Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Good Days And Bad Days

I always say that when writing, motivation and perspective are the two most important things. Perhaps I'm motivated to write, but not enough time has passed for the events of which I am motivated to write about have any real context. On the other hand, there might be a great subject primed and ready to go, but the inspiration to write it fails me. Either way, people kept telling me "You need to write about this season. So many things that have happened!" Therein lies precisely my dilemma.

Things this season seems to be happening at such a rapid pace that I haven't felt capable of sitting and digesting all of it without fear of missing something else. It's like a roller coaster that keeps making sharp turns and dips while all the people standing in line keep screaming at you to take a good picture. There's a reason so few players (especially in the course of a 162 game baseball season) write, journal, chronicle, etc. their experiences. I had fans and reporters coming up to me after my first start of the season telling me that surely I would have to blog about that night. 12 strikeouts! No runs! It's basically written itself, right? And maybe they were right. But the reality of the matter is that after celebrating well that night with a glass of wine and some dark chocolate Raisinets, I had mentally moved onto my next start. I woke up early the next morning before our day game and was the first to the field, knowing that I had to eat, run, throw, lift and go over video before the 12:05 game began. For better or worse that's the nature of this game. It leaves little time for dwelling on things, good or bad. 5 days later I had another good outing at home. I was fortunate enough to throw into the 9th inning for the first time in my major league career and had a chance for my first shutout as well. Neither the complete game nor the shutout remained intact, but it was, nevertheless, one of the best games I've pitched in my short career thus far. I was greeted with not one, but two, Gatorade baths and a bunch of hugs and kisses from my wife and family afterwards. Once again we celebrated well; this time with friends, a couple local beers and some pimento cheese (classy, i know). Yet just as before, once that night was over, so were the warm fuzzy feelings of success.

The next day brought more of the same questions and pleadings from friends and media alike. "Write!" "Tell us what it feels like to have success like this after being so mediocre for the last two years" (I'm paraphrasing, but you get the point). For whatever reason, however, both the motivation and perspective didn't feel right. Maybe it was a superstitious fear that as soon as I wrote down what it felt like it would be over. Maybe it was a selfish longing to hold onto the emotions that those two weeks had given me. You know, keep something for myself. Either way, I didn't write, and when the sun rose the next morning I was once again full steam ahead for my next start.

I'm a man of routine. I had 7 days between start number 2 and 3, and I did pretty much everything the exact same as the previous week. I did the same workouts. I got all of the same treatment from our trainers. I even ate at the same Mexican restaurant the night before my start just as I did the week prior. But if I had any faith in superstition, it was broken that night of my 3rd start. It wasn't that I pitched poorly. I actually felt good out there! It wasn't that I gave up a million runs (although 6 is pretty close). It was the simple fact that all things equal, I should've done really well against the team I did really well against 15 days beforehand. But baseball isn't a simple game. Sure everyone gets 3 strikes and you have to get 3 outs, but beyond the playing rules there are so many variables that discourage consistently great performances. Perhaps that's why streaks in baseball are so fun to watch. Players defying the "baseball gods" by stringing together success after success. And still, they all come to an end. For me, it was two really good starts before the odds caught up with me.

Sitting in the locker room after that start, cameras and microphones in front of my face, I was asked what the difference was between that night and the previous starts. My answers were generic. Stuff wasn't as sharp. Give credit to the other guys, they swung the bat well. Wish I could've given our team some more innings. All true answers, but not the truth that was ringing between my ears. What I really wanted to say, the real difference between this start and the other starts, was nothing. I had prepared the same, given the same effort against the same team and had come out on the short end this time. Baseball has a way of evening things out over the long run...a concept that's hard to grasp when you, as a player, don't know how long that run will be. Before, in my career, I would worry that one bad outing would define me. That if I pitched poorly I would get sent down, and if I got sent down or designated enough, teams would have a bad opinion of me. It was a self fulfilling prophecy. I would pitch poorly (because, as we already said, everyone does at some point), freak out that it was the end, heap more and more pressure on, only to find myself back on the mound again fighting for my baseball life. It was unsustainable and draining in every way. My wife and I, over the course of our 5 years of marriage/baseball, have tried really hard to fight that mentality. We prayed for patience and perspective, and practiced living it out as often as possible. But until this season I wasn't sure if it had really sunk in.

