The joy of playing does not need to be sacrificed in the name of competition. On the contrary, the joy of playing includes winning and performing at your highest possible level. Sport asks for all of your mind, body and spirit to win the game. But, it also demands that it be done with virtue. Accepting anything less transforms play into a selfish work. It is no longer done for the higher purpose, for the contemplation of the highest things for their own sake, but rather for the base and fleeting ends of money, power and fame.
As we enter into the 2014 MLB Season, I’d like to share two stories on how baseball has taught the lesson of overcoming competitiveness for the sake of virtuous and joyful play.
Amanda MacDonald wrote an award-winning essay about a sportsmanship incident she witnessed during her brother’s Little League game. Her brother’s team was losing, even though they had the best pitcher in the league. It was the last inning, and an opposing player with cerebral palsy come up to bat. When the pitcher saw this boy, he asked his coach if he could walk halfway between the pitcher’s mound and home plate. Despite his teammates yelling, “Strike him out!” he lightly tossed the ball to the batter until he got a hit and a runner on base.
While it could have been an easy out, putting aside the chance to win to help someone feel good about themselves was more important to the pitcher. This story shows how works of virtue can touch a life. That pitcher wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to make a big statement here.” He simply did what he believed was right, and you can see through his leadership— which is really what he demonstrated—that his act has had an impact.
This kind of virtuous behavior isn’t just for Little Leaguers. Sara Tucholsky, a senior softball player for Western Oregon University, was up to bat for the last time in her collegiate career. Not only had she never hit a home run, but of her thirty-four at-bats that season, she only had three hits. Sara found herself at the plate in the top of the second inning with two runners on base in a 0-0 tie with conference rival Central Washington University. On the second pitch, Sara made solid contact and watched the ball sail over the fence for a home run. She was so elated that as she sprinted past first base, she missed touching the bag. Realizing it, she spun around quickly to go back to touch it, but as she pivoted her cleats grabbed the infield clay and she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. Immediately dropping to the ground with a loud yell, she laid there in pain unable to move.
The umpire told her that if she didn’t make it around the bases she would only be credited with a single, and if any of her teammates helped her, she would be out. Mallory Holtman, the all-time conference home run hitter from the opposing team, approached the umpire and asked if they could pick her up and carry her around the bases. He stared back at her with disbelief on his face, consulted the other umpires, and then said, “Yes.” As they began to lift her up, Liz said, “You hit the ball over the fence and you deserve it.”
They slowly moved around the bases, gently touching her foot to each bag. As Mallory looked up into the stands as they rounded third heading for home, she realized that the entire crowd was on their feet clapping. Instead of cheering or yelling, she saw tears streaming down their faces. Everyone watching was overwhelmed with emotion by the act of love they had just witnessed. Tears of joy and gratitude were in Sara’s eyes, too. With her last time at bat, she had finally completed her life-long dream of hitting a home run. Mallory and Liz may have helped Sara’s team to win the game that day, but their act of selflessness won the hearts of everyone who witnessed it.
No matter how “big” sport may become, it’s still play. Whether it’s riding a bike for the first time, winning an Olympic gold medal, or becoming the next winner of the World Series, sport is about the joy of competing and performing at your best. It challenges you and those you compete against to reach higher, to double your talents, to give back all that you have to give. And if it is motivated by virtue rather than an inordinate drive for money, power, or fame, then you will have in no small way moved one step closer to making peak performance a common occurrence in your life.