A couple of years ago I was at my nephew’s baseball game. There was a boy on his team who appeared to have Asperger’s Syndrome or possibly some other form of Highly Functioning Autism. On many occasions I remember seeing this young boy hopelessly go up to bat and strike out. Muffled groans emanated faintly from their bench, but thankfully they were drowned out by the cheering and encouragement from the boy’s family and other empathetic fans.
Each game there was pretty much the same result when he was up to bat. Occasionally he wouldn’t swing at all and would get walked by the opposing pitcher, which was definitely a small victory. I often observed the boy’s father before, during and after his at-bats. I very distinctly remember feeling his pride, but it was sometimes muddied up by frustration, and then guilt for being frustrated. Afterwards it settled back in to just pure love, as if sometimes he realized that he may be projecting his hopes unfairly onto his son.
One day things were different, though. It was a back-and-forth game and both teams were charged up. It came time for them to bat and they trailed by a couple of runs. Soon it was this boy’s turn to bat again, and one of his teammates loudly started cheering him on, shouting his encouragement. Other kids joined him, and the excitement filled the bleachers as well. As the first pitch sailed toward home plate, the boy swung and connected solidly, sending the ball just over second base in a sharp line drive. Everyone was elated. People were jumping up and down as the tying run scored – as if it was in some ABC Family movie script (if it’s not, it should be).
I looked over at the boy’s father and he could barely conceal his elation. The boy looked at his father and got that approving fist pump and smile that he so desperately wanted all season. I started crying on the spot and had to take a walk to dry my eyes. It was such a beautiful moment, and I’m even overcome with emotion as I’m writing this now.
They did wind up winning the game, and afterward, instead of the boy walking away with his head down silently, his head was high and he had a smile on his face. Also, rather than his teammates barely noticing him, they all went out of their way to congratulate him. Hopefully some of those boys learned a lifelong lesson that day.
We all want to belong somewhere. Sometimes we may not fully fit in, but with some encouragement we might put forth our best effort and get recognized. Conversely, the more we engage and encourage others, the more comfortable and confident they will feel, and our welcoming actions help them feel like they just might belong as well.