When I asked 2nd Lt. Ben Yokley of Air Force baseball, who was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 29th round of the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, what it takes to play at the highest level, his response reminded me that baseball is a game of failure. You have to be willing to strike out, make an error, or lose a game and at the same time not lose your drive, your determination and your enthusiasm to work even harder to improve and succeed.
It might be a lot to expect. But I wish every 11-year-old who ever gets deflated over a loss or mopes after a bad day on the field could understand this. It’s FUN to win. (No matter what age you are.) But failure is what makes you stronger. And what you do in the face of failure will define your ultimate success on and off the field.
“Play at the Highest Level”As I begin my professional career as a pitcher in the Cardinals organization, I’ve been reflecting on what has gotten me to this point: Who has been my support system? What has motivated me to press through the daily difficulties that athletes face? What has made me successful in the past to ensure I stay on track for the future? How did the starry-eyed, 8-year-old boy I was find himself getting paid to play the game he loves?The most valuable asset to my success has been the support of my family. My parents and sister spent countless hours driving me to and from practices, watching games, lifting my spirits when I had failed, and showing pride when I saw success. They have paid an absurd amount of money on equipment and private lessons to ensure I had an edge on the competition. But the most important thing they gave me wasn’t of monetary value. They gave me the option to play.I was never forced to play the game, and that’s how I came to love it. After each season, they would ask me if I wanted to play in the future and how far I would want to go. They asked, “Do you want to play varsity? It might be hard to make the team, and you’ll have to play JV for a year or two…Are you okay with that?”Later they asked, “Do you want to play in college? It’ll take a whole new level of commitment to play there…just know that we support you and want you to be happy.” I cannot thank them enough for their unwavering support and love, not only through my baseball career, but through every aspect of life.That said…it wasn’t the private lessons or equipment that my parents provided for me that made me successful. Those were simply ways to raise my skill level through education and practice. There is no training program, piece of equipment, or personal coach that can ensure a player will be successful. Period. End of story.There are no shortcuts in the game of baseball, but there are plenty of paths paved by hard work and commitment. And when I look back on my career, I recognize that the backbone to my success has been playing at the highest level possible. It’s been learning to compete. Failing…and then finding the drive within me to work even harder to improve.From playing for the All-Star coach-pitch team when I was 9, to attending a high school with a state championship team, and choosing The Air Force Academy as a D1 program in a very competitive conference, I always challenged myself to play at the highest level possible. The only way to be the best is to play against the best, and that holds true at every level. I am very fortunate that the combination of my talent and work ethic has proved enough to contribute to each of the teams I have been a part of.Keep in mind that most athletes don’t play at the very highest level available to them, and that’s okay. Not every high school ball player will win a 5A state championship ring, and not every college athlete will play in the SEC or College World Series. What’s important is that they play at a level where their abilities are being tested, so they can have enough success that it will be meaningful and fun, but fail enough to keep learning.This continuous cycle of failure, followed by an obsession to improve and success based on that improvement, has been instrumental in my career. And it will continue to be, both on and off the field.Ben Yokley2nd Lt, United States Air ForceSt. Louis Cardinals