I was on the roster. I was a PEL! It felt great to be chosen to play on a Little League team for the first time at the age of 11. I was immediately put at second base, the position for which I had originally tried out; but I still had to earn my position there. We had more infielders on the Pels team than we had positions to play. After a few practice sessions, our season began; and I had won the role of starting second baseman.
We were only a couple games into the season when my first obstacle arose. I was 11 years old and was on the team’s roster as an 11-year-old, but my birthday was July 30. I would actually be 12 before the Little League cutoff date of August 1, so technically I was required to play as a 12-year-old. The problem was that the Pels already had a full roster of 12-year-olds; and someone was going to have to go. The coach first approached me to verify that my birthday was July 30 and to confirm that according to Little League regulations I was a 12-year-old. He kindly explained the situation to me and told me that he might have to drop me from the squad. It looked as if my Little League career was going to be a short one.
While the coach was struggling with what to do with me (maybe make me a bat boy or something), a solution suddenly appeared. Our 12-year-old first baseman announced that his father had taken a job in another city and that he was immediately moving away. He could no longer play on the team. His departure opened up a slot for another 12-year-old on the roster, and the coach both moved me into that slot and into the position as first baseman.
I learned a lesson from this early experience with baseball. Adults create rules that are designed to promote general fairness but that often end up creating problems for individuals. With the wide range of development among pre-adolescent boys, many boys face obstacles in school and in sports because of the competitive nature in both settings. I went all the way through school and sports as a “young” member of my class. I was barely six years old when I started school, but many of the best male scholars and athletes in my class had birthdays in October and November and were almost a year older than I was. That is a significant developmental difference in the pre-adolescent years. Because I had good academic and athletic skills, I was able to hold my own among my class; but I was not able to soar. I was a sophomore in high school before the results of scholastic testing helped me to realize that I had higher achievement potential than I had realized.
In spite of the rules that establish the criteria for success and failure, every individual needs to experience some kind of success and have some awareness of personal achievement in life. Because of the turbulent nature of adolescence, that communication of value, worth, achievement, and success needs to be fostered in the pre-adolescent years. Every student will not be a scholar or a star athlete, but everyone needs the opportunity to be assisted by the rules rather than becoming a victim of them.
My little league coach did not just cut me from the team when he found that the rules required him to take some action. I don’t know what would have happened if the first baseman had not moved away. Fortunately I did not have to face the humiliation of being cut from the team. Maybe I would have become a good batboy, but I somehow feel that being a 12-year-old batboy for younger boys on the team would have been equally humiliating.
Rules rarely achieve their goal of promoting fairness. Instead they define success in such a way that some soar and others sink. The emphasis that we have placed on grace as an important factor in spiritual development reminds us that grace always provides a better path to a full and abundant life than do laws, rules, and regulations. Discovering that we are children of God by grace rather than by achievement allows each of us to find our way along the path of grace and move at our own individual pace toward Christlikeness.