‘Tis the season for baseball. And for taking a look at the baseball approach to writing.
It’s summer right now, so baseball games are the core of our household’s evening and sometimes afternoon entertainment. I’m not the committed fan my husband is, but I’m getting plenty of experience watching the game. Who could help but observe the similarities between the sport and the art of writing?
Even the best teams have bad days.
The first professional baseball games (salaried players) were part of Americana in 1869. That’s right. As a country, we’ve been watching pro ballgames for more than 150 years. No team formed then or since has even a ten-year record of perfect games–a steady stream of allowing no hits, nothing but strikes thrown by the pitchers, and nothing but homeruns by the offense. None. Not even a five-year perfect record. Or two.
Even the best teams have bad days.
The baseball approach to writing tells us even the best players strike out. Often.
Math and stats figure highly in baseball. The hottest hitters on a team are likely those who at best connect with the ball and reach base a third of the time or a little better. Think about that. The best, the pros, strike out or are called out almost two-thirds of the time when they step up to the plate. But they keep showing up because of that one third when they do have a positive impact on the outcome of the inning or the game. Their batting average may drop below the one-third mark (batting under .300) during the course of the season, or sneak above it for a stretch, but no player gives up because they don’t hit it out of the park every time at bat. That’s an impossible goal. Scouts and coaches can’t afford to measure by perfection. Neither can players.
Consider the baseball approach to writing. A moment’s distraction can change a game’s outcome.
The best ball players take great pains to fight off distractions. “My mind was somewhere else” doesn’t sit well with a baseball team or a coaching staff when an outfielder attempts to explain away not catching an easy pop-up. Only alert base runners will pull off stealing home when a passed ball escapes the opponent’s catcher. If a pitcher’s concentration drifts, so will his pitch, and it could cost the team the game.
Some players spend a disproportionate time on the bench.
The healthiest teams are those where even the bench sitters celebrate the victories. Whether they’re in the lineup for the day, benched because of an injury, or saved for a strategic moment in the game, all team members pay attention to the game, whoop and holler when another team member has success, and rallies with support in times of trouble. In the best writing communities, the same is true.
Good coaches sometimes send struggling players back to the minors.
A pitcher has lost his edge? A slugger is whiffing everything that comes across the plate? A shortstop is missing opportunities because of bad throws to the first baseman? It’s not fun, but returning to the minor leagues for a time to work on skills or work through a mental block is often exactly what’s needed. And the coach made the hard call with the goal of the player returning better than ever. For a writer, that might mean taking a few laps around books on the craft of writing, or setting aside the book project until the elements of a proposal are in better shape.
A baseball season is a long-haul proposition.
A team starts the season ten games behind. Loss after loss. Rejection after rejection. They can’t quit early in the 162-game season. They can’t quite mid- or late-season either. Even if they’re not winning, they’re showing up, building muscles, giving the fans something to cheer for, and fulfilling their commitment to the team. Isn’t it often the come-from-behind teams that make the playoffs more interesting? A single game–a single failure–a single or a string of losses may contribute to the team’s record, but doesn’t have to dictate the final outcome. As the 2015 Cubs if they should have turned in their uniforms or closed the franchise long before that ultimate win. The last time they’d won the pennant was 1908. What? They’d been waiting 107 YEARS to take home the top baseball award? That’s right. You’ve been waiting more than twenty years for a contract for your novel? Buckle up. And grab another box of Cracker Jacks.
The baseball approach to writing reminds us that great teams can’t all win the pennant race.
Baseball’s top honor can’t be split between two teams. Or six. That means great teams, or excellent writers, can’t all receive that honor. Not all can be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s love of the game that keeps players playing and spectators watching and writers writing.
The smaller stories within the larger story of a team is often the most fascinating.
Why does that stellar pitcher seem “off”? Oh. He has a newborn at home. Lack of sleep. What’s so newsworthy about that hitter’s home run? It’s his first day back following shoulder surgery. What made the crowd go wild? The walk-off homer wasn’t just the game winner. It came from the least likely batter on the team. What made that scene memorable? The opponent was the first to come to the injured player’s aid.
In writing, too, it’s sometimes the stories behind the stories that have the strongest impact. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, know that your faithfulness behind the scenes may be what earns you the highest honors you’ll experience, or what may speak even louder than the words you write.
Professionals are always perfecting their skills and adjusting their technique.
A pitching coach may visit the mound during the game to confer with the pitcher, and it’s often more than a pep talk or a “Buddy, get your act together.” The coach may have noticed a hitch in the pitcher’s normally smooth approach, or point out that the pitcher’s stance is a little wider than his norm, or that his release is a split-second sooner than what had been working so well. It’s not uncommon for that pitching coach’s words to have a dramatic influence on the rest of that inning.
The ball players who assume that as professionals they no longer need coaching or improvement or counsel or those who soon find themselves in the parking lot or seeking another career.
They say there’s no crying in baseball, so the baseball approach to writing may not be a perfect metaphor for what the writing life is like. But I hope this view of the common ground between the two will help your swing, your delivery, your average, and your attitude toward it.