Play Ball!

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I love baseball. I love everything about it: I love the slow pace of the game; I love the fact that it signals the beginning of more daylight and warmer weather; I love the tradition of it, the “poetry” of the game. I get over-sentimental about the game, to be sure, but so do most fans of the sport. There’s something romantic about baseball. It’s such a world unto itself, with so many strange quirks. For instance, did you know that every ballpark has different outfield dimensions — what other major sport allows for that kind of nonuniformity? The “strike zone” isn’t measured by computer — it’s measured by the umpire, and every umpire has a slightly different idea of what a strike zone should be. Even the basic rules of the game aren’t consistent between the National League and the American League, thanks to the use of a designated hitter in one division and not the other.

At the same time, baseball is obsessed with precise numbers. Baseball is utterly obsessed with stats and percentages. Ted Williams hit just over .400 one year (meaning he got on base about 40% of the time he went to the plate), and it’s still regarded as one of the sport’s greatest accomplishments. But had he hit .397, it would have been forgotten. There’s no REAL different there, but baseball fans created a mythical line, .400. That line stood between a very good year that ultimately fell just short, and one that will be remembered forever.

Baseball has been called a “game of failure,” since even the greatest batting average in the history of the modern game (Ted Williams aforementioned .406) was one in which the batter was out more often than not. In fact, a batter who’s “only” out 65% of the time he takes an at-bat is considered elite. Just another quirk in this magnificent American pastime of ours!

I bring this all up because a) the 2013 baseball season just got underway (disappointingly enough it got underway with two lopsided losses for my Phillies), and b) I think baseball can teach us a few things about living with diabetes.

A numbers game
First off, baseball and diabetes are both obsessed with numbers. More specifically, we’re obsessed with AVERAGES. A baseball season is 162 games long — NOT including the playoffs. Over the course of this massive six-month schedule, every single player will have some hot streaks, and some cold ones. Every single player will have some great games, and some clunkers. What’s important is not any individual game, then, but the cumulative average over time. And any player will tell you that getting too caught up with either the excitement of a hot streak or the frustration of a cold one will throw you off. Baseball requires a steady approach, in which one is aware of the numbers, correcting what can be corrected, and letting go of the rest.

Diabetes requires the same mindset. We need to be aware of our patterns but able to keep a clear head when they misbehave. We can’t dwell in past glory (“well, I had GREAT control last week, so this week I’m taking a rest”), nor can we get too caught up in the cold streaks (“my numbers this week aren’t good, so I’m just gonna give up and stop trying”). And our primary focus needs to be on our cumulative average. A baseball player pays attention to each individual at-bat, but his focus is on his “batting average,” one of the most important numbers in the game. The corollaries in diabetes care are your individual blood glucose readings and your A1C. You pay attention to the individual readings, of course, and correct what needs correcting. But ultimately your focus is on the A1C — the “batting average” of diabetes.

Not all strike zones are the same
A football player can rest assured that every field on which he plays will be the same. From high school up through the NFL, playing fields are 100 yards long. The end zone is 10 yards deep. The rules, while still enforced by human beings who can make mistakes, are not subject to the continually changing judgment of ONE all-powerful umpire who can call it however he wants (not that a baseball umpire could be flagrantly wrong and keep his job for long, but the fact is the ump calls it and that’s that — argue too much over it and he can throw you out of the game).

In baseball, there is no such uniformity. The outfield is different in every single park. The designated hitter is allowed only in the American League (or, in the case of interleague play, only allowed when playing in the home park of the American League team). A pitcher must change his approach to accommodate the particular strike zone of the umpire behind the plate — what might have been called a “strike” yesterday by umpire A could easily be called a “ball” today by umpire B. A baseball player must adapt his approach continuously to his surroundings.

Managing diabetes is no different. No two people are the same. My insulin ration would be too low for some, and too high for others. My body reacts to foods differently than yours does. And we all have those weird “high number foods,” don’t we? Foods that just shoot up our blood glucose more than our ratio says they should. Even our own bodies don’t react the same way to the same foods all the time! Some weeks, I might be fighting off a bug and not even know it, except that I have to up my ratio just a bit to compensate for increased hormonal activity going on as my immune system fights it off. It’s like we’re pitching in a new park to a new umpire everyday.

Play ball!
Baseball is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. It’s about cultivating a mindset that can adapt; it’s about cultivating a Zen-like ability to avoid overexcitement and fits of frustration; it’s about keeping a focus on the big picture and letting go of the many failures along the way. Baseball players do it 162 days a year, for three hours at a time. We do it 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. So, maybe baseball could learn a thing or two from us! In fact, someone tell the Phillies to call me…

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