Over the past four years I have had the privilege of spending time encouraging the leaders in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, which means last night was awesome … only it wasn’t.
It was awesome because the Pirates won in dramatic walk-off fashion over the pesky St. Louis Cardinals. Eleven innings of nail biting fun. Can you say, “Raise the Jolly Roger.”
Last night wasn’t awesome because I couldn’t call my dad to ask him if he had seen the ending. He died Easter weekend.
In the movie Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones famously recites, The one constant through all the years, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”
Baseball definitely marked the time for my dad and me. Dad loved baseball. He was actually offered a minor league contract by the Cardinals back in the day. He turned it down to marry my mom and opted for professional fast pitch softball and a job in a carpet mill.
Soon after, I showed up and dad taught me to love baseball too. He coached me, challenged me, and encouraged me through America’s pastime.
Two of dad’s lessons from the diamond have stuck with me all these years …
1. The leader is the one who is willing to sacrifice the most. In the mid 70’s the baseball bat companies invented and introduced the aluminum bat. By 1975 they had made their way to my small town in North Georgia. The first time I held one I remember thinking, “Life just got a whole lot easier. I’m about to become a home run hitter.”
My dad had other thoughts. That was the summer he taught me to bunt.
The idea was to give myself up so a teammate could advance on the bases and be in position to score.
Bunting is no fun for a kid, but my dad understood I needed to learn to sacrifice. At the time, I thought he was nuts … we won the championship that summer. Turns out he was smarter than I thought.
In his wisdom, dad was preparing me for what was to come … adulthood.
Now, every day I find myself bunting for my kids, providing them with opportunities to score through tuition payments, transportation, and serving them with my time. The same way dad served hundreds of kids in our community through his coaching.
You were right dad, the leader is the one who is willing to sacrifice the most.
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2. Character is more important than skill. At my dad’s memorial service last week one of my former teammates told me how he still remembers my dad’s lofty expectations for our team. Those expectations had nothing to do with winning, yet everything to do with being winners.
My friend said, “There was never a tournament when your dad didn’t say to our team, ‘Boys we may or may not win, but we better bring home the sportsmanship trophy.'” My friend has remembered my dad’s challenge for over 35 years. Why? Because character really does matter.
We won several championships and the trophies to go with them, but my dad was most proud when we won those sportsmanship trophies.
My friend Mark Miller reminds me often, “If your heart’s not right, no one cares about your skills.” It sounds like something dad would have said.
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James Earl was right … last week my blackboard was erased, and it felt like the steamroller ran over me. There is no one left to call when my team wins. Time will no longer be marked by the game we loved so much. From now on it will simply be baseball without dad.
But the lessons will remain. Lessons of sacrifice and character. Lessons every boy, and every leader, needs to learn.