There ain’t much to being a ballplayer, if you’re a ballplayer.
Honus Wagner was a really good baseball player; so good that he was part of the inaugural induction class when the Baseball Hall of Fame was officially opened in Cooperstown, NY. As I walked through the Hall of Fame today I was overwhelmed by the poetry and artistry inherit in the game of baseball. There are few sports that have as much mythology as baseball does. However, out of all of the magic (and I do mean magic–I am a bit of a baseball fanatic) Honus Wagner’s humble statement is what stuck with me. Three things echoed from Wagner’s statement.
First, my love of baseball comes from my Grandpa. I have a vivid memory of watching a Toronto Blue Jays game with my Grandpa and talking about why the catcher, Charlie O’Brien, was wearing a hockey mask. O’Brien was the first catcher to wear the goalie mask style of catcher’s mask. I played and watched countless innings of baseball, but the conversation about Charlie O’Brien with my Grandpa is the moment that I feel in love with the game. The reason my Grandpa echoes so clearly out of Wagner’s statement is the fact that he approached his work as an accountant with the same humility that Wagner approached baseball with; put your head down, work hard, treat people right and be thankful that your work is an extension of who you are. It’s not hard to keep working, to keep getting better or to excel at what you do if it’s in you to do that thing. I think that my Grandpa might have believed that, “There isn’t (he wouldn’t have said ain’t) much to being an accountant, if you’re an accountant.”
Second, right after I read Wagner’s quote I heard a father trying to explain it to his son. He said, “he [Wagner] means that there are some things that you can’t coach; sometimes you just have to have baseball sense.” At first I didn’t love this summation, but the more I think about it I think that it’s kind of neat. What I take from this interpretation is that there are some things in baseball that you can teach, but others you have to experience. Great players learn from their experiences and handle similar situations more effectively in the future, good and mediocre players don’t learn as much. Let’s take that idea one step further. What if coaches aren’t actually teaching systems, fundamentals or techniques as much as they are teaching observation, self-awareness and analysis? Think about it; the truly great players all have that ‘it’ factor. We call it all kinds of things, but at the end of the day the difference between a good player and a great one often comes down to the eyes in the back of their head, a split second reaction or an on-the-fly adjustment to a new situation. So, perhaps the great players are the ones who commit the systems, fundamentals and techniques to muscle memory so that they can start to learn from experience. That would mean that the truly great coaches are the ones who allow their players the opportunity to learn on the fly and the ones who spend the time teaching their players to do more than just play the game. The great coaches teach players to learn from the game.
Lastly, on an abstract level Wagner’s quote made me think about how hard we try to make ourselves good at things that we don’t love or feel a calling to pursue. Think of something that you love doing, now break it down into its parts. I bet you could find a few pieces of the thing that you love doing that are actually quite difficult and might take someone a lot of time to master; some of the pieces might not even look like fun on their own. I think back to my Grandpa and accounting. For some reason, (like my Mom) numbers meant something to my Grandpa and he took a certain amount of satisfaction in making them work for other people. I’d love the relationships that an accountant gets to build with his/her clients, but I know that I’d be miserable trying to overcome the numbers barrier. My Grandpa instructed me quite firmly (with a smile) never to become an accountant. He knew that I’d be miserable pursuing it and that even if I enjoyed the end product I wouldn’t feel good during the process of getting there. He believed firmly in the, “it’s the journey not the destination” truism (as do I).
It might sound like I’m suggesting that we shouldn’t work hard or that the good things in life shouldn’t require some sort of elbow grease, but I assure you that my point is more subtle than that. What I’m trying to say is that hard-work rarely feels like it if you’re doing something that you love. In these situations you might identify something as challenging or difficult, but rarely would you call it frustrating or boring.
In my mind we need to seriously look at how to setup our education system in a way that allows people the freedom to pursue the things that they believe that they need to pursue. We might not always feel comfortable with the choices that people make to pursue those things; for some, their calling might exist outside of the formal school system or even outside of the structure of our society. We have to find a way to be okay with that and a way to avoid judging people when they follow a different path. I think that we need to believe in a society that allows for chaos and sees chaos as part of structure. I want the Grade 10 who struggles to understand why he has to be at school to have the chance to throw his life into ‘chaos’ and to leave the system for a while. I don’t think that our society is willing to see chaos as part of a healthy existence and I fear that we’re losing something because of it. As our collective anxiety about avoiding chaos increases, we only stand to rush headlong into a more dangerous kind of chaos; a chaos that we deny and a chaos without bounds. Being in chaos, without any awareness of it is dangerous; chaos with awareness can be constructive.
All that from a quote about baseball…