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Why A Little League Pitch Became a Major League Morality Tale
Public graciousness feels important when we see so little of it
Life is mostly froth and bubble, Two things stand like stone, Kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own. -- from Adam Lindsay Gordon’s “Ye Wearie Wayfarer”
You won’t often catch me boasting about my athletic prowess in these pages. Partly, because I don’t like to brag. Mostly, because I was a lousy athlete. A sports fiend as a kid, I periodically went to small parochial schools where not playing was an option the way not shoving off for Ukraine is an option for conscripted Russian infantrymen. (“The Donbas, or the gulag – your choice.”) So both in school and on the sandlots – kids still used to go outside for fun back then - I played plenty of sports. Or played at them, more accurately. During neighborhood football games, I showcased the end-zone dance of then-popular Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. Though I had to practice it on my own time, since I didn’t find myself in the end zone often.
As a hoops player, I had cagey low-post moves. I could fake opponents out of their Adidases (Adidi?). The only problem being I had the height of a point guard, along with a nine-inch vertical leap and suspect ball-handling skills. (“Please don’t put the ball on the floor,” a teammate once admonished, “it makes me nervous.”) So I had no business in the low post. Even as a defender was falling back to earth after one of my trademark head fakes, he had time to double-knot his shoes, fix a light snack, and still swat my shot into the bleachers.
I ran track for several years, and for a time, was fast enough to collect a fair number of blue ribbons as a sprinter. Until about ninth grade, when everyone else kept getting faster, and my legs seemed to stage a work slowdown. It became more like walking track, so I hung up my spikes, feeling it best to go out while on bottom. One year, at my tiny San Antonio school, I won runner-up athlete of the year. But my entire high school consisted of about 40 kids, only half of them male. And I might have had someone tamper with the ballots. I’m not at liberty to say until certain statutes of limitations have expired and/or Ken Paxton steps down as Texas Attorney General. He hates criminals with his whole heart, probably because we tend to despise in others what resides in ourselves.
All of this is a (very) long jaunt around the barn in order to say that somewhere along the way, sports lost their luster for me. I used to sneak out of church to listen to Dallas Cowboys games on the AM radio of our maroon Cutlass, keeping scratch-pad stats on the number of receptions by my favorite player, Drew Pearson. But soon enough, I discovered girls, and current events, and other literary offerings besides the bad jock bios that I subsisted on throughout childhood - the kind of books written for people who’d rather be watching television.
Eventually, I skipped regular seasons, and was down to catching playoffs. And then, not even those. I still like to talk sports with the guys if I find myself at a local watering hole, in the interest of fitting in. But when I get puzzled looks after asking how many saves Goose Gossage has this year, I get the feeling time’s passed me by. I took with me plenty of valuable life lessons from my years of sports fandom and participation – don’t drive to your left if you don’t have to, bananas prevent cramping, always wear a cup – but whatever wisdom was to be gleaned had pretty much been done by about 1992.
But this week, a sports story caught my attention for the first time in ages. And not just mine, but the nation’s. In the Southwest Regional final of the Little League World Series being played in Waco, TX, Texas East pitcher Kaiden “Bubs” Shelton lost control of an 0-2 pitch, beaning Tulsa’s Isaiah Jarvis in the head, knocking Jarvis to the ground, sending his batting helmet flying, and nearly taking off his mullet.
In my own unstoried Little League career, I used to take beanballs all the time. Not because I was getting thrown at, but because I’d dive in front of pitches. As a crappy hitter, it was my best shot at getting on base. It was a low-risk exercise, most of my amateurish pitchers throwing about 30 mph. Just take a ding in the back or arm, I reasoned, and off I’d go. It was like enduring a penicillin shot for strep throat. Not pleasant, but bearable. But Shelton, as a more accomplished pitcher, was bringing some high heat right to Jarvis’s dome.
