Lessons from a team flight

One of my favorite baseball stories happened not on the field, but on an airplane.

In 1982 I was seven-and-a-half years old and feel in love with baseball, the Atlanta Braves, and Dale Murphy. Not necessarily in that order. That Braves team started out 13-0, a record at the time, and was on WTBS every night — a station newly arrived to our 12-channels of cable TV.

At the time, I loved watching Dale Murphy because he would hit many and timely homeruns and he would spring across the outfield, his hat flying off, then make spectacular diving catches. Later I’d come to learn he wasn’t just a great ballplayer, he was a very good man. His manager Joe Torre said, “If you’re a coach, you want him as a player, If you’re a father, you want him as a son. If you’re a woman, you want him as a husband. If you’re a kid, you want him as a father. What else can you say about the guy?”

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But my favorite story of his wasn’t on a ballfield, it was on an airplane.

The 1982 team squeezed out the National League Western Division on the last day of the season by one game over Los Angeles and two games over San Francisco. Murphy was by far the best player on that team and would win the league’s Most Valuable Player award that year (the next year he’d become the youngest player to win back-to-back MVP awards). But he was never someone to say “Look at me.” Everyone knew Murphy was the reason that good, but not great, Braves team was good enough to win their division. But Murphy was a modest, Christ-following ballplayer.

He knew, even if he was they key to that team, that in baseball everyone has to take a turn at bat, and no fielder – even a 5-time gold glove winner like he was— can catch every ball hit. Whomever the ball is hit to has to be the one to field it.

So after winning the Western Division, the Braves were set to play St. Louis in the playoffs. I think Murphy meant for his actions to be private and stay private, but Braves broadcaster Pete Van Wieran later told the story:

On the flight to St. Louis where they’d start the playoffs, Murphy walked to the front of the plane, he was just 26-years-old and tended not to a verbal leader. He stopped at the player in the first seat, and in front of the whole team and coaches, he recalled a play that player had made to win a game that season, and he said “That’s the one game we won the division by.” He went to the second player and remembered a play that that player had made to win a game and said “That’s the game we won the division by.” And he worked his way from front to back of the airplane, recalling a play that all 24 other players on the team made to win a game and showing how every single player from star to role player to backup, had made a key play or gotten a key hit at some point in the that helped that team win the NL West.  That had led them to be on that flight to the playoffs together.  He made everyone feel like an equal.

As I matured I learned not just what a great ballplayer Dale Murphy was, but what a good man he was, what a good father & husband he was. I have so many great memories of Murphy on the field — but that story of him on an airplane is my favorite.

John 15:13, my favorite verse, says “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I’ve always interpreted that not just to mean literally, as Christ died for us, but figuratively, a man or woman who devotes their life to making their friends’ or neighbors’ lives better.

Phillipians 2:4 says “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

One of my favorite quotes comes from Paul Azinger, PGA golfer and cancer survivor in his biography, “It does not take a lot of money, knowledge or influence to be an encourager. It just takes someone who cares and has a sensitivity to the oppurtunities that surround us everyday.”

I love that quote, and that’s what Murphy did that afternoon flying to St. Louis. I think he knew he was providing motivation — conveying that he can’t do it alone, that everyone was needed to do their part if they were going to beat St. Louis and get to the World Series (they didn’t).

We all have chances to point out successes to friends, to family and to strangers. We have chances to give a helpful comment. We never know what small words of encouragement can make a big difference to people. And what small acknowledgements of successes can be just what someone needs to keep providing the effort above and beyond.

So I try to take that lesson that I learned through baseball, but that happened on an airplane, and be an encourager and be an acknowledger. And I thank my baseball hero for that.

What have others learned from heroes off the field?

 

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Judgement & Gary Carter

One of the first pieces of Scripture many of us probably learn is John 8:7, “…Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Nevertheless we all pass judgement.  Many times we convince ourselves (read: lie to ourselves), “Sure, I’m a sinner — but I have little inconsequential sins, he has big bad consquential sins.  It’s okay for me to judge him.”

Nevertheless we oftentimes judge the good, or the positive, or the unselfish.  Maybe we’re jealous, maybe we’re skeptics.  Maybe we think ‘He’s too good to be true’ and conclude he must be a fake.  And we find it easy  to judge insincerity.

Last week we read about Buck O’Neil.  Buck scouted Ernie Banks and once when someone mentioned that it was Buck who taught Ernie Banks to play baseball, Buck corrected them, “I didn’t teach Ernie Banks to play baseball.  Ernie Banks knew HOW to play baseball.  I taught Ernie Banks to LOVE playing baseball.”

And as much as Ernie Banks is known for being the first shortstop to hit 40 homeruns in a season (and the 2nd, and the 3rd, and the 4th to do so), he’s even better known for his “Let’s play two” optimism and enthusiasm and love of the game and love of life.

Dodgers catcher and Banks ‘contemporary John Roseboro once said “Maybe it’s sacrilege but I believe Banks was a con artist.  No one smiles all the time, naturally, unless they’re putting you on and putting you on. Every day of our lives isn’t a good one.”

