So what is it that gets these players to those positions - how do they get selected to play and maintain the ability to keep playing year after year? Here are a few of my thoughts on achieving and maintaining excellence - I will let you apply them to your particular situation:
- getting an early start - none of these players come to the game late. They grow up playing the game, they are in quality programs from early on, and they have access to some of the best coaches. One of the people I had lunch with yesterday was Tommy Boggs, former MLB player and currently the baseball coach for Concordia University Texas. He has been running a program for elite high school baseball players for the past 30 years, many of which have gone on to play college and big league ball.
- hours of practice - similar to the 10,000 hour rule made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, these people spend hours on the field, in the batting cage, and in the bullpen, perfecting what they do. It is no accident that someone like Huston Street (sat next to him at dinner last night) is able to throw a small spherical object to a precise point at 90+ miles per hour night after night.
- discipline - Yesterday at lunch, Scott Linebrink made sure to order green vegetables with his meal so that he would have the proper nutrients in his body. Even after being out of the game for a few years, these players know what it takes to be at the top of their game, and do not let convenience get in the way of their lifestyle.
- love of the game - listening to Keith Moreland talk about his days playing as he emceed the RBI Gala last night brought on both tears and laughter (OK, I may be a little biased here - Moreland played third base for the 1984 Chicago Cubs). These guys LOVE the game and it shows in their interactions with each other and with the fans. Loving what they do allows them to be disciplined and spend hours practicing.
- not taking themselves (or the game) too seriously - while each of these people approach their playing in a professional manner, they also realize it is a game...and that it will not last forever. They realize that they could be out of the game tomorrow, and that someday someone else will come along and be the next Roger Clemens (yes, he was at the RBI gala as well last night, sitting at the table next to mine). Approaching their vocation in this manner allows them to have bad days once in a while, and not lose perspective (even though we as fans might).
- God-given talent - baseball is one of the few games in which body size does not matter as much as other skills (as a short guy, Huston Street would never make it as a professional basketball player). Those who make it to the top of their professions have a natural ability to see the ball well, throw the ball well, and understand the game better than others. What they do with that talent is what's important. During the live auction last night, Huston signed a jersey and put under his name Luke 12:48...upon looking it up, I read these words: "To whom much has been given, much will be demanded." And that is true in baseball...and in life.
- luck - each of these five people would tell you they were lucky to play the game (see Lou Gehrig's Luckiest Man speech). Of the 471,000 high school players, only a very few will be lucky enough to make it to "the show"...and only a very, very few will be lucky enough to actually play in "the bigs"...and only the very best (and luckiest) will stick around for 10, 15, 20, or more years. Of course, without all of the above, luck will never get a chance to actually work.
I have to admit that I was incredibly star-struck yesterday. All five of these people (several of whom I can call colleagues and friends) played in the major leagues - and for me, that is one of the coolest things in the world. I smiled all the way home, knowing that I had the chance to hang out with major league baseball players during the day. I am already looking forward to the next time I get to interact with these gentlemen.
One final thought...one of the best of the best, and my boyhood hero, passed away last week - Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks. He will always be high on my list as the ball player I emulated growing up. I did get the chance to meet him once at an autograph session and that picture still hangs in my room, along with the many cards and other memorabilia I have of him. RIP Mr. Cub...thanks for the memories!