'This kid's tryin' out for the team?" I heard someone snicker as I stepped up to the plate, baseball bat in hand, on a cool spring afternoon behind the high school. Yes, this kid. The freckle-faced trumpet player in the school band. The kid who was about as good at sports as the football team was at sewing. The jocks looked on, and I stepped up, never thinking that I might be in over my head. I'd show 'em.
I had never paid much attention to baseball, until the Boston Red Sox had their "impossible dream" year, 1967. They went from the cellar to the World Series in one heart-wrenching leap. Suddenly, I had dreams of playing on the high school team. In an untypical burst of confidence, I signed up for the tryouts.
Now I walked to the plate, and the coach asked me if I was ready. The field was filled with other baseball hopefuls, all tougher, bigger, and more athletic than I was. This was my moment. I had to show them. I gripped the bat. This is the part in the script where the small freckle-faced kid silences the giggling athletes by whacking the heck out of the ball and leaving everyone with his mouth open. Isn't that how it is in the movies? But that's not the way it was.
The coach served up about 12 beautiful pitches - fat ones, right down the middle of the plate - and I swung through every one. Couldn't even foul off one or two. Whiffed. More snickers.
It was a long walk home that day. I came in the house, and my dad was there. As a minister, it was not unusual for him to be home between office work and visiting people, but this time I sensed he had something on his mind.
"How did it go, son?" he asked.
"How did what go?" I replied. I had carefully not told anyone what I was doing that afternoon.
"Did you make the team?" His eyes were full of emotion, like someone who knows how it feels to fail, and they told me that he already knew the answer to his question.
"No," I said, as I turned my head away, "I was awful."
"I'm sorry, son." Long pause. "But you tried. That's important." It didn't feel important. "I'm very proud to call you my son," he continued. With those words my eyes filled up, and I turned my head away again.
"Ah, by the way," he added, "I was downtown and bought you something you need." He handed me a paper bag. Inside were brightly colored guitar picks and a songbook of new Beatles tunes. "You know, you can play guitar better than all those baseball jocks at school put together. You're very talented." Then he smiled, "And girls like that, you know."
He was right. I was a good guitar player. And the girls liked it. Years later, it helped me snag my wife.
And he was right about something else. When we attempt things in life in spite of our fear, we win, regardless of the outcome. We become a little stronger, we walk a little taller, and we learn about our gifts. The freckle-faced trumpet player was a lousy baseball player, but a terrific musician. Because I had faced down fear and snickers that afternoon behind the high school, the next day I stood a little straighter and appreciated the things I was good at a little more.
Somehow, my father had found out that I was trying out for the team. I guess he knew I didn't have a chance. He knew, and he waited to offer me love and encouragement. I don't know how he knew, but I don't think about that now. I mostly remember how important it is to dream and to dare, and to have someone who will pick you up when you fall. Like my father, who was there for me.