A Jewish writer gets roped into leading his son’s troubled youth baseball league. That’s the story of The Opposite Field: A Memoir by Jesse Katz. It has also been my experience for almost a year and a half, so I knew this was a book I had to get.
It must be a thing with us Jewish writers taking charge of our children’s youth baseball teams (especially those of us who didn’t have a good relationship with our father) and then writing memoirs about it. I’ve read a few of those books, but they left me flat. They seemed a bit too tidy, and they wrapped up with some uplifting “life lesson.” In The Opposite Field, Jesse bares himself completely. He writes honestly about his own doubts and failings, as well as the misdeeds and conflicts with others.
As a Little League president, I identify with many of Jesse’s experiences. The seemingly mundane tasks of collecting funds, choosing managers, dealing with complaints, and drafting players reveal the conflict within all of us who run community organizations. We’re given power, but we’re also given considerable constraints on what we do with it. To be the type of leader who can keep the respect and support of volunteers, we have to be willing to sacrifice our own interests (and even harder, our children’s interests) to show that we run a fair and impartial program for everyone. The most striking example is when he has tens of thousands of dollars of the league’s money stacked on his bed and knowing that he had to account for all of it. Even though he knows others could (and have) skim a few bucks off the top, he wouldn’t dare compromise his integrity (and risk jail) by doing so.
I also identify with the doubts and missteps he makes as a leader. I’ve made a few doozies myself, so it reassures me to see someone else go through the same struggles as well and survive. He gets involved in one serious and potentially destructive situation. It reminds us that no matter how diligent and honest we are as leaders, there are always temptations we must work hard to resist.
The heart of The Opposite Field is Jesse’s experiences as a father. This is where the book particularly touched me. My son is starting that difficult transition into adolescence, so I was particularly drawn to his descriptions of his son Max as a young teen. Max goes from dutiful son who plays in a championship series while ill to a bit of a rebel who loves skateboards and samples pot. As he enters high school, he outgrows the rebelliousness and focuses on baseball again. It offered me reassurance that I could survive my kids’ teenage years as well.
What I liked the most about The Opposite Field is the connection it makes between parenthood and baseball. Both are unpredictable, and no matter how hard we work and prepare, there are no guarantees of success. The times we feel the most in control are the times when the unexpected upends everything. Jesse compares it to batting to the opposite field:
Going to the opposite field takes patience. Perspective. Humility. If a batter is always trying to impose his will on the ball…he will never be able to handle the unexpected pitch. To go the other way…is to choose contact over power. It means sacrificing ego. Holding back. Adjusting. The hitter takes what is given and goes with it, making the most of a pitch that was never his to begin with.
The only issue I have with the book is how Jesse uses “Little League” as a generic term to describe his organization, the Monterey Park Sports Club. Little League is a specific organization with its own set of rules, structure, and culture. Had his league been a Little League, some things would have been easier, such as having a “Green Book” instead of having to create his own rule book from scratch. Other things would have been harder, such as dealing with levels of district and regional leadership above him.
This is a minor point compared to the powerful story The Opposite Field tells of building a league, forming a community, and most importantly, being a parent. Parenthood, like baseball, is filled with highs and lows, triumphs and heartbreaks, great accomplishments and humiliating errors. Regardless of the outcome, we know we have to suit up and play the next day and face a new set of challenges.