I want to talk about being an athlete. Not as fans see me. Not as opponents see me. But, as I see me. The tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi and the seven others has taken me to a deeper level…unfortunately an abundance of sadness and grief…and yet, maybe deeper, what it means to be an athlete.
When I was put on injury reserve my senior year at Stanford, couldn’t play because my toss from the pitcher’s mound to home plate, 60’6” in measurement, never went past 30 feet. Sure. It was devastating. My senior year. I could suit up but I couldn’t play.
The injury was my fault. I tried to get a third strike on a batter who had fouled 4 straight pitches on a 3-2 count. My last pitch was my fastest…even though we didn’t have radar measurement, I knew it was my fastest. The batter took it, STRIKE THREE!
I didn’t know it was my last pitch for the Stanford Nine.
I didn’t say anything. Went to the bench, but my arm—left arm since my father at the age of 7 put my first baseball glove on my right hand—was dead.
Went out for the next inning and my first warm-up pitch barely made it 30 feet to home plate.
The diagnosing doctor said only time would heal. Surgery couldn’t repair the torn nerve casing in my arm. Well, being a philosophical wag I also knew that time could wound.
Did come back that summer and discovered I could pitch again…for Archer Blower, a semi-professional baseball team in Portland, Oregon.
And then. I did make my last pitch, much more memorable than the last Stanford pitch…in a semi-final game for the National Semi-Professional Baseball World Series in Battle Creek, Michigan.
We won, 4-3. I pitched seven innings and Tom Becic, a guy who could really pitch, finished the game.
We won the next game for the championship.
I laid up my glove.
In remembering that, as I ponder the tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s death, I realized something else.
More than reading the teared-up tributes from other athletes.
It struck me…athletes have a special bond. Because we know what’s demanded of us, way inside.
And the best athletes I know…even some college teammates who achieved Professional Baseball success…and yes, I tip my hat to Jim Lonborg who pitched for the Red Sox in a World Series…we know the challenge and great joy in being an athlete.
When I think of the “other athletes” in my life, I realize a special bonding. Yes, with them. But, even deeper. I realize the deep bonding I had—and in a way still have—within myself.
For the measurement of growth was how well I got better. How well I trained. Hey, running up those steps in the Stanford football stadium wasn’t a picnic. When I’d finish my third getting up those stairs, the final ten became higher, one to the next.
But, the real deal in the bonding of an athlete is how much within the self I gained strength and value.
And I knew…still know…how much I respect athletes…we have this special bonding, no matter our individual self.
Some have asked me a question I understand. Why didn’t I sign a professional baseball contract? After all, in 1962 when I graduated from college, eleven players for the Southern California Trojans signed baseball contracts. And in my junior year one of the Stanford Professors, who had been a Priest…and taught me how to write more effectively, urged me to become a professional baseball player before I attended seminary.
I remember what he said, “I bet, Mark, you play professional baseball and your sermons will get more attention.” Really? Probably not.
But, then he considered it his clincher, “Look at it this way. You have the same initials as Mickey Mantle.”
Ah, caring support!
And truth holding. In those days, signing a contract happened with great ease. Yes, I could have signed up with either the Dodgers or the Pirates. [Hey, Joanne, did I ever tell you this…your favorite team?}
But I didn’t.
Because…no drum-roll here…I wasn’t that good.
I had grown those four college years. But I knew that my skills had limits…and figured my future shouldn’t be cannon fodder for the next Mickey Mantle, no matter the matching initials.
Okay. I know this is lengthy. But, it’s my self-reflection upon the death of Kobe Bryant…and at least, even though I could never dunk a basketball…jumping high was not my gift—down deep I feel a bonding.
Because I am an athlete and I know what happens deep in the self…personal yes, but, bonding even more.