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Kids, baseball, neighbors -- and honesty

TRUE LIFE: Wall Street would do well to go back to Little League.
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By ELIZABETH HENDERSON / The Orange County Register

The bad news? We're in a Great Recession. The good news? We still have baseball.

I mean, sure, I'd like a lot of things to be different -- my IRA to be worth more than my kids' piggy bank, my house to be worth what it was 24 hours ago, guys on Wall Street to be, you know, honest. But sometimes life isn't fair.

Two of the author's sons, Jude, left, age 6 and James, age 8.

Still, things can't be that bad when you've got parents willing to coach Little League and run the snack shack, right? And, when Jimmy hits a homer on a fine spring day, you suddenly realize maybe the world isn't ending after all.

All of which was hard to buy into back in October.

Last fall, we weren't sure whether our boys would play baseball this spring. Tustin Western Little League is a big commitment. There are two practices and usually two games a week. If both our boys (ages 6 and 7) played, we'd be shuttling kids around almost every day. And that's not counting the 24 hours of mandatory volunteer time. We didn't know how we could juggle the logistics of our three other children, too.

In the thick of homework, music practice, diaper changes and a collapsing financial market, there were days when it felt like spring would never come. And, even if it did, I wondered if news of rampant doping among grown-up baseball players would have the same effect on the kid version of baseball that sub-prime mortgages had on banks?

Baseball is a distinctly American sport. It speaks the universal language of our nation. On the surface, it may appear to be just some kids playing catch, but on a deeper level baseball is hard work, patience, determination, courage and focus. In the end, baseball is about character in community.

I wanted to sign up my kids for baseball because I still believe in those old-fashioned values of fair play, honesty and hard earned reward. Still, I was reluctant.

Then I talked with a neighbor, who told me: "When our sons outgrew Little League, we really missed seeing those people each year."

Those were the words that prompted me to enroll my boys in baseball. In a world fraught with bad news and a feeling of impending doom, there's one thing that holds people together: community.

The community of baseball thrives thanks, in no small part, to all the dead zones that come between innings and outs, great plays and errors, gum chewing and player/coach discussions, foul balls and… let's just say a Little League ball game offers ample time to chat with other parents. And in our busy world, face-to-face conversation seems like a vanishing necessity. I'll take fifteen minutes of small talk over fifteen emails any day.

I signed my boys up for baseball because in some small way, I wanted to know if the good community of baseball was still alive.

I wasn't disappointed.

Yes, it's been challenging to keep track of practice times, games, uniforms and matching socks. But something is different this year. On my sons' jerseys, there's a new patch with an intriguing and ancient message: "I won't cheat!"

At first, the words -- written in bold black letters against a yellow background -- were jarring. This is just Coach Pitch baseball, I thought, there's no cheating, here. Then I realized it's important to instill integrity in our youngest players. And in some ways, all of us—parents, coaches, umps, fans, major leaguers -- might be well served to wear the patches, too. The worst kind of cheating doesn't come from kids playing Little League but from adults who should know better.

When everyone takes a pledge of honesty, they become accountable to the community of baseball. Accountability is the glue that makes character stick.

Of course, sterling character requires courage. And, recently, my son got a lesson in that very thing.

As my youngest son was batting he fouled a ball off his own helmet and straight into his nose. He staggered, clutching his face. I jumped to my feet. My initial reaction was to rush in and rescue him, let him sit out. But I stopped myself because the coach was there immediately, checking my son. There was no blood, just some hot snot and tears. Coach spoke a few words of encouragement and then, with parents and teammates cheering him on, my boy stepped back up to the plate. He was biting his lip to keep from crying. So was I.

He swung once and missed. Then, on the next pitch, he hit a grounder through the infield. He blazed through first base with me cheering like a wild woman. I cheered for that single more than for any other hit he's had. I even cheered when the next batter hit a grounder and my son was tagged out on his way to second. Even the opposing team cheered as he hustled off the field.

Here it was: real baseball. This coupling of sport, community and character are precisely the kind of life experiences I want my sons to have. Winning isn't everything. But how they win is. For that matter, so is how they lose.

Which makes me think this: The guys on Wall Street should go play some Little League baseball.

And those "I won't cheat!" patches? Mandatory.

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