Breaking Bad News Bears

Why We Need Failure (And Baseball) In Our Lives

Image: WEBN-TV

This winter may have been milder than most, but by mid-February I still yearn to utter those three little words celebrated every year at this time: PITCHERS AND CATCHERS. Like that first foolhardy crocus, baseball is spring’s middle finger to winter. And as Major Leaguers prepare to report for Spring Training, I’ve been schlepping my own twelve-year-old son to his little league “winter workouts” that began in January and continue up until the beginning of his travel baseball season at the end of March.

Recently, with thoughts of baseball dancing in my head, I had the urge to fire up Netflix and watch the original Bad News Bears, which was my first exposure to our national pastime which I saw in the theaters with my Dad as a little kid. Nearly forty years removed from my original childhood viewing, I was surprised that what stood out most to me now was how poignantly the theme of failure and disappointment threads its way through the entire film. The Bad News Bears was released in 1976, on the heels of our inglorious exit from Vietnam, which perhaps explains why the film ends (as does its contemporary, Rocky) with a celebration of endurance, as opposed to victory.

Walter Matthau gives a brilliant performance as Morris Buttermaker, a bitter, washed-up ex-minor leaguer who only agrees to coach a group of precocious, ethnically-diverse misfits for the under-the-table salary that will supplement his pool-cleaning job and keep him in Budweisers and cheap cigars for the remainder of the season. At first, he’s resigned to collect his money, drink his beer, and let the kids wallow in their own incompetence. But after a humiliating beat-down at the hands of the type-A Yankees, Buttermaker decides to turn the team’s season around. He coaches them in fundamentals, builds some team camaraderie, and in a surprisingly current baseball move he acquires two star free agents: Amanda, a former pitching protégé/daughter of an ex-girlfriend, and Kelly, the Harley-riding town delinquent (and dreamboat) who just happens to be the best hitter in the county.

Fueled by his team’s success, and seeing a chance to erase all his life’s failings with one gleaming trophy, Buttermaker goes from a lovable if eccentric mentor to a ruthless, driven general — transforming from Yogi Berra to Billy Martin in two scenes flat. He orders his weak players to lean over the plate and take one for the team, strains Amanda’s arm, and bullies Kelly into becoming a ball-hogging one-man defense. The Bears are clearly wounded by Buttermaker’s sudden zeal for winning at any cost, especially Amanda who most acutely feels the sting of Buttermaker’s betrayal as both a coach and a father figure. But in the final game, with the season on the line, Buttermaker sees the hurt and disappointment in his players’ eyes, and has a character-defining change of heart. In the last inning, he gives his least-used players their moment in the sun, effectively ending the team’s (and Buttermaker’s) chance to be winners for once in their lives.

In many ways, the Bad News Bears character played by Walter Matthau is a lot like another Walter now enshrined in the anti-hero pantheon—“Breaking Bad”’s Walter White, who, like Walther Matthau’s character, had also fallen short of his dreams, was a teacher by default, and relied on a juvenile ex-con to help him achieve a personal, pyrrhic victory over those who dared to view him as a failure. There’s also a notable symbolic parallel — early on, both Walter White and Morris Buttermaker are plagued by broken windshields on their run-down cars. But whereas Walter White insists on repeatedly fixing his cracked windshield, believing he can force the chaos and failure surrounding him into submission, Walter Matthau leaves his car the way it is. His character is ultimately resigned to live with the brokenness in his life, and this is the most important lesson that he imparts to his players: avoidance of failure is beyond their control, but how they support one another through life’s struggles is not.

One November day not long after the Bad News Bears’ release, a bored class secretary at Yale handed in a rhapsodic daydream about baseball in place of that day’s minutes. A year later, when that secretary became the youngest president in Yale’s history, his essay appeared in the Yale alumni magazine. The author was Bart Giamatti, and his moving depiction of the final inning of the Red Sox’s 1977 season is his love letter to the cycle of hope and inevitable disappointment that punctuates all of our lives. Giamatti’s acknowledgment of his own mortality at age 40 also serves as a poignant, unintentional foreshadowing of his sudden and tragic death just 154 days into his tenure as commissioner of Major League Baseball, merely a week after his excruciating negotiations with Pete Rose which led to the legendary hitter’s lifetime ban from baseball.

