Three years ago, my youngest son was chosen to be on the local Little League All Star team for 11 year olds.
Little League All Star selection can be a bit of a hornet’s nest. It never fails that there are kids who are left off the team that belong there and kids who make the team that probably shouldn’t have. But in the end, it’s 12 kids playing baseball, dreaming about winning a championship.
The kids know who belongs there. They’re pretty wise that way. They look around the infield on that first day of practice and mentally review the resumes of the players to their right and left. “Alex is a home run hitter,” he might think to himself. “He had 7 home runs this year” or “Nate has a mean fastball. He’s going to win us games with his arm.” As each player stands shoulder to shoulder with his new teammate, his individual talent is measured and compared to the other 11 guys who stand beside him. A pecking order is established. There are the “big guns” and then there are the “other guys” and it’s the big guns that you want at the plate when the game’s on the line because those are the guys who win games for you.
And sometimes they do.
But baseball is a team sport and a pitcher is only as good as the fielders who play behind him and a batter can only drive in a run if the other guys on the team get on base in front of him. In baseball it is the team that competes, not the individual athlete. There is no one player who is more important than the whole. Teams win together and they lose, together.
The All Star season starts in early July, sometime around the 4th of July weekend. It’s played as a tournament. Teams are eliminated after their second loss. Once they lose once, they head into a “loser’s bracket” and have to keep winning to stay alive. In the end, only one team survives.
My son’s team lost their very first game that year. It was a disappointing loss, but not entirely unexpected. Historically, the teams from their league had never done particularly well. The boys took it in stride and came out the next day ready to play again.
They won that day and surprisingly, the next day too. And again and again until they met the team they had played to begin with. The team they had lost to. The team that was favored to win the whole thing. The team with the biggest and brightest and most talked about players in town. And they beat them too.
What was amazing about this experience was not that they had won. There were, after all, some really good players on that team. Rather, it was HOW they had won. It wasn’t the “big guns” who had carried them. Sure, they had made their impact. They had pitched and hit and fielded just as everyone had expected them too.
But it was the “little guys” who surprised me. The guys off the bench. The kid who went in as a substitution. The coach’s afterthought. The kid who often got just an inning or two of play. It was those kids that made the impact. The kid that blooped the ball over the third baseman’s head, or who stole second on a passed ball or lay down a sacrafice bunt to score the lead runner. They weren’t the biggest or the strongest or the fastest. They weren’t the go-to kids on the top of the coaches rolodex. These were the kids who would do whatever their coach asked of them. And don’t think for a moment that they other players didn’t notice. They did.
They won that first series and the next one too. When the last out was recorded, the kids rushed onto the field and there, right in front of family and friends, they jumped into each other’s arms and collapsed in ecstasy right there on the dirt of the pitcher’s mound. There was no more pecking order, no player who was more important than the other. By the end of that series something amazing had happened. That group of 12 boys had become a team.
That unlikely team of 11 year olds made it all the way to the semi-finals of the regional state championship that year. On the wall of my son’s bedroom hangs a memory box from that wonderful season. His jersey, medals and a souvenir bat all sit inside. But his favorite piece of memorabilia is the team photo that was taken after one of those amazing wins. It is a reminder to him of a magical moment in time and a lasting remembrance of what can happen when we belong to something that is bigger than ourself.
When the I becomes we.