“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from coming up to bat.” – Babe Ruth.

My heart dropped when Kevin turned to me in the office and said, “Oh you played baseball in high school? That’s perfect! You’ve got to come play.”

Kevin was one of the staff writers at the Chicago Reader, Chicago’s alternative weekly newspaper and the publication I interned at this summer. Kevin was also the captain of the staff softball team, part of a citywide softball “media league.”

I tried my best to look excited, forced a smile and said, “Sure, sounds fun!” but inside I was petrified. My stomach ached with nerves; my mind raced with worry; I couldn’t shake the feeling that getting back out on a baseball field would go horribly wrong.

It’s true, I did play baseball up through high school, starting from the age of six playing T-ball. As a young boy I fell in love with the game — partly because it’s the best game in the world, and partly because I was good at it. Baseball took up the majority of my identity as a kid. For a short time, I was somewhat of a local legend in my little Chicago Park District house league. Kids on other teams knew who I was and would make sure their teammates prepared themselves for when “that tall kid” would be pitching. I was a star.

All of that changed when I finally played at the high school level. Because most of the other kids were really good players, I wasn’t a hot shot anymore. Most of my teammates and opponents played on far more competitive travel leagues. The coaches were critical and if I wanted to keep playing I would have to impress them. I was humbled quickly and felt like I had to constantly prove myself; I had to earn the right to play the game I loved.

Baseball wasn’t just for fun anymore; there was constant pressure to prove myself. I didn’t want to lose that star quality from my middle school years, but now I ended up paying more attention to my performance than the experience of the game. I quickly assumed a mentality of self-doubt, a tactic that aimed to keep me constantly working harder. I was careful not to boast, brag or be over-confident for fear that I might jinx myself. This tactic might have been effective for a reasonable person, but in my already worrisome brain, it manifested as constant nerves and frequent anxiety.

When Kevin invited me to play over the summer, I figured it would be a good chance for me to at least get to know the writers — maybe even staff at other papers — but I still felt nervous. The pressure now came from the high expectations from the staff: “He’s good, he played in high school.”

I drove out to Seward Park, just north of downtown Chicago, on a Monday night, trying to calm my nerves but finding it hard to get out of my own head the same way I had in high school. What if I stink? Won’t that make them think I’m a loser? I’m supposed to know how to write, too … what if this shows them I was never good at anything?

I arrived at the park and found my co-workers, in the dugout opposite our opponent: CHIRP Radio. My palms were sweaty, I was forcing myself to smile and make jokes. Through all this anxiety I was also supposed to show I could relax and be fun. I was able to settle in as more members of the team arrived and the more light-hearted atmosphere of Chicago softball was revealed. Even on a Monday night, 30 racks of beer were brought along, some players smoked a quick cigarette as a warm-up routine and no one looked particularly prepared for a game.

Despite my persistent nerves, some of the old feelings from my park-league days came rushing back to me: the feel of the evening breeze, the smell of the all-dirt field and the sight of the Chicago Skyline stood impressively just a few miles away.

One of the senior writers came over to me.

“Feeling good? You’re a pro, right?”

“Yeah, doing good,” I replied back with a small smile.

Then it was time to take the field. “Will, take third base,” Kevin directed. My heart momentarily disintegrated. Third base, the “hot corner,” is where most balls are hit. My mind immediately regressed into the internal cycling of all the possible mistakes I could make. I started recanting my game-mode mantra from high school: “Don’t get too cocky, you don’t want to jinx yourself. Just make the play the way you were taught and try not to think about it.”

The game started and, sure enough, the first batter drilled a ground ball right at me. Thankfully, all went as intended. My head cleared momentarily; I scooped the ball up without any issue; and made a solid throw to the first baseman, which was promptly dropped. Of course, the broken play was not at all my fault, but I instinctively began analyzing my throw: was it too high? Too fast? Could I have set my feet better for more even more accuracy? Was that play my fault?

The stream of conscious didn’t cease and I subsequently made a couple more errors that inning, allowing enough base runners for CHIRP to get a sizable lead of six. When three outs were finally made, I trudged back to the dugout, head down. My Reader teammates offered words of encouragement and positivity but I stayed focus on feeling my shame.

The game proceeded as softball games typically do, with the lead changing several times until the seventh and final inning rolled around — we were down 11-12. I had had a rough game, hitting poorly and making additional errors in the field.

Coming into the dugout from the top of the seventh, Kevin sounded off the upcoming line-up: “Chris, Dell, Mick and then Will.”

From behind the chain linked fence I watched the three men ahead of me set up my fate. Chris popped out, Dell got on base and Mick flew out but allowed Dell to advance to second. I was next up to bat with two outs in the bottom of the final inning and the tying runner in scoring position. This was a chance any little leaguer would fantasize about in their backyard, and I’d even imagined it early on, but mostly these pressure situations doused me in anxiety. Frustrated by how little fun I was having at this inconsequential social event, especially in a surrounding I was supposed to love, I couldn’t help but think to myself, was this how I felt playing high school baseball? Was I this miserable the whole time?

As I walked out from the dugout to prepare my bat, I had a crazy thought.

“Screw it,” I thought. “I’m tying us up right here, right now.”

I stepped into the batter’s box and set my feet, eyes glued to the pitcher. Instead of trying and failing to clear my mind, I instead focused my thoughts toward success. The pitcher wound up and heaved a high-flying meatball, a perfect offering. I let the ball drop in to shoulder height before erupting with energy and crushing the pitch. The collision made a boom like a muted cannon, the ball streaking into the night sky toward left-center field for a textbook-perfect double.

I rounded first and landed gently at second base, driving in the tying run. Steve, next up to bat, cracked a double and we won the game with a walk-off.

It felt good, it felt powerful, it was fun again.

That double may not have been much of an accomplishment at the end of the day, but that small moment really changed how I felt about confidence. I thought about how much I’d allowed anxiety and self-doubt to cloud my judgment, ruining a game for me that I loved so deeply. I realized, too late, that baseball had been taken away from me in high school. Everything I did was because it was what the coaches wanted, not what I wanted. Those distractions made it impossible for me to suppress my fear of failure, and I had suffered for it.

So I now have a new motto, nothing too groundbreaking but one used by generations of ballplayers and successful people alike:

“Never let the fear of striking out keep you from coming up to bat.” – Babe Ruth.

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