Baseball people are nuts about statistics. When I played, batting average was the key offensive stat. As the leadoff batter, I focused way more on base hits than power numbers like home runs, doubles or slugging percentage, even though the fence at Leavell Woods Park was a mere chip shot from home plate, especially in right. I created statistical goals and religiously documented my numbers for each game, creating a tangible measure of success in a game marked by lots of failure. In baseball, coming up short seventy percent of the time on offense equates to being an All-Star. Today, while batting average remains important, exit velocity, launch angle and on-base plus slugging or “OPS” are taking the place of some of the older metrics upon which I obsessed.
Individual statistical achievements are notable in sports, however they actually mean nothing if your team loses. Going into my senior year baseball playoffs in 1992, our Wingfield High School Falcons, skippered by Coach Willis Steenhuis, were ranked number one in the state. My junior campaign we had lost in the state finals to Brian Clark and his Petal Panthers, but we had exceeded everyone’s expectations, including our own. B.C. would later become my teammate under Coach Polk at Mississippi State, where I was a walk-on. I wrote about that experience in One Dawg, in case you missed it.
My teammates and I carried forward the momentum from the state finals appearance in 1991, and became basically unstoppable in 1992, dropping only two games during the regular season. Although we were from the south side of Jackson, we traveled north for the playoffs. Our round one opponent was Tishomingo County High School. We were heavily favored. Tishomingo County is located as far north and east as one can travel in Mississippi. While we had a better team from top to bottom, the boys from Iuka had two good pitchers, and after their number one starter shut us down at home in the first game, we went up there for game two -trying to balance the best of three series.
During playoffs, instead of riding a “yellow dog” school bus and eating at McDonald’s, we were upgraded to a charter bus and The Western Sizzlin.
We were big time.
After feasting on beef tips with mushroom gravy and all the rolls we could eat, we stepped out of the bus in Iuka and found that everyone in town had shown up to the park and it was not to give us a warm welcome. Our lush travel accommodations did not help us play better that night, and the Braves’ second-best arm coupled with the hostile environment was more than we boys from South Jackson could manage. I was so frustrated at the losing turn of events, I foolishly forearmed the catcher as I crossed home to score one of our few runs. I was ejected from my final game as a high school student athlete before my team was eliminated from the playoffs. All these years later, I feel less shame over our loss than I do my lack of composure in the moment.
As you may know, I went on to have a somewhat love-hate-love relationship with baseball. In my article Opening Day published on March 30, 2023, I wrote the following:
… while I was not heavily recruited to play in college, Tom Gladney gave me a spot on his team at Mississippi College. I played a fair amount as a freshman, and because my ambition was bigger than my talent, I left MC to walk on Coach Ron Polk’s team at Mississippi State. Eventually, when baseball rejected me after two seasons at State, I rejected it back. As time went on, my love for the game was rekindled. I have written about this before. My daughters humored me by playing one season of softball when they were in elementary school, and although they are two grades apart, were both on the team I was asked to coach. Emma has never been much for grass, dirt, sweat or the Mississippi heat, so she gravitated to indoor sports like basketball and volleyball.
Like I wrote in the excerpt quoted above, I coached my girls’ softball team the only season they played. Although I had a blast teaching them about the bat and ball game, it was just not for them. As we were trying to determine which activity would be better suited and on somewhat of a whim, we took Mollie Ann to a local club’s volleyball tryout, unsure if she would even make a team. As it turns out, Mollie Ann not only made a team, she made the club’s top group. This began our family’s adventure in volleyball. The following year, after a minor protest, Emma would follow suit. While Mollie Ann eventually gravitated toward cheerleading, Emma got very serious very fast about volleyball.
Like most Mississippians, we knew next to nothing about volleyball when we started. Volleyball is fun, fast paced and the court variety is, of course, played indoors, which is important as a parent/spectator, because you are not fighting extreme weather conditions like in soccer or softball. Kills are to volleyball as base hits are to baseball. The following is the definition according to the NCAA Official Volleyball Statistics Rules:
A kill (K) is awarded to a player any time an attack is unreturnable by the opposition and is a direct cause of the opponent not returning the ball, or any time the attack leads directly to a blocking error by the opposition. A kill leads directly to a point. When a player is awarded a kill, the player also is awarded an attack attempt.
