My wife and I went to a minor league baseball game a few weeks ago. Baseball is not my favorite sport, but it was a beautiful night, we had great seats, and the price was reasonable.
We've had several players from our community get drafted and then play in the minors. They tell me it is not quite like Bull Durham, but it is not glamorous. You play before small crowds, against better players than you have ever faced, and there is pressure to perform. The minors, especially at the Single-A level, are up or out.
It was the third inning when the catcher from the opposing team came up to bat. Though the stadium in Columbia holds just a few thousand, they have a million-dollar scoreboard displaying all the players' stats. I don't understand all the baseball stats, but I know batting average and on-base average. This guy had a batting average of .077 and an on-base average of .078. Even I know that's not good. If you are below .100, it means you just joined the team and haven't had many at-bats, or the organization values you for your position skills, or you will be soon riding the bus home.
A couple of rows behind me was a man who was on his fifth or sixth beer. When the catcher's stats flashed up on the scoreboard, he hollered, "Swing at everything, buddy! You're due." I don't think he was encouraging him. The catcher swung at the first pitch. Strike one.
He looked the second pitch straight in. Strike two. He swung on the third pitch. Strike three.
He trotted back to the dugout and quickly began to put his catcher gear back on. Other guys just have to get their gloves to go back on the field. The catcher has to put on a whole suit of protective gear.
The catcher did make some great throws when someone tried to steal second base, and he tagged a guy out at home. But a couple of innings later, he was back up to bat. They flashed his statistics back up on the board, and the computer had already updated his batting average. He was down to .074.
The guy two rows behind me was now on his eighth beer. I made a mental note to get out of the parking lot before him. I can't write what he said next, because this is a family newspaper. He cast doubt on the catcher's parents, compared his hitting to chicken litter and shared with everyone he was a loser. We were close enough to home plate - I am sure the catcher heard every word.
The count went to 3-1, then the catcher connected to the fifth pitch. Though he was playing for the away team, by this time, I was on his side. I cheered as the ball soared toward the outfield. Maybe, maybe, it would clear the fence. No such luck. The ball began to fall right on top of the centerfielder, who caught it easily. No hits for the catcher on this night.
I could not help wondering what this would mean for the catcher. Would his baseball dreams be ending soon? Would they give him more time? Would he sleep tonight or berate himself over his dismal performance at the plate?
The Columbia team rallied back to within one run before finally losing. The visiting team celebrated their win with high fives.
Then I saw the kids.
About a dozen kids with baseballs lined up by the dugout, hoping for an autograph. Most of the kids were too young to know about minor leagues versus major leagues. They wanted an autographed baseball from a real pro player.
A few of the players scribbled an autograph, then headed for the clubhouse. Then I saw the catcher. Kids were thrusting baseballs at him left and right. He was signing them as fast as he could go. Finally, all the players had left, but the catcher was still there, signing for every kid who presented a ball. When all the kids were gone, only then did the catcher head in.
I thought about those baseballs. In a few years, those kids may wonder who the player was that signed it. Some might remember a night of baseball with their families, but I thought most about the catcher. He made some great plays but had an awful night batting. Still, he stayed and signed autograph after autograph. I wondered if he enjoyed knowing someone thought he mattered no matter how bad he did at the plate. The kids might forget one day who he was, but I have a feeling he would always remember for one night that somebody thought he mattered.
When you fail, when the hecklers make fun of you, when you wonder if your luck will ever change, remember you matter to someone - your Heavenly Father. Instead of wanting your autograph, he puts his arm around you and says, "I want you to be my child." Don't listen to the heckler or that inner voice of doubt. Listen to your Heavenly Father's voice that tells you, "You matter to me."
The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at email@example.com.
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