Some years back, while eating dinner on a Friday night, my young son asked if we could go to the park in the morning. “No, I have to do my long ride tomorrow,” I answered.
My wife lifted her head, made eye contact, and brushed the figurative bill of her ballcap—the bunt sign. I acknowledged that I received the sign and stepped back into the batter’s box, ready to lay down the sacrifice. “But I guess I can go riding on Sunday,” I added.
Before the cycling gods cursed my legs, dooming me to a career of racing mediocrity, I was a baseball player. A perennial minor league star, I played for seven long years. My diminutive size made it difficult to promote to the majors, and consequently I played with a big chip on my shoulder. Never was this more evident than when the coach gave me the bunt sign. To put it bluntly, the bunt sign pissed me off. To me this was the coach saying, “You’re too damn small to drive the run in.”
I rarely bunted.
At first I would simply ignore the sign and swing away, usually with good results. Anger has always improved my focus. I remember one instance in particular when the game was tied in the last inning, with one out and a man on first. The smart play was to bunt that runner over, which was exactly what the coach asked me to do. However, I ignored the sign. I swung away and lined a double into the left-center gap, driving in the winning run. While the team rushed to home plate for the celebration, I was rounding second knowing my name would be in the newspaper. As I trotted toward the coach at third base, he asked me if I had received the bunt sign. “Yeah, I saw it,” I replied. He benched me for the next game.
After that I became smarter about being selfish. I would play dumb if asked about seeing the sign. I would even miss a couple attempted bunts so the coach would remove the bunt sign with two strikes. Whatever it took. I just wanted to swing the bat and get my hits. You didn’t get your name in the local paper for bunting.
Mountain bike racing came just as my frustration with team sports was peaking. Racing was freedom to freelance, a lone man against hundreds, depending on no one and nobody depending on me.
They say that to excel at bike racing requires great sacrifice. This is true, but not in a noble sense. This is not a sacrifice of yourself for others, but really a sacrifice of others for yourself. The hours spent on the bike can be lonesome, of course, but those lonely miles cannot be called true sacrifice. While you might miss your family and friends, you are trading time with them for individual glory. What some might see as “dedication to your sport” is nothing more than selfishness. Not surprisingly, the supremely self-centered are often the ones who stand upon the center step of the podium.
At some point most bike racers have to grow up. When you start a family, you are essentially playing team sports again. Having teammates is strange at first and difficult to get used to. At times it feels as if every look to the third base coach reveals yet another bunt sign.
In time bunting becomes second nature, and pretty soon you are dropping them down without even looking at the third base coach. You become accustomed to situational hitting and taking one for the team.
Every once in a while, though, the third base coach gives a tug to the sleeve—the sign to swing away. You dig in and hope for a fastball middle-in. On those rare occasions when you connect and send the ball flying over the wall, it’s nice to round third and see your teammates waiting for you at home plate.