Whether or not a player’s strike of the ball is recorded as a kill is somewhat subjective, because two different scorekeepers may have divergent opinions as to whether the attack led directly to the point. Some scorekeepers are more generous than others, and like any other human endeavor, there is favoritism, nepotism and cheating in volleyball.
You cannot always trust the stats.
Of course, as a baseball guy, I was concerned about my kid’s numbers. Not enough to do the scorekeeping myself, but with sufficient interest to check them routinely when a team she was on made them available to parents.
Emma played at a very high level at an early age, accumulating over 400 high school kills before she turned fifteen. Unfortunately, like many aspiring athletes, as she continued in the game, she had setbacks. Emma overcame bullying, concussions, back pain, a major knee injury plus a bad coach or two, which robbed her of some of the exuberance she had for the sport in the first half of her career. At one time, the most joyous Emma would be was on the volleyball court. Over time, it became more like work.
In youth sports there is regularly the phenomenon of moms and dads attempting to live vicariously through their kids. In extreme instances, kids are worshiped like golden cows from Old Testament days. I will confess there is a high level of satisfaction associated with watching your child engage in any activity they love, but sports, like many things, is uber competitive and super political even at the amateur level. I abhor politics, but I love competition and genuinely believe every kid does NOT deserve a trophy. Not even my kid. Whenever people and money are involved in anything, there will always be a level of associated brokenness.
When reflecting on my life, I always credited baseball for creating guide rails to keep me out of trouble. Indeed, team sports teach good things like hustle, teamwork , performing under pressure and dedication to a cause. Young people learn how to show up on time, overcome adversity, handle setbacks, loss and a host of other valuable life lessons garnered when a group of people are aligned for a common purpose. However, my opinion is different now. Emma is like me. She gets bored easily, and when she had setbacks in volleyball, she found other interests, like work. During her senior volleyball season, it was not uncommon for Emma to wake up at 6:30, open the retail shop where she works, go to school, go to volleyball practice and then go back to work, mixing in homework and an online college class in her spare moments —routinely putting in twelve-hour-days. The drive inside of her is uncommon. For a big part of her life she put that energy into volleyball. Now, she is exploring other targets for her intensity and focus, and that is totally okay.
Headed to the first round of playoffs of her senior season, Emma needed 18 more kills to reach 1,000. She was averaging about 2-3 kills per set, so we thought she had a chance to reach the round number if her team survived a few games in the playoffs, but it was unlikely she would do it in the first round. Emma proved us wrong. She was on fire, putting down ball after ball while having one of the best games of her career. She finished the night with exactly 18. She picked up 8 more against the eventual state champion Lewisburg, completing her high school career with 1,008.
Everyone who plays sports eventually sees an end to their career. When I finished with baseball, it took a few months, but I eventually left the diamond (really the dugout toward the end) and set my sights on law school. I had identified myself as a baseball player and within a year, I was identifying as a “law student.” While there is nothing wrong with being dedicated to a sport or a vocational pursuit, I have learned that if my identity is placed in something so fragile and small, I will never find the transcendent purpose for which God uniquely designed me and only me to accomplish. The good news is that one’s purpose can be fulfilled in many different life-pursuits, which changes from season to season. If a person’s goal in life is limited to receiving a college scholarship or a professional designation, what happens when that part of your life is in the rearview mirror? Who are you then?
Certainly I have more questions than answers, and sports are valuable for many intangible reasons. My hope for my family and for you the reader is that you will be known not for what you do, but for who you are, or better yet …for who you are becoming.
Craig Robertson is the founder of Robertson + Easterling. For over 24 years, he has practiced exclusively high net worth divorce and complicated family law in Mississippi. You will want him on your legal team because he knows the things you care about deeply are at stake, and he will counsel you about wholistic modalities to foster health and wellbeing during difficult circumstances. He stopped playing varsity sports after his third year of college, but he has continued to compete with an athletic mindset in law practice and in life.