The Value of Instruction

When do we reach the age when we stop learning—or perhaps better—stop accepting instruction? Is it 50? 60? I think some people cease being open to advice and constructive feedback much earlier than that.

When I was in my 20s, I didn’t really know much about mentoring. Actually, the fundamentalist theology that informed my life during that period didn’t really value mentoring at all. Edicts came down from on high and there was little give and take.

Being a late-bloomer, I’ve learned to value instruction and picking up things on the fly. Whoever coined the adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has perpetuated a myth that education and instruction is the exclusive right of the young, and off-limits to anyone past the age of say, 25. It also furthers a societal lie that we can’t continue to learn and grow until the end of our lives.

Granted, no one likes to be “shown up” by a know-it-all. Worse, we’ve all had that experience at one time (or many times) of having some loudmouth broadcast to the world that we were deficient in some area that the so-called expert had cornered as his/her personal fiefdom. Assholes are like that! In almost every case, this kind of scenario is carried out not for your edification, but to belittle you and make you feel small. If you’ve had this happen to you, you know how much this really sucks!

On the other hand, when instruction is offered and provided in order to benefit you and help you become better, it’s a beautiful, and all-too-rare occurrence—at least in my own experience.

I wrote a blog post back in the spring about returning to umpiring. I joined the Western Maine Baseball Umpires Association and have been umpiring since April.

My games ended in mid-July. As a first-year umpire rejoining the board, my experience overall has been mainly a positive one. My summer experience consisted primarily of Babe Ruth-level games, a handful of AAU games, and one over-25 league game. Since youth baseball has finished for the season, I figured I was done for the year and had packed up my gear in the closet, put away until another baseball season dawns next April.

Two weeks ago, an email went out from the board offering an opportunity to do some games at St. Joseph’s College in Standish. St. Joe’s fall baseball season had commenced and their Friday and Sunday intrasquad games would offer a chance for an on-field clinic, so to speak—even better—with veteran umpires overseeing your on-field performance, and providing feedback and some instruction.

Since I knew who the veteran instructors were going to be and knowing that they would be able to provide some valuable tips and instruction, I decided to give it a go.

Umpire instruction.

Umpire instruction.

I was available last Friday and Sunday, so I replied via email, and showed up Friday afternoon to do some baseball. Of course, it’s been almost two months since I’ve officiated live baseball, and it was 90 degrees. Oh well—I had set my mind to make the best of it.

The two vets on-hand, had a combined 60 years of experience. They offered some helpful pointers and tips in a way that was very constructive and positive in orientation. I even changed my set-up behind the plate, which I think will provide some relief for my hips and back, and give me a better view of the strike zone. I got to try it out on Sunday and felt like a different umpire than I had been.

Sometimes I wish I had started umpiring sooner, when our young family returned to Maine in 1987, from the difficult Indiana years. I wonder what would have happened if I had spent a year or two gaining experience and then, headed off to Florida one spring, to one of the schools for umpires, like Harry Wendlestadt’s?

My instructor on Sunday had done something similar. He’s now 59 and has 35 years of experience under his belt, including several in the minor leagues. I’ve known him since I was a young, brash town pitcher in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I should have been umpiring back then, not focused so much on playing the game into my late 30s and then, coaching for another five.

You can’t turn back the clock and life doesn’t allow you a mulligan. However, I’m glad that I finally learned the value of finding people who could help me move ahead in my journey of reinvention, whether I’m umpiring, learning to swim, or working with a new editor, offering suggestions on how to improve an article I’ve submitted.

I’m never going to become a professional umpire, and it’s probably unlikely at my age that I’ll even reach the college ranks. However, I am committed to being the best damn umpire that I can be, as long as I’m able to hustle around a baseball diamond, regardless of the level of baseball I’m officiating.