After a few heart-stopping moments where coaches tended to Jarvis, he rose from the dirt, shook off the cobwebs while sporting a small bruise on his face, and proceeded to first base. But the pitcher, Shelton, broke down on the mound, rattled at how badly he could’ve hurt Jarvis. Seeing how upset his opponent was, Jarvis called time, meandered out to the mound, embraced Shelton, and told him, “Hey, you’re doing great. Let’s go.” The crowd rose to its feet in applause. Damp eyes abounded. It was a pure moment of compassion and graciousness. Not the kind of stagey do-goodery people commit when calculating how it will later play on Instagram, in the hopes of going viral. Jarvis, who’d just been hurt himself, saw someone suffering, and tried to alleviate it. It was a beautiful moment.
The kids, of course, did go viral. They seemed to have appeared everywhere since – from CNN to the Today Show. While this just happened two days ago, as of this writing, the story has warranted 175 Nexis mentions. News anchor after news anchor closed their shows with it. The very people who seem to spend 95 percent of their lives amping us up with fear and paranoia, distrust and anger, took a moment to bask in the glorious humanity of this little episode.
I know the feeling. I did too. I wasn’t just moved by Jarvis’s act of generosity, but by Shelton’s breaking down over the damage his errant pitch could’ve caused. As a manly man, I generally discourage public displays of tears. I tend to limit mine to funerals and Celine Dion concerts. And yet, watching someone feel genuinely remorseful for what they did, even if it was only a mistake, was strangely refreshing.
We are unaccustomed to that – we have become unaccustomed to all of this – because public life is no longer populated by people committing quiet acts of heroism and gallantry and graciousness. We have instead become acclimated to boorish jackasses stoking grievance, claiming victimhood, and pinning the blame on others when they should be assuming blame themselves. No names - it would take too much space to list them.
That is why, I think, what would’ve been a throwaway feel-good little league story a few decades ago, feels like a major morality play now. When a CNN anchor asked Isaiah Jarvis what was going through his mind as events unfolded, he said he’d been talking to his first-base coach a little, then he noticed Bubs getting emotional, because he’d hit him with a head-shot. Isaiah added: “But you know, I wanted to go over there and spread God’s love and, you know, make sure that he’s okay, and make sure that he knows I’m okay, and that I’ll be okay.”
God bless those boys. They call to mind a verse from the book that bears Isaiah’s name. Specifically Isaiah 11:6.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
Though maybe we shouldn’t just be proud of those kids, but shamed by them.
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Bonus Track: A good baseball song. Joe Cocker’s “A Woman Loves A Man.” It’s not a baseball song, technically speaking. But it was the lead-off on the soundtrack to Bull Durham, one of the great baseball films of all-time. I bought it when the Kevin Costner/Susan Sarandon movie came out. The film was released on my birthday, in the year of my high-school graduation: June 15, 1988. And so it has me remembering all manner of things that are as long-gone as good sportsmanship: cassette tapes, music videos on MTV, sax solos in the middle of songs, Joe Cocker himself, my wasted youth, etc.
Bonus Podcast: Speaking of Bull Durham, if you’re into that sort of thing, check out my old friend Sonny Bunch’s “The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood” podcast on the subject. Sonny and I go way back. I first met him twenty years ago when he was a fresh-faced intern at the Weekly Standard, where he used to feed me grapes at my desk and shout out words of encouragement as I was banging out hot longform copy. (Not really– he only fed me grapes. I never wrote in the office. I’m not a philistine.) And now look at the bastard. Over the last two decades, he’s become the best film writer in America, even if he sometimes has suspect taste in movies. (Sonny, sadly, has a much higher tolerance for cape’n’codpiece dross than I do.) But I bring him up to say that last month, Sonny put out a captivating, delightful episode with Ron Shelton, the writer-director of Bull Durham, as Shelton was promoting his new book on the subject, The Church of Baseball. I generally don’t have much use for podcasts, as I stipulated here. But you should listen to Sonny, both on his Bulwark podcast(s) (in the near future, everyone will have five podcasts apiece), and when he does the Sub-Beacon with my other legendary homeyz, Vic Matus and Jonathan V. Last. As a trio, they have the best chemistry I’ve ever heard. Or at least a close second best, next to those Mandrell sisters.