That night, however, standing tall and undaunted after a loss...I realized that it had. Days like that are going to happen. In baseball and life, there will be good days and bad, but they are both fleeting. Each day can only hold 24 hours, so when life is good CELEBRATE WELL! And when life is tough, remember that there is a newer one, a potentially much better one, just on the other side of the horizon. In the end, we will be judged by the entire body of work, so don't let one good day paralyze you with contentment and don't let the bad ones crush your resolve. Keep plugging away and chances are, in the end, you'll end up right where you're supposed to be.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Field 5 All-Stars

It was the last week of Spring training, and I sat watching the pre-game warm ups on field 5. Stretching on the right field line were a smattering of players, all at differing levels of the minor leagues...but minor leaguers all the same. Some of them were playing just for a chance at making a club. Some were already cemented into a roster spot on one of the 6 minor league affiliates. Most were young. Some were older. All were tired. This was week 7 of camp and most everybody was over playing games where nobody kept score. Where statistics don't matter, and on field 5 where the games more resemble The Sandlot than Minute Maid Park.

The way the facility was set up, each full season affiliated team had a field to itself. The big stadium was for the big leaguers, obviously. Fields 2-4 were for A-AAA respectively. Then, back about 400 yards from the rest, field 5 stood in solitary confinement. It was reserved for the rookie ball guys and whatever other castoffs needed to get some work in. Those players relegated to the daily game on the back field gave themselves the ironic and self deprecating nickname of "field 5 all-stars". These games on field 5 never had real umpires, instead they commissioned rookie ball coaches to stand behind the pitcher's mound and call balls and strikes. Like I said before, it was always a mish mash of young and old, bright-eyed and bitter, full of expectation and full of unrealized expectations.

As the game began with an unenthusiastic "Play ball..." from the coach/umpire, I could immediately see the difference between players on field 5. It wasn't that the talent levels were so much different between veteran and rookie. In fact, with no names on the back of jerseys it would be nearly impossible to distinguish someone with 5 years of big league time from a player fresh out of the draft...except for one glaring characteristic. I could tell immediately which guys took this field 5 all-star game seriously and which ones saw the game as an obligation beneath their talents or experience. Not to say that either of the groups was right or wrong in the scenario. However, when it came to execution and ultimately the result of the game, those who treated being a field 5 all-star as a worthwhile job came out on top. So as an older player, the running joke continues. It's just accepted that if you are chosen to be a field 5 all-star on any given day, you're probably gonna get shown up by a bunch of fresh faced teenage newbies. And nobody seems to take that reality very seriously, because the thought is that when games really begin to matter, the more experienced group can turn it on and compete at the level they should. Maybe they can. Maybe it's as easy as flipping a switch. But if the game of baseball has taught me anything, it's that this game is NOT THAT EASY.

I've been around long enough by now to understand why these things continue to happen, but as I sat and watched a group of young energetic ball players fight and scrap for nine innings in front of no fans on one of the last days of camp, I saw something that resonated. The rookie field 5 players took their back field game just as seriously as the big leaguers took their big league game. They don't know any better because that's all they get. Their lack of experience makes every field 5 game the most important game. But because the older guys have seen what else is out there, the field 5 game feels like a demotion unworthy of their best efforts. The lie in that logic, however, is that just because where you are isn't as "flashy" or important, that the work you're doing is also not important. I feel like we've all experienced this to an extent in our lives. Perhaps you've spent 7 long years working hard and getting the best grades at a good college and law school, only to be saddled with a first job that has you pushing papers 80 hours a week for little pay. Maybe you changed career fields and starting from square one seems like a giant step back. Quite possibly a child or older adult came into your life and "work" became less suit and tie and more diapers and strained peas. Whatever the case, I encourage all of us to remember that work as a field 5 all-star, though maybe less sexy, is just as important as big league work. The better and more consistently we execute our jobs on the back fields of life, the more prepared and confident we will be when we're invited back to the big ones.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Report Date 2014

I was about 30 miles outside of Kissimmee, FL when I realized it. I had already stopped to get gas and lunch, but it had slipped my mind. I was about to attempt navigating through Orlando without any cash for tolls. If you’ve ever driven down to Disney© (the most magical place on earth) then you understand…I should’ve known better. There were a couple of options at my disposal at that point. I could either hope that the tolls took personal checks, of which I would have to write approximately 6 of them for $1.50 a piece. Or, as I chose to do, try the scenic route around Orlando straight to Kissimmee. My GPS said it would add about 30 extra minutes to the drive, which I wasn’t crazy about, but it beat writing a of handful checks, grandma-in-a-grocery-store style.

