Puzzle pieces abound in sports

by Leslie Bek
baseball-454557_640I was twelve years old and playing in a summer girls softball league. I stood at the plate, dug in my feet, tapped the outer edge with my bat, took my practice swing and readied myself for the first pitch.
During this preparation ritual, I heard my third base coach call to me the following reminder and intended motivator, “Come on Les, get a hit…you’re due.”
Any ball player knows what that meant. Get a hit: we need it; we’re counting on you. We need you to contribute; it’s been a while. And if things got really desperate in the late innings when hits and runs were essential, I’d hear, “Come on Les, get a hit…you’re overdue.”
I have been writing for Marquette Monthly for more than thirteen years. By my estimate, that puts me well over 100 articles. Considering my personal interests and what I write about, this space is long overdue for a focus on sports.
To begin putting this mention of sports in context, I’m first talking about what the average person on the street would consider sports, and then much, much more.
Off the street come the following team sports: baseball, basketball, hockey, football, soccer, tennis, track & field, swimming and skiing.
From those on the other side of the street, I am reminded to include the “silent sports” of kayaking, canoeing, hiking, sailing, biking and cross country skiing. Those persons window shopping mention the idea that some other sports can be played individually or as part of a team. These might be considered chess, bowling, archery, darts and horseshoes.
At the crosswalk and the traffic light, one whispers to another, “Who determines when something is a sport and not a game or an activity?” The reply came, “I suppose it can be both or all.” The person riding by on the bike shouts, “Who cares? Just play, I say.”
So much for the word on the street.
Sports can be viewed by the level of play, an athlete’s age and skill. In short, sports come in many shapes and sizes. Consider these varieties: Olympic, professional, collegiate, school based, recreational or clubs, travel or house teams.
It may seem like I’ve just pried open a can of worms in an attempt to begin to create a context of sports. In painting this picture, something is bound to be left out when, to some, it obviously should have been in.
For example, it is far beyond me without calling upon resources, to list all the levels and options within the sport of hockey since I have not been involved in that sport. I’m guessing in Marquette County alone, the levels of hockey team options are pushing a total of ten based in part on age and skill. I do know about T-ball, Little League Rookies, Minors, Majors, All-Star teams, Legion ball and others.
Writing about sports for Marquette Monthly is not the can of worms reference, but rather more of a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. Dumping out the pieces and searching for the straight edged ones to begin the frame and sorting by color other pieces to give your search some initial order, then tipping the box to see the whole picture as your reference.
It’s not until after the easy pieces are in place and you have spent some time looking very closely, that other matches become apparent and those pieces slide into place.
Before long, the big picture is right there. And now glancing back at the box photo, you have seen all the little things that make it big.
Puzzle pieces teamwork, goal setting, individual commitment fit right there in the center.
Once the uniform is on, a transformation takes place and the individual feels a sense of greater potential, purpose and pride. Team membership can define who we are for a time.
During my school years, it meant I was a “jock.” That is what the cover of the “book of me” said to others. There was more to being “me” and more to come, but at the time, having that association I felt was a good thing.
We wear hats, T-shirts, jackets with team names, pictures of mascots, logos and favorite player numbers. The puzzle pieces in the fan pile also have the faces of family and friends. Feelings bounce from your heart to your hand as you hold these pieces.
Searching for their spot, you recall memories of support, of pats on the back and a knowing that because you played people special to you enjoyed the game. These pieces seem to be important connections to every section of the puzzle.
Friendship is prevalent throughout. Teammates who became best buddies and families joined together by the initial common interest in the sport now have a special bond. They are linked just like a puzzle piece.
Pieces representing culture are all over the place. Consider the playing and singing of the National Anthem before a game and the sense of community while gathering at the fields, courts and arenas. Think of an individual’s social growth, the rewards and life lessons learned—sometimes the hard way.
One such life lesson is sportsmanship. Evidence the practice of learning to respect the opponent win or lose. Clear the bench, all team members form a line and pass each other with the touch of hands and message of “good game” shared. Granted that ritual can be painful, as perhaps are the words grunted or murmured, but the intent of the coaches in teaching a lesson is not lost.
Coaches are some of the larger pieces. They made a difference in the lives of many individuals once brought together as team. They were the mentors who helped us see what was within us and what could be accomplished if we only tried. From them, we learned the importance of practice and patience.
Several puzzle pieces call out for a bit of thoughtfulness or mirth. If ever there was a breeding spot for clichés and quotes, sports is the hotbed.
Here are a few from two sports coaching legends that illustrate the vastness of the sports continuum.

Vincent Lombardi:

“Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work.”
“Football is like life—it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.”
“We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible.”

Yogi Berra:

“I think Little League is wonderful. It keeps the kids out of the house.”
“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”
“We made too many wrong mistakes.”
“It’s like deja-vu, all over again.”
“If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

One puzzle piece reoccurring to me in this big picture is the one called play. We play sports. The umpire calls out, “Play ball” signaling the start of a game. When we are very young, isn’t that the big picture? Wanting and needing to play? I know when I’ve asked my adult friends, “What have you been up to?” I’ve never heard this reply, “Oh, I’ve just been playing.”
Through sports, we continue to play. Take the eighty-year-old golfer whose goal is one day to shoot his age or the seventy-year-olds who look forward to the annual “old timers” softball game.
Play is a good thing. Play keeps you healthy in every dimension attributed to personal health: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
I may not have been much of a hitter at softball, but I was a good fielder, and no one could match my speed running from home plate to first base. Most of all, I have had fun playing numerous sports and I think those experiences have made me a healthier person.
Remember: “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, its how you play the game.”
—Leslie Bek

Writer’s note: The other activities we do like gardening or walking that may not fit the sports puzzle. They are included in the 1,000 piece box called the Game of Life.

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