In my mind I’m still that small uncoordinated clumsy kid who was always among the last chosen for the gym class teams. I loved all games and most any challenge. But sports was the ultimate frustration. I had a lot going for me, but it wasn’t strength or speed or athleticism… or confidence.
It took years of prodding from my dad and friends before I agreed to try Little League. But it was probably the best thing I ever did. The cliche of learning the power and joy of teamwork and camaraderie can’t be overstated. It was probably the most influential experience of my early life. I gradually transformed from an awkward meek outsider into a confident contributor on an elite high school team. It was a level I had no business reaching. That experience formed the foundation for most everything I’ve done since.
I learned that I didn’t have to accept mediocrity or others’ low expectations just because I wasn’t born with a natural advantage. I could make up for it with determination and hard work. And I could use the natural talent I did have, namely my wits, enthusiasm, and dogged resourcefulness, to catch up and surpass all but the true superstars. That was fine by me.
And it also became ingrained in me that the only satisfying reward of individual achievement was to contribute to something bigger. The feeling of accomplishment coming from being a valued part of an elite team dwarfed any personal achievement. And I learned that it wasn’t personal glory that I wanted. That just wasn’t big enough. I wanted to achieve far bigger things. Personal achievement was necessary, but only as a means to get onto elite teams where truly great things were possible.
But at baseball I was just awful at first, and I hated that. In my freshman year my family moved to a new town. Having few friends and being on the bottom rungs of the social ladder I threw myself headlong into baseball. But when I tried out for the freshman team I bombed. They were bigger stronger and more skilled. Why couldn’t that coach see that I had something more important? Maybe because it took me a while to realize myself.
But the next year I made the JV team and worked my way up. It was a new school, a better neighborhood, and a great coach who took a chance on me. He’s something of a legend now, and I’m still trying to live up to his investment in me.
When I reached varsity and our team was top-ranked, we played the old school. And when I got a key hit while clobbering them, I imagined the old coach took notice. I’d done something hard, that no one expected, not even myself. It was a role I’d see myself in perpetually, the underdog over-achiever who’d be dismissed at first, and come back to win. I never lost the confidence and motivation to do it, and I feel like I rarely failed.
But baseball was just a game for me. Several of my teammates had real potential. One played at ASU and went on to coach that elite organization for several years. I wasn’t at that level but I wasn’t so far beneath them that I didn’t entertain the fantasy of being noticed by one of the scouts who came to see them.
On senior awards night, I didn’t receive MVP or gold glove or batting champ, but my coach honored me with something that I valued even more. I understand that naming an award after me for sportsmanship can appear patronizing to the cynical, but it meant the world to me and still does. I don’t know how long it lasted or how many others received it, but that part would make me uncomfortable anyway. I knew what it expressed from my coach was sincere because I shared his values. I cherish this praise as much as anything I have ever received.
Despite minimal natural athleticism, my desire and doggedness opened a few doors that I probably did not deserve. My more obvious aptitudes led me to pursue technology, and forget any pipe dreams of a career in sports. But my high school coach had that glimmer of belief in me. He helped get me a tryout for ASU’s fall squad, the first step towards attempting to walk-on. I knew it was a long shot. ASU was the top college team in the country and I was an overachieving techie. But I did try. And though I failed, I made a small impression and was always glad I tried.
The year was 1983. I played left field. The player I would have to beat out was a young standout named…
Ha ha I had no chance whatsoever. My brash younger me was my hero (a selective memory graciously fades away all the dumb and shameful missteps 🙂