I got off the expressway and onto the dreaded back roads in all their stoplight glory. I whizzed travelled at exactly the speed limit past cows, pastures, fields of orange trees and the occasional Mickey D's. Once I got closer to Kissimmee (step brother to the most magical place on earth) I began to feel the crawl of traffic, suggesting the “snow birds” and tourists were out in force. 30 minutes turned into an hour, and my limit for traffic on long road trips had officially expired. Finally I rolled into Osceola County Stadium only to be directed into a parking lot for the rodeo next door. Confused at where I was being led, I decided to ask the camo-clad traffic director if this was the way to the Houston Astros major league clubhouse. The look I got was priceless. It was a combination of frustration and judgment, coupled with a cigarette hanging gracefully from his lower lip. Like how could I possibly want to go to a baseball stadium when there was a rodeo literally right in front of me. He begrudgingly pointed me in the direction of the building on the other side of the parking lot and I exited the bull crazed circus as quickly as possible. I headed over to, what was, my new office for the next 6 weeks.

I pulled up in my wife’s dirty 2006 Toyota Corolla. Yes, the same one with the huge dent in the passenger’s side door and an endearing UGA sticker on the rear windshield. 121,000 miles of getting us from point A to point B, with no end in sight. Yet it stood in stark contrast to the rest of the cars in the parking lot. There was a row of rental cars. All identical Chrystler 200 sedans only varying in shades of white and burgundy, and all on loan to ballplayers and coaches who decided renting a car was easier than the drive from their respective homes. My drive was only about 7.5 hours (6.5 without my cashless detour), but some guys coming from up north or out west were looking at 20+ hours trips and a few thousand miles on their whips. A couple thousand miles on the old Corolla wouldn’t do too much to hurt its resale value, but for the guys driving cars without huge dents in them sometimes a rental is better than the miles on those beauties. However, some decided to bring their cars, trucks and SUVs down to camp anyway. And let me tell you, my car was OUT OF PLACE. There were Mercedes, Jaguars, souped-up Jeeps and lifted trucks. Most looked as if they had just been through the wash and detailed with a toothbrush. I proudly rolled my little non gas guzzler into a gravel spot amidst the others, outwardly happy that my wife and I decided not to buy new cars, but inwardly jealous that the clocks in all the other cars probably worked, unlike mine.

Grabbing my Colorado Rockies bag out of the trunk, I felt, for the first time, very self-conscious. I looked like a sort of baseball mutt. I had a New York Mets suitcase and a Colorado Rockies baseball bag, while walking into my new team, the Astros, clubhouse. It felt wrong to do, but that was the hand we had been dealt of over the last 8 months. 3 organizations, each with their own way of doing things (and their own luggage). Walking towards the glass doors, I hoped somebody would simply point me in the right direction. I had already made up my mind that I would walk around that entire building if I had to, looking like I knew exactly what I was doing until someone told me differently. Not the best plan, I know, but you gotta at least act like you belong, right? By the grace of God I opened the right doors and made my way into the major league clubhouse. I popped my head into the first office I came across, which happened to be the clubbies’ domain. Thank goodness! These are the guys that you want to see first, because they’re super nice, super helpful and don’t judge you when you walk in looking like this…

