Baseball as Life Lessons
The game of baseball sells itself far too short. It presents more real-life life lessons than any other major sport.
I started to realize this when I changed careers in 2010, to sell wine wholesale. I love the profession, but it involves failure and rejection. A lot of failure and rejection. For every four appointments I’m able to schedule in a day, I will also get at least eight invitations declined or ignored. If I show six wines in an appointment, it is a huge success if simply four are rejected. A .333 success rate.
In most lines of work, failing two-thirds of the time would get you fired. In baseball, though, succeeding only one-third of the time at the plate puts you among the greatest Hall of Famers. There have been only 24 players who have a career batting average of .333 or higher. Just looking at individual seasons, during the 2010s, among qualifying league leaders, no more than four players ever batted .333 or higher in a season. Indeed, in the 2019 season, of the 984 players who made any plate appearance, there were only 37 players who managed to bat .333, even if that meant one hit in three at-bats.
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Hence, the first of six life lessons from baseball….
1. Life is full of failure, so focus on process, not results.
This, of course, doesn’t mean ignore matrices of performance. It means in your daily challenges focus on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Practice your swing. Work on your throwing. Pay attention to the details of your work. Study. If you get caught up in the results (i.e. your 67% failure rate), you will become discouraged. By focusing on what you can control…your process…you will keep a positive state of mind, which will give you more endurance to make it through another day.
There are, of course, many professions that can not tolerate a .333 success rate. No basketball player or quarterbacks would have a career with that rate of shooting or passing. More importantly, doctors and pilots can certainly not have a .333 success rates. But doctors…like most professions…must pitch for new business. Pilots must apply for jobs and promotions. We all look for friends and significant others. In those activities and interactions, where success is much less assured, they too must focus on the process and not the results.
2. The spotlight can fall upon you at any moment, be ready.
In other sports…football, basketball, hockey, soccer…when the game is on the line, the best player on a team will most likely get an opportunity to win the game. Not so in baseball. Anyone and everyone gets a chance to be hero. You can’t control where the ball will be hit. You can’t control who comes to bat with the game on the line. You never know when your stuff will be epic. That’s why a .243 hitter becomes part of Yankee lore (Bucky Dent, 1978) or a career 81–91 pitcher throws the most famous game in MLB history (Don Larson, 1956).
So always believe in yourself because your moment will come. In the meanwhile, focus on your process so you’ve honed your skills when history sets its eyes upon you. Dr Anthony Fauci has been the Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases since 1984. The spotlight fell upon him in his 36th year. He was ready.
3. Timing matters
In basketball, whether you shoot immediately after the first jump ball or with 10 seconds left in a game, you get the same amount of points. Same for football and hockey. Not so in baseball. Yes, a run is a run whether it’s the first inning or the ninth inning, but a hit is more valuable when runners are on base. Timing matters. If your team gets nine singles, one in each inning of the game, you may very well be shutout. Zero runs. On the other hand, if you line up all of those nine singles in the same inning, you will have scored at least six runs.
Thus, when life presents an opportunity, seize it. Like coming to bat with a teammate on second base. Be flexible in mind and spirit so you can adapt your plans and performance accordingly. To the outside observer, there may be more pressure in those moments, but because you focus on process you won’t notice any of it.
4. Life is a marathon, be level, be patient and pace yourself
A Major League Baseball regular season is 162 games long. The next most busy regular season comes no where close with the NBA’s 82 game season. Indeed, an MLB team plays more preseason games than an NFL team plays regular season games. Consequently, you will hit slumps and you will hit grooves. Don’t let your emotions whipsaw. Tamp down your elation when things go well and soften your despondence when things go poorly. You must mete out your energy and emotion in small, steady doses so you can play at your very best in game 162.
In life, thus, enjoy the good times but remain humble because you never know when things will turn (and they will). Don’t overreact or panic about the bad times. They were bound to happen. Take the bad times as a challenge to enhance or adapt your process, not as a condemnation of your process or you. Care enough for your body and your soul, not to mention those around you, so you can experience and savor the almost 30,000 days of your life (with an 80-year expectancy). While you want to be proactive to put yourself in position to excel, also be patient so as not to force a particular goal to the detriment of other aspects and opportunities of your life.
5. We are not that different; but little differences make a big difference
Over the course of a 162-game season, the winning percentage of the best and worst baseball teams will be much closer than that for basketball teams or football teams. For the 162-game. 2019 MLB season, there was a .368 difference between the top team (Astros with a .660 winning percentage) and the worst team (Tigers with a .292 winning percentage). For the 2018–19 NBA season (with 82 tames), there was a .525 difference: the Bucks were .732 and the Knicks were .207. For the 2019–20 NFL season (with 16 games), there was a .750 difference: the Ravens were .875 and the Bengals were .125.
The same is evident with percentage-based individual performance measures. In the 2019 MLB season, looking at players with at least 500 plate appearances, the very best hitter (Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox with a .335 batting average) was just .130 better than the worst hitter (Rougned Odor of the Texas Rangers with a .205 batting average. Looking at field goal percentages in the 2018–19 NBA season, there was a .299 difference between the best shooter (Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz, .669) and the worst shooter (Kevin Knox, New York Knicks, .370). You similarly find a wider margin in NFL quarterback completion percentages for the 2019–20 season: Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints with a .743 and Josh Allen with .588.
Consequently, understand that you are neither that much better than everyone else nor that much worse than everyone else. Superficial factors may tell you otherwise, but, in the end and over the long haul, most of us have fairly similar capabilities.
But there is another salient message here: small differences can make a huge difference. A .205 batter gets a year-to-year contracts. A .335 hitters gets the multi-year nine-figure contract.
6. There will be rain-outs
Unlike any of the other sports, baseball games can be called-off at any point because of rain. Sometimes they get rescheduled. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the game can simply end early. Sometimes the game can be resumed at a later date. Nature is an unpredictable wildcard. A team’s pitcher can waste a start. Or, for the rescheduled game, a different (perhaps worse) pitcher might have to pitch. It will not be fair.
Life will foist unpredictable obstacles upon you in life. There is simply nothing you can do about it other than make the best of the moment. Life is not fair. With focus on the process, you will not be deterred or distracted by life’s unpredictability.
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So turn that game on, grab your favorite spot on the couch, watch the game…and the perfect athletic metaphor for life.