Gabe’s gift

Published 11:50 am Thursday, April 12, 2018

By Jamie Davis

Special to the Herald

Winter draws to a close and the hopes and excitement of spring baseball are just around the bend. The anticipation of being outside in the warm breeze is welcomed by parents and players alike.

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The board of the Prince Edward-Farmville Youth Association (PEFYA) meets with the baseball commissioners to set sign-up deadlines and the beginning of practices, coaches and teams are selected and it’s time to “Play Ball!”

Recreational sports provide coaches an opportunity to teach youngsters fundamentals, techniques, situational ball and other aspects of the game. Many coaches have found that the game also provides the opportunity to teach players about the game of life — the importance of a good attitude, playing for the team, self-control, that when you lose, don’t lose the lesson, etc.

Last year I was fortunate to find myself in one of those “special” lessons, a lesson that was not taught by one of the coaches, but instead by one of the players. This young man gave an entire league an amazing gift, teaching it what it looks like to dream, to struggle, to persevere and to get “the win.”

Each year our team has a motto for the season, something positive to say on a regular basis to keep them up when things get down — which will happen — just as in life. This year it was, “You can do it!” Even if you have never done it before, “You can do it!”

The coaches and players would say this if someone missed a ball, struck out or if they caught the ball or got the hit. “You can do it!”

During our first practice we evaluate the skill level of each player. For ages 7-8 we use a pitching machine. The ball crosses the plate at approximately 40 mph. This can be intimidating for some of these youngsters.

Eight-year-old Gabe Mau, like many others, had a tendency to step away from the plate when swinging, which creates the assurance that one will not be hit by the ball. Our coaches encouraged him, saying, “You can do it, stay in there, step to the machine, chin down,” all of the normal antidotes for this common occurrence. We worked on this at practice and at games, and he worked on it at home with his dad, Longwood University Baseball Head Coach Ryan Mau. Often Gabe would stay after practice to work on it some more. He wanted to hit that ball!

Practice after practice and game after game, he worked hard and did everything that we asked of him but with no visible results. However, something stood out about Gabe. He had a great attitude — not your typical good attitude but one that is deep down in his soul. It was the kind that makes others want to be better. His positive attitude and hard work ethic were infectious.

He never once complained or hung his head. When he struck out, which he did every time, he would run back to the dugout, put away his bat and helmet, grab his hat and glove, and when the inning was over, he would run out to his fielding position, ready to help his team.

His positive outlook and energy gave us all hope that he would have his day. His teammates, coaches and family really supported and encouraged him.

It would have been quite easy for him or his parents, Ryan and Leslie Mau, to give up. That is a common theme in our world today. If you are not succeeding just quit. One of the great lessons of life that can be learned on the field is that persistence and consistency can change your future outcome. Thankfully, Gabe continued to try.

At the close of each game, we — the coaches — give out a game ball. This is done in our dugout and is usually presented to a player that did something special in that game. Late in our season after I handed out the game ball, I noticed that Gabe had a look of concern on his face. As Gabe walked towards me, all I could think was, “No, Gabe, please don’t ask!”

“Coach Jamie, I sure would like to get a game ball,” Gabe said.

We all had come to love his big heart, and we hurt with him, and the last thing I wanted was to have this conversation with him. We sat down on the ground and talked about what it meant to “earn” a game ball and how it has less value if it’s given to us when we have not earned it but how great it is when we have.

“Gabe, I believe that you will earn a game ball,” I said to him. “It may be this year or another year, but you can do it!”

He accepted that with his usual great attitude.

Our last game of the season arrived, part of our in-house tournament. Gabe struck out twice this game, never hitting the ball once, not even a foul ball, the same as in all of the previous games. Just before what would be his last at-bat, he came to me in the corner of the dugout and said, “Coach, I am embarrassed.”

In shock, I asked why.

“All of these people have watched me strike out every time this year,” he said.

My heart sunk. I knelt down and looked him in the eye and assured him that everyone there was pulling for him to hit the ball, that they all would be excited to see him do it, but that it didn’t really matter what we all thought. What really mattered was, “What does Gabe think?”

With a big smile he said, “I can do it.”

“Yes, Gabe, you can!” I said.

As stated earlier, in instructional baseball we use a pitching machine, and a coach feeds the ball through the machine. As Gabe came to the plate, I put the first ball in the machine. He swung and missed. Second pitch, he fouled it off. The families and fans from both teams applauded. The next pitch, “Pow!” He hit it! The ball was fielded cleanly, and he was out at first.

The families and fans for both teams stood, cheered and applauded. Our players greeted him at the dugout with slaps on the back and a bunch of repetitions of “You did it!” You would have thought it was a walk-off home run. What a glorious moment for that young man and for the other nine boys on the team.

The game ended, and our season was over. The team and players’ families all met at the left field light pole. Everyone was still on a high from what we had just witnessed. Before I could say a word, one of the boys stands up and says, “Coach, give the game ball to Gabe!”

All of his teammates joined in: “Yeah give it to Gabe!”

I proudly handed it to him, and I will never forget him looking at me and saying, “I did it, Coach. I earned it!”

Yes, Gabe, you earned it, buddy!

As we celebrated the close of the season, I was moved to emotion as I presented Gabe with the sportsmanship award. This award is given to one player on each team that showed exceptional sportsmanship throughout the year toward the coaches, teammates, umpires and other teams.

Gabe, thank you for what you taught me, our coaches, players and spectators. Thank you for staying the course, showing us what a great attitude looks like, how to face our fears, how to persevere, how to be a team player, for showing us what it looks like to dream, then struggle, then to get “the win!” Thank you for the gift!