I introduced myself to all of them hoping that the sound of my name would at least ring some bell in their heads that I was supposed to be here. Apparently it did, because they led me to my locker right in the front...right next to the bathrooms. Not sure exactly what the deal is with me and bathrooms, but the world has a way of always putting me close to them. From my college dorm room to multiple big league lockers, the toilet is never more than a few steps away. Maybe it’s the universe trying to tell me “I understand you have bowel issues”, or maybe it just knows that I’m a sucker for looking at myself in the mirror (who isn’t, though). On my chair there was a stack of boxes 5 high. This could best be described as “2nd Christmas”. These were my new shoes, cleats, shirts, jackets, and various other baseball related gear for the new season. My endorsement deals (Yes, people are finally giving me stuff for free!) guaranteed me a certain amount of athletic products from said companies, so I began tearing open the boxes. Like a small child, I ripped them open and tore tissue paper out of the toe of cleats, trying them on to make sure they fit just right. Once satisfied with the experience, I decided it was probably a good idea to put in some face time with as many coaches as were still around. I did my best “little kid trying not to get caught” impression, peeking around corners and into offices until I finally found one that was occupied by men of a distinct age and attire usually characterized by coaches. It was our manager’s office and with him sat our pitching coach and bench coach for the major league team. Now I always consider myself well prepared for encounters like these. I’ll go over a script a few times in my head of probable topics of conversation, tone and body language. Yet when these scenarios present themselves, I never fail to look/act like a confused teenager. When I sheepishly knocked on the door all 3 sets of eyes (6 individual eyes for all you math majors out there) locked on me immediately. I froze. I think everyone in the room was waiting for me to say what I was doing interrupting a coaches’ meeting at 4:30 in the evening, but all I could muster was, “Hey guys. I’m Collin McHugh?” Yes, I phrased it like a question, with the assumption that if I was in the right place they would invite me in, and if not, they’d continue to stare at me awkwardly until I backed out the way I came in.  The seconds that passed after my strange introduction seemed to last forever. I could feel the beads of sweat beginning to form on my forehead, until finally the manager stood up and stretched out his hand. “Welcome to the Astros,” he said. And with that, I breathed an audible sigh of relief and we all exchanged pleasantries. I was on my way out, but before I could get through the door, I heard a voice say those words that everyone longs to hear. The words that mean more to us as social beings than any others. 
“We’re really glad to have you here, son. You belong.”

That pang inside all of us that dreads new experiences is fear. Fear that we won’t be accepted for who we are. Fear that we won’t live up to expectations. Fear of being ostracized. Fear of failure. Fear that we don’t and will never belong. I know that FDR said that the only thing to fear is fear itself, but as we all know, fear can be pretty damn scary. Yet, with a turn of phrase, once person erased all of those fears. Sure, there will always be doubt and second guessing in this game, but the basis for all those fears was erased in that moment. I was told that I belong. That I was in the right place at the right time for a specific purpose. I’m not sure there are more life-giving words that can be spoken, both on the field, off the field and in all of our relationships. 

So camp has begun. It’s well underway at this point and pretty much everything is still up in the air. I don’t know where I’ll be spending my summer, or who will be joining me wherever I land. There are still 3 more weeks left until opening day, and every day affords each of us more opportunity to confirm the words spoken over us.

We belong.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Get Your Arm Up

While throwing my first bullpen in college (Fall 2005), I heard a phrase for the first time. A phrase that would be repeated to me over and over the next 8 years.

   "Get your arm up."

Josh Hopper, my pitching coach at the time, asked me nicely the first time. Almost like a suggestion. I concentrated a little harder on the next pitch. Focusing on my arm slot being a little bit higher, I hit my target with ease. But within 5 pitches I was back to my old habits. My elbow sagging lower and lower. My hand migrating to the side or underneath the baseball. Pitches sailing up and in with no hope of ever reaching the glove. This time coach Hop looked over at me with his unmistakable scowl and yelled "STOP!"

   "I told you to get your arm up and you did. The results were much better, right? So why the hell do you keep dropping your arm? You ok with being mediocre?" He said.

That frustrated me to no end! If I knew how to do it differently in that scenario I obviously would've been doing it. Sure, I knew logically that keeping my arm angle higher and making sure I get my hand on top of the baseball were keys to executing the pitch correctly, but there were years and years of bad habits standing in the way of doing it "the right way." Had I started getting my arm up while playing catch in the front yard at the age of 7, perhaps I would've been more successful now. Had anyone told me growing up that the way I threw wasn't ideal, maybe it wouldn't have been so hard for me to do it correctly in college. My inability to consistently get my arm up wasn't me purposefully doing things the wrong way, it was the result of doing what was easier (more natural) for me to do.

