It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” I’m unclear about the conditions that necessitated the invention of Baseball, but I’m grateful for it, nonetheless. Not everyone enjoys the game; it’s more conducive for a snooze than a foaming fan frenzy; there’s even an inning dedicated to stretching. Nevertheless, here I am, in Section 10FD, anxiously awaiting the first pitch. Before the steroid scandal, before the strike of ’94, it was a marvelous time to be a fan. Fernando Valenzuela struck out the side—looking up—Bo Jackson scaled the outfield wall like Spider-Man and Nolan Ryan snatched up Robin Ventura—twenty years his junior—in a headlock. The nostalgia is enough to bring a tear to my eye, but I must heed Tom Hank’s half-sober proclamation in “A League of Their Own:”
There’s no crying in baseball.
The sun is slowly setting and the boys of Summer are about to take the field. No, this isn’t a love letter about baseball, but it does make me think. The baseball season is 162 games, increased from 154 in 1961. How does someone get motivated for that many games? What if they lose motivation, what brings them back? The word “slump” sends ballplayers running for cover, what can we do when we find ourselves in one? We all have ups-and-downs in motivation at various times. How can we recapture that motivation to rebound without too much delay?
Some will describe inspiration as a “driving force” and motivation as a “pulling force.” I have no arguments with the distinctions, and I agree that it’s important to know the difference. However, I’ll use them interchangeably, to the dismay—I’m sure—of the New Age Achievement Philosophers. Providing bumper-sticker clichés about motivation is a quick getaway. While this works—short term—it doesn’t address the inevitability of running out of steam. You can only go full-speed for so long without burning out. Not all of us are the 90-year old Juice Man with bushy eyebrows and frenetic energy. Some of us get tired, despite having strong sources of inspiration. For the ballplayers, it’s a long season of going town-to-town, putting on the cleats, day-in-and-day-out. For us, it’s a long year of dieting, exercising, and displaying discipline; but for what? The first appearance of success on the horizon is a shot in the arm; then it gets tough. Some say the “last ten” is difficult physiologically, which it is, but it’s much harder psychologically. What puzzles me is returning to the groove once “motivation fatigue” sets in, not preventing its unavoidable occurrence.
The “Curse of the Bambino” was one of those American Legends that sprang into popular culture in 1990. It described the World Series drought that plagued the Boston Red Sox since 1918, the year the Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. The city of Boston popped like Pompeii when the curse was broken in 2004. The World Series took place on the heels of one of the most dramatic comebacks in history when The Red Sox overcame a 0-3 series deficit against—you guessed it—The Yankees. However, in 1967, the curse was in full-swing; pun intended.
The ’67 season was called the “Impossible Dream.” For one player, it would turn out to be a nightmare. Five years earlier, at the age of 17, Tony Conigliaro—Tony C—was signed by the Red Sox, where he played in the Minor Leagues. The kid showed incredible potential and looked as though he could propel the team to that elusive World Championship. In his rookie year, he did not disappoint; hitting 24 home runs, even going yard in his first appearance at Fenway Park. By 22, he amassed 100 career home runs, the youngest player in American League history to do so. During the Impossible Dream season, the young Massachusetts-born slugger was selected to the All-Star Game in Anaheim, California. On August 18th, 1967, Anaheim’s team, the California Angels—before the Los Angeles Angels-of-Anaheim nonsense—visited the Sox in Boston. It was then that tragedy struck. In the fourth inning, a fastball left the hand of the Angel’s Jack Hamilton. The six-foot, 200lbs pitcher was known for tremendous velocity and the control of a baby driving a Ferrari. The fastball boomed from the mound and raced towards Tony C’s face, knocking him unconscious, instantly. Tony left the game on a stretcher, suffering from a shattered cheekbone, dislocated jaw and a severely damaged retina. In the hospital room, white coats and clipboards hover over the young man. The prognosis: hang it up, kid. You’ll never play again.
Silence. No roaring crowds. Tony could only watch his teammates from a distance—with his right eye—unsure if he’d ever see again out of his left, let alone swing the Louisville Slugger. In 1969, a sound penetrated the abyss of muteness. It was the cry of the Fenway loyal, and the city of Boston as Tony C returned to the plate. It was the sound of his cleats digging into the hallowed dirt of the batter’s box. It was the whizzing noise of the ball, as it accelerated towards him. If courage had a sound, it was heard that day. He cracked 20 home runs that season, 36 the following year. The reality of his injury would catch up to him in 1975, retiring due to declining eyesight. It’s not his ending that we remember; everyone loves a comeback story.
Athletes have a knack for comebacks. Monica Seles came back and won the Australian Open after being—literally—stabbed in the back in Hamburg. Michael Jordan came back to win three straight NBA titles, not after injury, but an equally calamitous attempt at Baseball. How do we make our comeback from lost or stolen motivation? What inspires Anthony Robles; a boy born with one leg—refusing a prosthetic—who gets a wrestling scholarship, racking up a 36-0 record and winning the NCAA title? What inspires people like Billy Miske, the boxer who, despite having a terminal kidney disease, returns to win a boxing match by knockout? Billy would die two months later. What propels us to do extraordinary things, despite our limitations?
Although they all had different inspirations and motivations, there’s a common denominator between all these stories: the unrestrainable craving for a challenge. The human spirit’s longing for the “ordeal” is what separates jogging across the street and running 26 miles. It’s the question, “can humans achieve flight?” to “can I fly this thing around the world?” to “can we stand on the moon?” The trial-by-fire has driven us from the beginning of civilization and is no less meaningful today in our technological age. Silicon Valley has not eliminated the need for a higher purpose by putting the information superhighway at our fingertips. People—now more than ever—are craving deeper meaning, not memes, and greater significance, not status updates.
It’s not about baseball or any other sport; it’s the tribulation. Challenges ask us questions in unique forms, unduplicatable by the SATs. You learn something about yourself that would otherwise remain a dormant lesson for years, possibly forever. Take the typical linear goal of losing twenty pounds. Why do you want to lose it? Would it make you happy? Why haven’t you done it yet? What will this goal—this challenge—teach you about who you are, and more importantly, why you are? When motivation decreases—which it will—your comeback is woven into your answers. You’ve no doubt heard this inspirational question: “what are you made of?” You’re made out of the same bits and pieces that Tony C and Monica Seles are made from. My question is, what are you made for?