missouri, and those of you who have seen me play can attest to the fact that I do not possess "college level abilities" on the diamond. God blessed me with many things, but athleticism and an explosive fastball are not among those blessings. Still, after I graduated, I realized that I'd been playing baseball since I was four or five, and I couldn't imagine life without baseball. Thinking I could somehow replicate everything that I loved I joined a club team at Mizzou. It was one of the very first things I did on campus.
I was all excited and happy to be playing again and looking forward to getting out and working hard and having fun, etc. etc., and I mostly was really looking forward to playing well and winning, because I really love winning. I especially love when I win, and when I do well. It's great. Such a rush.
Unfortunately, early on in that first semester, I began to experience something that I hadn't felt on a baseball field before, and that was that I absolutely hated playing baseball. I was lethargic and angry, and I didn't really feel any connection with my teammates and by the time the club season came to a close, I really resented every moment I spent on the diamond. Every time I stepped on the field, I felt so despairingly alone that I could barely stand to put my cleats on. I was playing for myself, for the protection of my own pride, to hide from my own reality, and the result was a terrible distortion of the beautiful game that I've loved since I was a child. This was a really terrifying feeling for me - I'd always been able to use baseball as an escape, and I'd spent so long finding joy and solace in the game, and there was none left. And it took me a really long time to figure out why I felt this way.
I think it really crystallized for me at the end of last season, a couple days after we, with we meaning Valor, had lost on the final day of state playoffs for the second time in program history. And a couple days later, I was talking to my former teammate and current best friend Matt Fontneau, who pitched that last game of the year. He was understandably distraught about everything being over. Even Fontneau, a talented pitcher who was going off to play college baseball, was absolutely devastated by the end of his high school career. So me, in my confused and half-hearted attempt to comfort him, said something along the lines of "dude, trust me, someday this isn't going to matter."
It quickly became clear to me that I had said just about the worst thing you could possibly say to a ballplayer who had just lost an important game, and Fontneau yelled at me (deservedly so), and I was left reflecting on how stupid that was to say - because of course it matters! My last game meant the world to me, and it still does, and I believe I'll hold on to the memory of my last game forever. But after thinking about it a little bit, I think I've figured out what I was really trying to say to my friend.
When I think back on my time I spent here, I don't spend a lot of time dwelling about how many earned runs I gave up, or whether or not I should have thrown this pitch in this count to this hitter instead of this other pitch. I don't really think about the fact that my senior year, after I had been called to take command and be a leader of a talented varsity team, we were barely above 500. And I don't really think about how we didn't win a state championship my junior year, even though we were absolutely the best team out there and probably deserved it. All of that stuff, which I thought was pretty much my sole reason for existing in high school, seems so insignificant when compared to the people I spent my time with here - and how I talked to them, how they talked to me, and all the people that poured so much of themselves into my life as a young man.
I tend to be a pretty rambling speaker, but if you boys take one thing away from me, in all the years I've known you, I think it should be this: at some point down the line, whether it's right now or it's in thirty years, you're going to come face to face with an indisputable truth: You'll realize that the most important thing you ever did on a baseball field has absolutely nothing to do with the game itself. It has nothing to do with your performance - not your average, your RBIs, your ERA, not even your Q percentage, and it doesn't have anything to do with whether or not you got to win a state championship. Eventually, a couple generations from now, all that a state championship will mean is that Valor's name is written in really small font in some record book, next to a few numbers. That's all it will be. Winning is not the most significant thing you'll do on a baseball field.
The most significant thing you'll do has to do with the people around you. In our special case, it's the people we've accepted as brothers. The most important thing you can ever do is impact the hearts and minds of the men that you spent seemingly every moment with, sweating and crying and laughing together, getting yelled at together, winning and losing together and putting eye black on each other's faces and playing road trip games in the van - the most important thing you can do is love. Because eventually, we'll all grow up. We'll all come to the age where it's our turn to teach something to the next generation, and what we teach will be a direct result of what we've learned.
Since graduating, I've gotten the opportunity to coach, and as I coached I've learned that we can teach players a lot. We can teach you mechanics, we can teach you attitude and approach and competitiveness, etc., but we absolutely cannot coach somebody into loving. Love is something you can't be taught - the only way you learn love is when it is shown to you by somebody who has no obligation to do so. You learn how to play the game from your coaches, but the most important thing, that I now realize, is that you learn to love from your teammates.
So again, I would like to congratulate you guys - not on a successful season, not on the basis of your talent as ballplayers, but because I know that each and every one of you has been forever changed by your shared experience this season. And seeing you guys play the game and seeing you sit here tonight makes me proud of who you are and the strength of the brotherhood you've created. And I would encourage you to not ever forget that, no matter where you go.
"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." John 13:15
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