I've seen this played out in other parts of my life as well. For instance, how many times have people told me that I should eat more vegetables? Too many to count. And for the longest time, my response was the same. I would go to Whole Foods (because expensive = healthy, right?), buy some leafy greens and come back home to eat salads for a week. I knew it was good for me. I knew that, in the long run, my body would be better off for it. But without fail, I would get two days into it before finding myself in the drive thru line of Chick-Fil-A, salivating over the aroma of some waffle fries and a chicken sandwich. Once again, it wasn't because I was anti-health that I fled to the nearest fast food restaurant. It was because I didn't grow up eating a lot of vegetables, and as much as I understood and wanted the benefits of eating them, eating fried chicken came more naturally.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't make these examples as an excuse. I'm not trying to explain away my shortcomings as, country music would put it, "products of my raising." In fact, quite the opposite. I've had to work everyday to correct the bad habits I developed growing up...both on the field and off. Not a day goes by during the season that I'm not in front of a mirror practicing my delivery. Trying with every bit of focus I can muster to keep my arm in a good throwing position. It's hard. I sweat a lot. I feel drained at the end of each session. But I know that when the game rolls around, my chances of doing it correctly are much higher. The same goes for my diet. I had to cut out a bunch of stuff, cold turkey. I have to plan out meals and on purpose try new foods that I might hate. I have to eat some organic gluten free oatmeal when all I really want is a warm sweet pastry. Day by day I'm getting better at it, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

The reason I want to remember those examples is so that I don't get too down on myself when I inevitably don't do it right. It's natural that as long as it took me to build up those bad habits, it'll take a good amount of time to break them as well. It's like New Year's resolutions. People get so fired up to do something differently. To make a change. Yet as soon as they fall short, it's as if it was all for naught. BUT THAT"S NOT TRUE!! No one is perfect and very few people, if any, do new things perfectly right off the bat. Breaking habits is hard and it requires patience. You might fail 1, 2 or 50 times, but don't get down on yourself. Just remember that a willingness to do hard things is the first and most difficult step, and that everyday you keep doing it, it gets easier and easier.

I'm sure I will have days where I eat chocolate cake while nobody is looking. And I definitely still have days where, for the life of me, I can't seem to get my arm up (no matter how loud coach Hop is in my head). However, I'm constantly learning that as long as I'm still committed to breaking the bad habits, those shortcomings aren't ultimate failures. Rather, they are natural steps along the path to doing things differently. Doing things better.

"Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Friday, February 7, 2014

Good, But Not Good Enough

My wife and I were talking not too long ago about the topic of competency. She is unbelievably talented (don't trust me? check out her work), but was in this funk where every piece of her work she looked at didn't seem to stand up against her competitors'. Looking down at what I would consider a finished print she said, "I know I'm good, but it doesn't ever feel like I'm good enough." I looked at her knowingly and said, "I know exactly how you feel."

We live in this weird baseball Limbo where it seems like I've always been just good enough to get us to over the hump to the next level. But now there is this new hump, a new "good enough", called the big leagues that I can't seem to live up to. My minor league numbers are pretty darn good, no matter who you compare them to. I've had my ups and downs through the levels, but at the end of the day I was decent enough to make it to the big leagues with 2 different teams. My big league numbers, however, are mediocre at best...and at worst, downright atrocious. Like Ashley, I know that I am good. History has shown that to be at least mostly true. But I too look at myself and think "Will I ever be good enough?"

As an athlete, being competitive has always come naturally to me. I was raised with 3 siblings (2 brothers and a sister) and we all competed, literally and figuratively, for the entirety of our childhoods. We fought for parents' attention, bragging rights at the ping pong table, front seat in our Mercury Villager minivan and just about anything else where there was a perceived victor (everything). Naturally, that translated well to the baseball field. I was intrinsically driven to win every game, play every inning and make every all star team no matter the significance...or insignificance...of the honor. I never really played travel ball growing up, so it wasn't so hard for me to see myself as one of the best players in our small suburban rec. league. Once middle and high school rolled around, the competition got better and I did what was second nature to me. I competed. I finally made the Varsity squad as a sophomore, and there was a sense of school pride that permeated my on field performance. I wanted to bring home a championship for Providence Christian Academy, but more than anything I just wanted to keep playing after my 4 years there were over. I practiced and played in the hopes that I would be good enough to earn a scholarship to play college baseball. Turns out I was good enough. I attended Berry College on a baseball scholarship and I pitched there for 3 years. I wasn't an All-American (not even academically) and I didn't shock the baseball world with crazy velocity or stats. I was, however, good enough to get drafted in 2008. I played for 5.5 years in the New York Mets organization, hitting every minor league level they have to offer. Methodically (and divinely I believe), I made it through each level and onto the next until I reached the big leagues in August of 2012. Here's where the pattern breaks.

There is no next level at this point. There's the Hall of Fame (which is the ultimate all star team), but even that is simply an honor bestowed on you long after your playing days are over. Once you get to the level I am at now, there is no "good enough" that's "good enough" anymore.

