Stop Swinging for the Fence

Perhaps it is that time of the year for stories which involve baseball cliches. That is one possibility for the subject of this week's visit with you. Maybe it is just that I am seeing things in the world around me that bother me. Either way, it seems to me that a new trend is developing which has the potential to cause great harm to our fire service. I am continually encountering people who seem unwilling to be team players.

Far too many people are choosing to swing away, when the coach says bunt. These folks want to whack the ball out of the ballpark. They want to grab the headlines. They care very little for the other players on the team. These are the people for whom the concepts of team, teamwork, and teammates have little or no meaning. Trust me. I have met a bunch of them through the many years I have spent in the fire service, but the trend seems to be getting worse.

Let us return to the days of yesteryear for a look at some of my happy (?) sports memories. Back in the faraway days of my youth it was my good fortune to dabble in the world of little league baseball. I was not a good player. Perhaps on my best day I was able to claim the title of "mediocre" team member. Believe me when I say that I was never a threat to anyone on the base pads of the Freehold, New Jersey Little League.

However, it was my good fortune to have coaches who cared about the chubby kid from over by the Nescafe coffee plant on Jerseyville Avenue. I guess they knew that it was never going to be my lot to head for the major leagues. They were kind to an athletic underachiever.

Nonetheless they applied a great deal of diligence to arming me with enough of the basic skills to keep me from publicly embarrassing myself. I can still remember a number of their gems of wisdom:

  • Keep your eyes open
  • Just meet the ball
  • Do not swing for the fence
  • Always run it out on a pop fly
  • Hang in at home plate
  • Make them pitch to you

As you might imagine, my career as a baseball player was short and undistinguished. I was a catcher for some of the time, a first baseman for some of the time, and a bench-rider for the rest of the time. My real success finally came in high school, when I was allowed to be a part of the football teams. Ah, but that is a story for another time.

All of these things were just one part of growing up in the Freehold, New Jersey of the late 1950's and early 1960's. I believe that each of you can understand where I am coming from here. It is with a great deal of certainty that I see my experiences in New Jersey as being mirrored by many of your experiences in your hometowns around America.

Perhaps your coaches shared the same gems of wisdom with you. In any event, what we are as members of today's American fire service is an amalgamation of all of the experiences we have seen, felt, and shared during our lives.

Let me examine each of the pieces of baseball wisdom to see if there is a certain commonality to them. Perhaps there is value in reviewing these messages to see if they still apply to our actions as members of the fire service in today's world. I have a hunch that they do.

The first gem of wisdom came from the people who were struggling to teach me to be a catcher. It seems that they noted within me a certain propensity to flinch when the batter swung at the ball as it crossed the plate. After studying me for awhile, one of the coaches noted that I was closing my eyes as the ball approached my glove.

His advice was simple indeed. "Keep your eyes open," became his hue and cry for me. That was a hard summer for both of us. However, by the end of the season, I was catching much better. My mind wants me to say to you that this was perhaps the first time in my life that I had to face and conquer fear.

The fear of being whacked by the bat was great. However, every catcher who has ever played the game conquered this fear. So hanging in there was not really all that big of a deal. I would love to say it was all success, but I can't. I was never more than a mediocre catcher.

Things got a bit better when the switched me to the first base position. However, if you failed to keep your eyes open, the results were usually a bit more spectacular and obvious. If the ball got away, the runner advanced, and I looked like a big goof. However, I learned to keep my eyes open and limit the gaffes.

The next two pieces of advice usually came together, or in multiples of together. They would usually come shortly after I had expended massive amounts of energy to swat at the air and miss the ball. The coach could be heard yelling at me to keep my eye on the ball, just meet it, and don't try to kill it. All good pieces of advice I am sure, but which to do first? That was always the question.

So I decided to break this equation down into its parts so that I could search for the sense of it all. OK, you have to see the ball before you can ever hope to hit it. That makes sense. Then if that is the case, how can you ever hope to hit it if your bat does not come together smoothly with Mr. Ball. That makes sense too.

However, if both of these work, why can't I just whack the ball out of the park? It does not work that way my friends. It just doesn't. The hitting of a homerun is the culmination of a series of sequential physical actions, all of which must be performed correctly. So it then follows that you cannot hit that home run if your eyes are not on the ball and you fail to meet the ball in the right way.

You need also to understand the differences in the abilities and capabilities of the individual members of your team. It is up to the coach to put the team together in such a way that each person's strengths are magnified and their weaknesses downplayed. That is a difficult task.

You will become a better team player if you can understand the ways in which the coach is blending your talents with those of your teammates. Be realistic. Not everyone will be the homerun slugger. Not everyone will be the fleet-footed base-runner. The good team player knows when to take the signs from the coach and do their duty.

Someone will need to hit the singles and get on base so that they can be brought home by the efforts of their teammates. These are the folks who will need to keep their eyes on the ball, meet the ball, and not swing for the fence. The coach will create the team from the talent they are given. It is the wise coach who studies the strengths and weaknesses of each player and uses them to their best advantage.

I have often found it useful to recall the coach's advice to hang in there at home plate. There were times when I thought the pitcher was trying to knock my block off. There were times when the pitcher dusted me off and forced me away from the plate. Many times it took a great deal of resolve to step back in the batter's box to face the next pitch.

That was a life lesson if ever there was one. It goes along with the next bit of advice to always run down under the pop flies. Never believe that the person chasing your pop fly will always catch it. You are never out until you are out. I can recall a number of times when this advice came in handy at a fire.

There is a lot more to the fire service than the fireground. I can recall working on staff projects which looked like they would never come to an end. Many times they looked like they stood no chance of approval or success. However, I kept running. I kept pushing. I kept trying. You know what? Sometimes my work was accepted. You just never know. You need to keep running.

The hardest piece of advice was the last one which says that you need to make them pitch to you. This requires a great deal of effort on your part. It requires that you know your individual strengths and weaknesses. Rather than the coach telling you to do something, you have to assess your own abilities and make the decisions as to how to proceed all by yourself.

Those of us who believe in the fire service eventually reach this point, or at least I hope you do. You become a trusted, thinking veteran. Think back my friends. As you advanced from rookie to veteran, your ability to perform increased based upon your ability, education, training, and experience. You gained the confidence to move from follower to leader.

Remember how you hung on to the Captain's coat at your first real fire. You were new and had no idea of what to expect, so you stuck to the boss like glue. Is it different now? I would hope so. Are there rookies hanging on to your coat for guidance and support? If there are, be sure to be there for them.

Then again there are those members of the fire service who have been around for a long time and still have no idea about what a team is or what their role on the team is supposed to be. I wrote a column not too long ago about the twenty-minute wonder who seemingly know it all.

They start swinging for the fence before they even know where the dugout is. There are also older team members who never got the word on their true role. These are the people who never did find their way to the dugout. These are the people who have ten to twenty years on their fire department who never made the team.

Oh, they are still around, but they never got to the point where they understood their role. These are the people who swing for the fence because they never learned to do what they were told. These people need as much of your attention as do the twenty-minute wonders. Your skills as a coach can make or break the team.

I am hoping that each of you is working to find your place on the team. It is my hope that you have a coach who is attuned to the needs for creating a team that uses each player to their best abilities. If this is the case I am pleased and happy for you.

If your coach is not all that good, stay in the game and be careful. Work and study hard for the day when you get to be the coach. When you do, remember that it is all about the team and not about you. Only swing for the fence when you get the right sign. Stay safe my friends.

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