Old Dog, New Tricks

Ever try to learn to play a sport at a professional level past 40?

You may remember last year when I announced that I and some others would play in the United Wiffle National Championship Tournament last fall.

If you thought that that endeavor was going to end successfully, well you could not have been more wrong.

We got clobbered.

Not to be fair, we expected to lose. We expected to finish last. We did. We also had a hell of a time, which is why we are continuing our pursuit of playing competitive wiffle ball. We formed a league. We incorporated as a non-profit. We’re playing in more competitive tournaments as we prepare for the 2021 National Championship tournament.

Now you have to remember. We’re all old. All of us, both on Old Line WC as well as one of the other teams in our league, Wiffle House, are new to competitive wiffle ball. Yeah, we played in last year’s tournament. But remember that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make you an expert at something. I’m not even good enough to be called a novice yet.

Now, we learned a lot at the National Championship last year. We learned how hard is it to throw and control an unscuffed wiffle ball. The guys from the Waves gave us some scuffed wiffle balls to use. I’ve done a lot of studying. Built strike zone targets from scratch.

And started to practice, practice practice. The Wiffs and Waves Tournament in Berlin is coming up soon, and I want to get myself in the right physical and head space to be able to improve just a little bit over what I did last year. And every time I go out and throw a bullpen session, I find myself frustrated at my progress.

Can’t find a consistent arm slot.

Can’t find a consistent grip that works.

Can’t find a consistent release point.

Can’t figure out which pitches to throw consistently.

Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of clarity, for lack of a better term, where the ball breaks the right way and is in the zone, or at least close enough to entice the batter to swing. It’s not a good thing to struggle to find the zone. It's not a good thing to only find the zone when you wind up throwing meatballs down the middle of the plate that get hit it to kingdom come.

Trust me. My stat line from UWiffs 2020 look like this:

0-2 W-L; 1.2 IP; 21 R, all earned; 13 hits, 11 walks, 10 HR allowed, 113.17 ERA.

Part of this, yes, is picking up a sport four months before a tournament and trying to play it at the highest possible level. Part of it is the fact that we’re competing against guys who are, at least, ten years or more younger than us who have the time to play competitively far, far more often than us old guys with kids.

So yes, occasionally it’s easy to ask yourself why I do this.

Partially, it’s because I miss competing. The only other sport that I currently play is semi-pro mini-golf at a regional level. I used to play softball and flag football in my late 20’s. Haven’t played baseball since the mid-90’s. Competing at a sport, even a sport I suck at, is just plain old fun.

Part of it is because it’s a new skill to learn. If you stop learning, you start dying, to an extent. Trying to master, to the extent that I can, the idea of wiffle ball pitching is something that is a challenge. It engages my body and my mind, trying to think about pitch selection, the physics of everything. It certainly provides a less frustrating use of my mental energies than politics does these days.

But finally, it’s about the fact that I’m not getting any younger. You know how the saying goes.

At some point, I’m not going to be able to try something nuts like this anymore. So why not try to learn it, to master it, and compete against the best against. Sure, I would have loved to have known this sport existed twenty years ago. But unless you have a spare Delorean, I can’t go back and fix that. But I can go out there and maximize what physical skills I do retain in order to get out there and do it the best I can.

So is this a story about a guy who loves baseball and just wants to play? Is this the story of a guy who found out a sport existed and just wanted a challenge? Is this a story about a guy who is in-or-approaching middle age and wants to try to hold back the hands of time in order to retain a shred of his youth? It’s probably a little bit of all of that.

But dammit, it’s fun. Getting on the field and playing a kid’s game is just fun, no matter how bad we play or how little the stakes are. We even got the receipt declaring just how much fun we had by winning an award for it.

Can this old dog learn new tricks? Maybe, maybe not. But it doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is that instead of just sitting back and waiting for Father Time to win, I’m challenging myself physically and mentally to do something new. And if you’re not, I’d challenge you to do it too.