Let's go through an ideal major league career:
- Made it to the big leagues
- Immediately have success and make and all star team
- Win World Series
- Get big $$$ contract extension
- Gain endorsement deals
- Win Cy Young award(s)
- Continue for the next 10 years
- Qualify for full pension
- Keep playing until you either retire or quit
- Get elected by journalists into the Hall of Fame

There is only a very small percentage of guys who have played this game that have achieved those things. And among those guys, at what point along their journey did they rest and say "Now I'm finally good enough." When they got the money? The awards? The tenure? Doubtful. My guess is that they probably used the questions of "Am I good enough" to drive them forward to succeed. But the vast majority of us are already behind the 8 ball when it comes to checking those items off of our career bucket lists, so we can't even come close to saying that we're good enough. It's easy to feel like we're on a professional hamster wheel, perpetually turning faster and faster but not actually getting anywhere. So many of us who play the game think that if we can just get to that next milestone, then we'll be good enough. "If I can just make the club out of Spring training....If I can just get to arbitration...If I can just get that multi year deal...if only..." There is no real end in sight. The thought process is completely unrealistic and, I dare say, impossible. The reality is that all of us will fall short of something. Many of us baseball players won't ever get a multi year deal or make an all star team. But even most of the guys who do won't win a world series or make the hall of fame. At the end, there will always be something that we will have fallen short of. That we won't have been "good enough" for. But is that the way you want to look at your life? Is that a healthy way to view any professional endeavor?

Let's look at a more optimistic reality. I have already been good enough to accomplish everything that I've done in the past. We all have! Every one of us has accomplished something, big or small, in our lives. And in that moment of accomplishment we were exactly good enough to complete whatever it was. So the question of whether or not we'll be good enough to accomplish something more difficult in the future should be simple...why not? If the past is any indicator of the future then why shouldn't we be able to do great things? We've all been up to the task at hand before, so it is totally reasonable to believe that with growth, practice, sweat, tears and faith we will be able to do it again...but with something bigger!

I loved Russell Wilson's (QB for the World Champion Seattle Seahawks) post game Super Bowl interview. After initially giving thanks to God for his blessings (the things we can't earn), Wilson repeated the phrase that has become their team's mantra all year. Why Not Us? His father used to ask him the same question growing up. Being a quarterback who was small in stature and better at baseball anyway, people were skeptical about his ability to become a great college, let alone NFL, QB. His father's response to the criticisms were, "Why not you?" Sure, there are plenty of reasons that we all should fall short of our goals. Maybe the cards are stacked so high against us that we can't see over them. But we have the tools to achieve great things, so why not us? Why not now? Why not this season? The critics are always going to criticize and if you let them into your headspace, what they're saying will start to make too much sense to ignore. So don't give people the power to dictate what you are or aren't good enough for. We are good enough, so why not us?

Here's the post game video with Russell Wilson:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Social (Media) Responsibility

My younger brother, Colby, works at Chick-Fil-A in Atlanta. A few weeks back, while manning the drive through window, he experienced his first celebrity sighting. A car rolled up to the speaker and ordered, in an almost inaudible low growl, enough food for a family of seven. Chicken nuggets, a few sandwiches, a potato fields-worth of waffle fries and a large Hi-C fruit punch. Praying that he got the order right, Colby read the mystery man his total and asked him to please pull around. As the Black SUV creeped up to the food window, the shadowy figure behind the tinted glass began to take shape. The shape of a 7'2" behemoth of a man. Shaquille O'Neal! Colby picked up his jaw from the floor and handed the superstar his food, amazed that he could carry it all in just one of his abnormally giant hands. In a voice that would make Barry White swoon, Shaq said "Thank You" and rolled off down the road. Colby was left yelling, "My pleasure!" out the window and turning around to see if any of his coworkers had noticed. Nobody seemed to be phased. Nobody felt the gravity of how AWESOME this experience was. He was alone in his excitement, but it had really happened to him and no one could take that away.

