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Lessons From Losers

Forget the Olympics and going for the gold. Books about baseball show kids why it’s OK—even good—not to win.

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Let’s all shut up about the Olympics and talk about baseball instead. Why? Because, in addition to the many reasons to think that the International Olympic Committee is vile, venal, and bad for the Jews, there’s this: The IOC decided to cut baseball from the 2012 Olympics. Granted, it’s a small sin compared to some previous ones, but baseball is a sport full of moral lessons it would behoove the IOC to ponder.

“There’s a pace to baseball that lends itself to thoughtfulness,” said Joshua Berkowitz, author of the new book Third Base for Life: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons, and Baseball. “People who love baseball are able to sit back and observe; they’re not constantly looking for the next great action. Baseball is history and literature; football is more like a video game. There’s such beauty to the game, with the the field and the grass and the greens.”

Berkowitz’s book is about what he learned by coaching the Rashi Rams, his son’s Jewish day-school team in Massachusetts, in a Cooperstown, N.Y., invitational tournament of the best grade-school players in the country. (Berkowitz still isn’t exactly sure how the Rams made it there. Cooperstown Dreams Park keeps a few slots open for parks-and-rec teams; he suspects his stirring letter about the Rams’ desire to be the first all-Jewish team to play Cooperstown had something to do with the kids receiving a berth. “I may have also made us sound like somewhat better players than we were,” he admitted to me.) In the book, the ragtag team of young misfits needs to learn basic skills and come together as a team. They’re like the Jewish Bad News Bears … only with more losing. Spoiler alert: The Rams finish 96th out of 96 teams.

But the losing is what makes the book worth reading. (Well, that and Berkowitz’s obvious love of his son, Gabe, the team’s third-baseman and sometime pitcher.) The writing in Third Base for Life is a little stilted and awkward, but like a scrappy minor-leaguer, the book’s got heart. And the stories Berkowitz shares are relevant to all parents. Most of Rashi Academy’s parents don’t want their children to go to Cooperstown. They worry that the kids’ self-esteem will be crushed. They worry about finding enough kosher food. They worry about public humiliation. They worry their kids will get injured. (One does, breaking a tooth. Twice. The same tooth.) Berkowitz himself has to shake off his own memories of Little League; at 12, after dominating the game on the junior level, he hit the older division and discovered he was nowhere near as good as he’d thought he was. So he quit.

For the Rams, though, not quitting brings huge rewards. Berkowitz and his charges celebrate the small stuff: One good catch. One blistering throw. One stolen base. One strikeout of one of the best players in the game. When Berkowitz sees that one morning the Rams have changed their warm-up partners—proof of increased cooperation and social flexibility—he commends them. Ultimately, sticking it out, even as the team loses 12-0 and 16-0 and worse, becomes its own achievement. The kids are able to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience without tying it to winning. They even forge bonds with kids who may never have talked to, let alone played with, Jews before. One Ram joins a neighboring bunk in celebratory head-shaving, shaking off visions of his overprotective mom’s freakout at seeing him come home bald.

Every parent should internalize the book’s message that risk is its own reward. If you never let your kid fail because you’re terrified of destroying his confidence, you’re going to fail in your own job of raising a self-reliant, resilient kid. Berkowitz, a doctor of internal medicine on the North Shore of Boston, told me: “I’m not a psychologist, but my everyday observation is that parents today live through and for their children more than older generations did. It’s hard for them to let kids live their lives. People are afraid to let their kids’ feelings be hurt, which leads to every kid getting a trophy and no one ever losing, and that means we’re doing more harm than good to our kids. We make it hard for them to learn the skills they need to succeed in the world, to bounce back when they’re knocked down. If you constantly shield them from falling they’ll never learn to get back up.”

Since Third Base for Life offers up good ethical teachings for parents (and IOC members), I started thinking about Jewish baseball books that offer similar lessons for kids. (To keep the list short, I’ll stick to books that are still in print and easy to find.) Berkowitz is a big fan of the Chaim Potok classic The Chosen (he’s read it three times), another story of unlikely friendships, different attitudes toward religion, and complex relationships between fathers and sons. Me, I’d choose The Brooklyn Nine: A Novel in Nine Innings by Alan Gratz. It was on my best Jewish children’s books of the year list in 2009, and it’s really stuck with me. It’s the history of baseball in America, or maybe the history of America in baseball, as told through multiple generations of one Brooklyn family. Most of the players are male, but there’s a terrific girl character (a 1920s math whiz-slash-bookie named Frankie). The novel shines in both characterization and plot; it touches on both the best and ugliest bits of American and sports history. (IOC, take note.) Every chapter could be a novel, but the book miraculously doesn’t feel too crammed. (For kids in grades 5-9.)

I also adored Curveball: The Year I Lost My Grip by Jordan Sonnenblick, published a couple of months ago to starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist. It’s the story of Peter Friedman, an 8th-grade star pitcher who destroys his elbow and has to figure out a new, nonathletic identity. He has to cope with starting high school, having a crush on a girl in his photography class, figuring out how to tell his best friend (the star catcher) that he’ll never pitch again, and dealing with the failing mental faculties of his beloved grandfather. Funny, honest, kind. I cried, dammit. (Grades 6-9.)

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Thank you! It’s refreshing to read a piece like yours. We have done our children a disservice by allowing them to believe that everyone is a winner, everyone makes the team, everyone is on the same playing field. This misguided philosophy is affecting an entire American generation as they leave the classroom and find out that life isn’t a recess soccer game.

philipmann says:

Just three words; losing sucks

JeffreyME says:

No. Losing is inevitable. Not playing sucks. And fantasy sports don’t count

breakerbaker says:

I have to say that I find the “every kid gets a trophy” complaint to be absolutely tedious. There’s nothing wrong with providing some reward to children for participating. Particularly in baseball, which such as it is, is built around inevitable failure and disappointment. For crying out loud, if you’re going to sign your kid up for a sport that’s going to be so brutally disappointing so much of the time, at least give them a shiny piece of plastic for seeing it through to the end.

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Lessons From Losers

Forget the Olympics and going for the gold. Books about baseball show kids why it’s OK—even good—not to win.