Falling (back) in love with the game

written by Herts Raptors player, Ken Pike

Whenever I hear stories in the news about top class athletes having problems because they are not enjoying the game or finding the stress particularly difficult to cope with I used to scoff and wonder how people could get stressed at doing something that most people did for fun or enjoyment. They even had the added benefit of getting paid to basically take part in a hobby!

To the casual sportsman a day playing baseball, or football, or whatever sport floats your boat, is a way of relaxing, blowing off steam , and clearing your mind. It is fun. Maybe the aches and pains the next day take a bit of grimacing to get through, and the occasional more serious injury can put a damped on your enjoyment, but for the most part, hearing a multimillionaire complaining about playing is at least confusing and at worst galling and infuriating for those whose jobs are much less savoury.

However, over the past couple of years I may have found some empathy for them. For those who don’t know me, and those particularly new to the club (welcome) I used to manage the Herts Raptors. By further admission, and I am sure those who do know me will nod emphatically, I am not particularly easygoing or relaxed owing to being massively competitive.I generally want everyone and everything to go in the direction of a win. Not at all costs, but certainly at high cost (having myself been at the receiving end of a very serious, and nearly baseball career ending injury three years ago, I fought through hell and high water to get back into the sport).

Let me just point out that this article may read in parts as a confessional, and in parts like a whinge. It isn’t one, it’s an explanation of a journey from love to hate and back. Over the past two years of managing a rookie team I have discovered there is a point where it does start to matter so much that it causes you sleepless nights, stress, gnashed teeth and tense shoulders. A sad point where ultimately, you wake up one day realising that you are not looking forward to going to play baseball.

The Raptors were never expected to achieve much other than train new blood to feed the more senior leagues, but when you are part of the team, and in charge of the team, that expectation is out of the window. You do care, and you want to win, and my opinion is that the day I no longer win is the day I walk away.

I recall heated debates and arguments with the other managers in the club over team selection (I apologised after, and do so again). I also recall being the first at the field and the last off it at every game and every training session, and several more occasions too in a hope to put as much of my soul and energy into the Raptors. I’d like to think I was never the kind of manager to ball people out for not playing well, and hope that the times that I did raise my voice were only ever taken to be the encouragement that I intended them to be, but I imagine that is probably naive, and it is almost certain that at some point people have felt downbeat and sometimes even insulted. (Again, I apologise to them – it wasn’t meant that way). Whether I was right or wrong is now irrelevant, and not the point of this little story anyway.

The end result is that two years in management of a team was hard work. Don’t worry, I am not looking for sympathy, as there is also plenty I gained from it including some good friends, some real experience in teamwork, and even management that has even been translatable to my workplace in small degrees, and a feeling of achievement. Granted, we never won the league, but in both seasons the Raptors went from a team with potential but without any skill or experience to a team that won games and progressed players up the leagues. That was the point of the Raptors at the time so in a way, we were successful.

However, at some point last year, I have to admit I was not enjoying it. It was adding to pressure elsewhere in my life (young family, new job, empty bank account) instead of relieving it. I wouldn’t say it was turning into a job, as I wasn’t getting paid, but it was certainly not the fun pastime it had started out as. I spent hours after the game and even into the next few days analysing my performance and that of the team. Figuring out how we were going to get wins. Figuring out how to get the performances I knew we were capable of. I couldn’t get it out of my head and lost plenty of sleep as a result.

So, one day, after a rather heated argument with one of my own team mates which nearly came to blows, I realised the time had come to step down. Properly. I had done so after my first year in charge to make way for someone else, but was persuaded to give it another shot when no one stepped up, but this time I was certain that if I continued to manage it would damage my relationship with the sport.

The result has been night and day. Now, several months, one Hunlock series, one offseason, one pre-season and one HSL later and a few games into the season and the Raptors are a different kettle of fish. Thanks to some excellent work by various members of the board and the generally fantastic reputation of the greater club, some wonderful talent was recruited to bolster the upper teams, and the knock-on effect has been that the Raptors were put together with the intention of creating playoff (and possibly title) contenders.

The new Raptors manager in the shape of Arnie Longboy brings a much deeper tactical knowledge to the position than I did, and also a much calmer and more pragmatic style of leadership. These are things that are starting to pay off much earlier in the season as we sit on a .500 record with two of the next three games being very winnable. Despite a wobbly start against high quality opponents, hindered by long spells of not having any games thanks to a mixture of timetable, weather and other factors, the Raptors look powerful. Solid defence and a powerful offence. They look like they could be contenders.

For my own part I can concentrate on my own game again, and while parts of my game are still not where I want them to be (notably pitching) other parts have returned in full force (I seem to be able to catch again and ground balls no longer fill me with any fear) and others are returning nicely (I’m getting bat to ball more often than not again).

The insertion of confidence from the first win, hopefully followed by a straightforward fixture against league struggling Tonbridge next week may be enough to kickstart a roll. There are at least three fixtures that the Raptors should be well capable of winning, and another that will be close. If we put those in the bag then we are facing postseason.

However, that’s a paragraph full of ‘ifs’ ‘hopefullys’ and ‘shoulds’ and ultimately the end position is not the point. It is not always getting the result and league position that counts in making a game enjoyable. That’s not to say winning isn’t important though. I think the hardest thing for someone with my competitive streak was not being competitive. Not being in with a shout at all is harder than narrowly missing out on what could have been. Spending every game looking for the little victories and sometimes scraping the barrel when trying to find the positives is not easily sustained. Sooner or later morale starts to sap.

The long and short of it is, that without the burden of management, and coupled with a real prospect of competing for wins, means that slowly but surely that passion for the game is re-igniting in my heart. I had a smile on my face for the whole of Sunday’s hard fought win against the Eagles, and for the first time in a long time my head was not racing for the rest of the evening with things that I or the team could have done better, because for the large part…there wasn’t really anything. Instead it was filled with dreams of the Raptors playing that well again (as Eagles manager Duncan Hoyle said, the Raptors made few mistakes and were clinical in everything they did.)

Maybe I do understand how people fall out of love with the game now. When the desire to win, or to achieve a certain target, even if that target is just to play to your best irrespective of results, does not meet up with reality it can feel a bit like a kick in the teeth. Maybe some of those MLB/NFL/NBA/NHL/Premier League superstars that swap from team to team hoping for a solution are not looking for more money or glory, but just trying to re-set their focus and find a place they enjoy being at (maybe).

I have now re-set my focus, and have been hit with the wonderful fortune that it seems the whole team have turned a new page at the same time. Some habits die hard, and I am sure there will be times when I feel frustrated and downbeat if we blow a close game for example. I still want to win more than ever, and with the potential of doing so being closer than ever part of me burns for that success. But for the most part, I am not just back to enjoying the game…I am back to sitting at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon, barely over the aches and pains from the last game, dreaming of next Sunday. Of hitting that ball one more time, of running the paths, and making those outs…all for the love of the game.

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