Which brings me to Gary Carter.   Hall of Fame Gary Carter  didn’t wear his Christianity on his sleeve, but he wore his happiness and his goodness on his sleeve. And people never quite felt like they could trust a man who was so consistently happy — and teammates never quite trusted a ballplayer who seemed too good to be true.

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I’m too young to have watched Ernie Banks, but I grew up watching Gary Carter.  I loved watching Gary Carter play baseball.  I loved watching Gary Carter loving to play baseball (full disclosure: I kinda sorta loved it less once he became a Dodger).  But not everyone loved Gary Carter, though he never gave anyone a reason to dislike him.  Not everyone understood Gary Carter.

From Jeff Pearlman in Wall Street Journal

and Tom Verducci in Sports Illustrated

An excerpt,

In the oft-ignorant, oft-shallow world of baseball, Carter was deemed a geek from the very beginning. He didn’t drink and didn’t smoke. He didn’t curse and he didn’t talk smack. He showed up to work early, played hard, embraced home-plate collisions and—by all accounts—worked his tail off. He was loyal to his wife, Sandy, and an involved and dedicated father to their three children.

Yet this was rarely good enough for teammates. In Montreal, where Carter established himself as a star from 1974-84, he was derisively tagged “Teeth,” “Lights” and “Camera Carter” for his apparent love of the spotlight and his willingness to grant any and every interview request. Such behavior didn’t sit well with many of the Expos, who mocked him (cowardly, Carter would later tell me) behind his back and made him the butt of their juvenile jokes. Why, Carter’s famous nickname—The Kid—was born of neither love nor appreciation, but scorn.
…   So why all the hostility? Why the insults?   “Simple,” says Hearn. “Jealousy and immaturity. There were people who chose to poke fun at Gary’s strength and character as a man. When you’re that different from the majority, and you’re vibrantly outspoken, people don’t understand. So they become mean—especially when you’re as good as Gary was on the field.”

It’s easy to be happy when you succeed, but we really get to know people when things don’t go well.  We witness character when people are challenged.   It’s been said “Sports don’t build character, they reveal it.”  Baseball might reveal character even more than most sports.  First baseball fans get to watch their favorite players every day.  Second, as we discussed Week One, we see the best players fail 7 times out of 10 at the plate, and they see the best players lose 60+ games every season.

So why are men like Ernie Banks and Gary Carter judged or mistrusted?  Why are their motives questioned?  When we watch a man make 7 outs in 10 at bats, when we watch him lose 60 or 70 or 80 games in a season, and yet see them smile and love every second, why are they mistrusted and not admired?

We as Christians are inherently optimistic.   Have we been mistrusted and judged merely for our good intentions?

Likewise who have we mistrusted because we can’t quite understand their optimism or their unselfishness or their enthusiasm?

And why hasn’t John Ramsier ever channeled Ernie Banks and said “Let’s have two sermons?”

 

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Buck O’Neil: Optimism and Selflessness

My favorite baseball book (and I’ve read a lot of baseball books) and one of my favorite books of all time is The Soul of Baseball in which Joe Posnanski, my favorite sports writer, followed Negro League player Buck O’Neil around the country as a very elderly Buck did appearances at major and minor league parks and wherever else he was invited to share stories of the Negro League and the great ballplayers who played in it.
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This is one part of a post Posnanski wrote as he was leaving Kansas City, Buck’s home
Buck’s optimism was inspiring, but his selflessnes and his willingness even as a 90-year-old man to travel the country to share the story of his brothers in the Negro leagues is amazing.  Most amazing was his loyalty to them to the end.  Even when the Hall of Fame didn’t recognize Buck, but asked to go so he may tell the stories of those who were inducted.
We all have our pride. But Buck put his pride to the side in order to support and acknowledge the men who baseball history forgot — because that was who he was, and he never let pride or weariness or injustice diminish his optimism.
Buck’s life was a life of injustice.  He wasn’t allowed to play in the Major Leagues. He was not allowed to manage in the Major Leagues.  He was finally allowed to coach, but not even in a position that would put him on the field during a game.  But he never stopped loving the game even if he didn’t have the same access to it other men did.
No where in the Bible are we promised justice but we are instructed to love.  Buck loved the game, he loved people, he always focused on his blessings, not the injustices he suffered.
In his Hall of Fame speech Buck said,
And I tell you what, they always said to me Buck, “I know you hate people for what they did to you or what they did to your folks.” I said, “No, man, I — I never learned to hate.” I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago of cancer. (I’m single, ladies.) A good friend of mine — I hate AIDS. A good friend of mine died of AIDS three months ago. I hate AIDS. But I can’t hate a human being because my God never made anything ugly. Now, you can be ugly if you wanna, boy, but God didn’t make you that way. Uh, uh.
So, I want you to light this valley up this afternoon. Martin [Luther King] said “Agape” is understanding, creative — a redemptive good will toward all men. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. And when you reach love on this level, you love all men, not because you like ’em, not because their ways appeal to you, but you love them because God loved them. And I love Jehovah my God with all my heart, with all my soul, and I love every one of you — as I love myself.
And finally if you’d like to read a few more stories about Buck (without committing to The Soul of Baseball), here is Joe Posnanski’s obituary for the man he said influenced his life more than any man but his father.
What can baseball teach us about Agape?  About Love?  About forgiveness?