In Green Fields of the Mind, Giamatti writes,

It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Green Fields, like so much baseball poetry, deals at its core with our struggle to accept the temporary, fleeting nature of life’s successes as an integral (if painful) part of the human condition. Nearly 100 years before Giamatti set pen to paper, this theme was immortalized in a piece by Ernest Thayer in the San Francisco Examiner: Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888. It is no accident that our most famous poem about baseball also ends in failure, as the hometown hero strikes out in the bottom of the ninth with two men left on base. Yet as joyless as the Mudville fans are on that ignominious day, they will be back, returning to the ballpark again and again — in hopes of a different ending, to be sure, but also because that feeling in their gut after Casey’s failure is just as vital a part of their lives as the fleeting thrill of victory from the game before it, or the one after.

Die-hard fans such as these are also immortalized in baseball’s unofficial anthem, “Take Me Out To the Ball Game.” Jack Norworth’s lyrics speak of fans who would rather be at the ballpark than anywhere else, even if only to witness the shame of another loss by their home team. Interestingly, according to the little-known verses the hero of this song is also named Casey — Katie Casey, and today we sing Katie’s fervent supplication at every 7th-inning stretch — a fan’s chorus that, amazingly, ends not in victory, but just like Casey at the Bat, with a strikeout on three pitches. Might we even imagine that Katie Casey was actually the eponymous slugger’s daughter, and that In 1908, the year “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” was written, she had grown into a young woman with a love of baseball nurtured by the very unpredictability that she witnessed as she watched her father’s epic swing and miss twenty years earlier?

A few years back, when my son was eight years old and just beginning to embrace the game himself, I enrolled him in a baseball skills boot-camp over winter vacation at Frozen Ropes (if I ever open up a baseball training facility, I’m calling it, “Dying Quails”). I placed his empty equipment bag on an empty seat (stadium, of course) near where he’d be practicing, and went to sign the towering stack of waivers required for him to use the batting cage and other “intensive” drills. When I returned, there was another dad sitting in the seat next to mine. As I drew closer, my heart skipped a beat as I realized that my seat mate was none other than sports talk-radio legend Mike Francesa.

Feeling shy and intimidated, I quickly introduced myself and told him I was a big fan, then took out my phone with the intention of giving Francesa and his Diet Coke uninterrupted privacy for the remainder of the class. But before I could even check my email, Francesa began a “conversation” with me:

“All these parents who sign their eight-year-olds up for hours and hours of training are kidding themselves. It doesn’t matter how many drills these kids do — to succeed at the highest level, it’s all about talent.”

“But,” I contributed.

Francesa pressed on, unconvinced by my artful retort, “Parents can sign their kids up for travel leagues, winter leagues, fall leagues…in the end, a kid with serious talent will walk onto his high school field never having picked up a baseball before, and within two weeks he’ll be the best player on the team.”

“But look at Barry Zito,” I managed to reply. “I read that his dad was an orchestra conductor who knew nothing about baseball, but when he saw his son’s talent and passion for the game, he worked with him 365 days a year on his pitching, starting at age seven, even building a mound in their backyard and hiring a former Cy Young winner to coach him.”

Francesa shot me an incredulous look that the majority of his callers are fortunate enough not to see through their radio. “You’re bringing up Barry Zito?? That kid had tons of raw talent! He didn’t go in the first round of the ’99 draft because he played catch with his dad in their backyard!”

I decided not to press the issue further, and instead retreated to harmless small-talk about the woeful state of the Mets as we watched our sons have moments of success and failure during their circuit of fielding, hitting and pitching drills on the astroturf field. As the boys played, I couldn’t help but think about the embarrassing moment of failure that Francesa himself had endured a few months earlier, when he was caught dozing on-air during his interview with the Yankees beat reporter. The video clip from the show’s YES Network feed of Francesa nodding off was still circulating at a mercilessly viral pace. But what many had failed to report over the ensuing weeks’ endless dissections of Francesa’s debacle was that the reason Francesa had endured perhaps the biggest failure of his career was because he had stayed up the entire previous night with his young son, who had suffered a terrible asthma attack.

The latest fielding drill ended, and the boys were sent scurrying to us for a quick water break. As I handed my son his water bottle, I kept thinking about what Mike had said. That maybe we can’t Malcolm Gladwell our kids’ way into guaranteed success. That we need to rid our youth leagues of the scourge of PED’s — Parentally Eliminated Disappointments. That perhaps we are trying too hard to help our children avoid an intrinsic part of baseball, and an invaluable component of their athletic (or artistic, or academic, or romantic) endeavors — the gut-wrenching moment of failure which will lead to a deeper understanding of themselves, their peers, and their lives.

I gave my son a hug and sent him back onto the field. I saw Mike do the same, but not before he looked son in the eye, and critically evaluated his performance in this most essential way: “Hey, kid. You having fun out there?”