Eye of the Sturm: Life lessons learned on the diamond

I dare anyone to claim that they have never in their life, not even once, been moved by sports in some way.

Baseball 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Baseball 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sports have an inexplicable power, a force so incredibly unique that it almost defies explanation.
But it’s definitely real.
I dare anyone (at least anyone reading this column) to claim that they have never in their life, not even once, been moved by sports in some way. Had their heart touched, their spirit uplifted, their pulse quicken, their mind race, in reaction to something that took place in/on the playing field, the court, the course, the rink, the ring, the gym, the pitch, the slope, the track, the pool.
Sure, there are many noble-sounding aphorisms (and even more blithe and overused clichés) that have sought to capture the true essence of perhaps the most universal phenomenon that is the pursuit of sport.
Some speak to the unifying aspect of the sporting culture – “Sport,” recently said South African politician Danny Jordaan in the wake of his country’s successful hosting of soccer’s World Cup, “is the glue that binds the nation.”
Some go right at the thrill of competition, overcoming odds, the feeling of triumph, the agony of defeat, along the accompanying underlying metaphors to reality.
“Only a man who knows what it is like to be beaten can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even,” exclaimed undisputed Sportsman of the Century for the 1900’s, boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
Some even appeal to the beauty of sport, the art of athletics, the essence of energy, the pinnacle of physical performance. The famous Larry Bird quote comes to mind. “I think he was God disguised as Michael Jordan,” after the Chicago Bulls superstar had dazzled and electrified, while defying the laws of both gravity and imagination on his way to 63 points in a playoff game against Bird’s Boston Celtics.
Yet, as true as these sentiments may be, individually, each one falls woefully short of describing that “it” that makes the pursuit of sport so special, so extraordinary.
In truth, there are innumerable reasons that sports – as an activity of both playing and spectating – have captured the minds and hearts of so many people around the world.
This is a topic I plan on delving into further over the course of the coming weeks in this space.
However, in the spirit of Rosh Hashana – traditionally a time of character self-reflection – I’d like to focus now on one particular theme that I think demonstrates a small slice of the potential that sports brings to the table of everyday life.
About a month ago I was forwarded an e-mail by my sister containing a story told at a school fundraising dinner by the father of a young boy name Shai, who was both mentally and physically disabled.
I’m not sure whether it’s a sports story, per se, or maybe just more of a human story, with sports just acting as the landscape, the background, the canvas.
Maybe that’s the point.
Either way, it was a story I had already seen and read many times before.
And yet, I find that no matter how many times I read it, it never fails to bring tears to my eyes – tears of both sadness and joy at the realization of a young boy’s dream that was, at the same time, so insignificant, yet so momentous and meaningful.
In the words of the father in the email: “Shai and I had walked past a park where some boys Shai knew were playing baseball. Shai asked, ‘Do you think they’ll let me play?’ I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shai on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.
I approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shai could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, ‘We’re losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning.’ Shai struggled over to the team’s bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shai’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three.
In the top of the ninth inning, Shai put on a glove and played in right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shai’s team scored again.
Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shai was scheduled to be next at bat.
At this juncture, do they let Shai bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shai was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shai didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.
However, as Shai stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shai’s life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shai could at least make contact.
The first pitch came and Shai swung clumsily and missed.
The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shai.
As the pitch came in, Shai swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher.
The game would now be over.
The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman.
Shai would have been out and that would have been the end of the game.
Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman’s head, out of reach of all teammates.
Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, ‘Shai, run to first! Run to first!’ Never in his life had Shai ever run that far, but he made it to first base.
He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.
Everyone yelled, ‘Run to second, run to second!’ Catching his breath, Shai awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base.
By the time Shai rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball. The smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team.
He could have thrown the ball to the secondbaseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher’s intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman’s head.
Shai ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home.
All were screaming, ‘Shai, Shai, Shai, all the way, Shai!’ Shai reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, ‘Run to third! Shai, run to third!’ As Shai rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, ‘Shai, run home! Run home!’ Shai ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team.
‘That day,’ said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, ‘the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world’.
Shai didn’t make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making me so happy, and coming home and seeing his mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!”
That “it” that makes sports so special consists of the endless possibilities, the purity, the humanity, the relatability that every person can find in some aspect of some sport.
The prospect of greatness, the chance to make a difference, being a part of a team, the opportunity to “be a hero”...
One of my favorite sports columnists, Joe Posnanski of SI.com, wrote recently (about baseball, but I think it pertains to sports at large), “[Sport] helps us cling to our childhood and feeds that human daydream that things used to be better, that things will be great again.”
In the end of the day the most invaluable thing that sports has to offer is the fact that it has no true value. It really doesn’t matter. Ultimately, the result of a match or a series or a race – one that we are a part of or one that we are simply watching from afar – means nothing to us. It is all just a game. Something for us to love and/or hate, but all of which is within our control.
In the words of tennis great Arthur Ashe, “In sport, you are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, then you have truly won.”
All of which brings me back to one of the most basic, elementary lessons that every one of us was taught at a young age, that we rolled our eyes at; yes, one of those overused sports clichés that, as one gets older certainly takes on greater significance in almost every realm of life.
A lesson that those boys on the baseball diamond with Shai all knew well, a message that would behoove us all to internalize as we begin to think about entering a new year.
Remember, it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.