When he told me that story I did the one thing that seemed appropriate. I got on Twitter, found Shaq (the one with the blue check next to his name, so as not to be fooled by any impostors) and tweeted at him to tell him how great it was that we both liked grilled nuggets and Hi-C. I'm not sure if i've ever felt like such a "fanatic" before in my life, but the idea that he was seemingly so accessible was too much for my better sense to dissuade me. I don't know what I was expecting. Maybe that he would get my @mention to his specialty oversized iPhone, @reply to me saying how cool I was and express that we should be best friends forever. Or maybe the simple the idea that I could actually say something to a celebrity through the veil of social media made it safe and unthreatening. Either way, I did it...and immediately regretted it. Never in a million years would I meet Shaq and bring up how neat it is that we have the same taste in fast food poultry. Just because I could tell him didn't mean i should tell him. It wasn't mean spirited or racist or inappropriate (ok, maybe a little inappropriate), but it wasn't true to me. And it was entirely too easy to be untrue to myself through this new ocean of media.

As I watched the last play of the NFC Championship game and the post-game interview with Richard Sherman, I knew this new casual media interaction phenomenon was going to get ugly fast. Now let me say, first and foremost, that horrendous (yet entertaining) interview was not exactly "first class". He called himself the greatest, à la Mohammed Ali, degraded his opponent both professionally and personally, and borderline verbally abused the deer-in-headlights interviewer, Erin Andrews. He spit-yelled at the camera and made a lot of scowling faces. I'm not sure how I was supposed react to the TV at that moment, but I burst out laughing. It was a crash course in everything NOT to do in an interview. And it was hilarious to me. I went to Twitter immediately following the game to try and find a slow-mo replay of the last play and interview only to find an all out media siege against this man (yes, let's not forget he is, in fact, still a human being). At the least, people were calling him a thug and disgrace. At the worst, they were using racial slurs and epithets, generalizing his actions for an entire people group. It was truthfully embarrassing for me to read.

I thought about my interaction with Shaq. How behind the ramparts of the vast world wide web I allowed myself to become detached from who I am as a person and embrace the freedom/shed the responsibility that my keyboard gave me. As I continued to read the increasingly intense dialogues between Sherman's Twitter handle and these masked vigilantes, I began to feel for him. Life is never easy when it's lived in the spotlight. Everyday, athletes including myself, do our jobs in front of thousands and sometimes, in Sherman's case, millions of people. It's hard knowing that all of those fans you play in front of seem to have a vested interest in the outcome of your career, even if in reality, the outcome of each game has no real effect on them.

Before the world of social media, athletes could step off of the playing surface and step away from the cheering or booing. Perhaps the sting or elation of the outcome was still as pungent as it is now, but the analysis of how the individual played/acted was limited to the papers, and much later, programs like SportsCenter. Now, however, if we as athletes choose to take part in the social media (as many of us are encouraged to do from both fans and management) we open ourselves up to a barrage of criticism once reserved for professional journalists. 20 years ago, Richard Sherman's post game comments would have made the local news, SportsCenter's midnight telecast and, perhaps, even Dan Rather's national CBS Evening News. Yet the other night as I opened my Twitter app, I found tweets like this all over the place.

(The follwing picture contains graphic language and may not be suitable for children. It has been edited from its original form in order to censor properly. My apologies to anyone who, like me, is deeply offended by its contents.)

EDIT: tweet was taken down by user.

These are not the Dan Rathers of the world. Not SportCenter anchors or even journalism majors at the local community college. These are average everyday fans like you and me, and this was one of literally thousands of scathing comments...and that's the scary part. I know that I've yelled at the television set before, sincerely believing that the sound of my voice would somehow alter the game. I've played Monday-morning quarterback and torn players apart because of their performance. And after my tweet at Shaq, I realized that I'm not too far removed from posting one of those thoughts online for the world to see. But then I remembered my own life, my own career and I was sobered immediately. I put myself in Sherman's shoes and tears began to well up in my eyes.

I remembered two seasons ago, September 2012. I had gotten called up to the Mets for the last month of the season. After a pretty spectacular MLB debut I had managed to run off 7 consecutive poor performances. Being involved heavily in social media and apparently being a glutton for punishment, I would read some of the comments people were making at/about me on there. Sitting next to my wife and staring down at my phone I began to chuckle. Somebody had written something particularly scathing but had misspelled the key expletive, making the whole thing laughable to me. My wife leaned over and asked what was so funny and I showed her. She read the quote and I could see the emotions begin to rise inside her. She handed the phone back to me and turned away, shoulders slowly moving up and down as the tears began to fall down her face. The regular abuse that I received via social media was one thing. I could handle most of it. The jabbing and jeering. The "You're a f***ing bum!" scrawled across my timeline. But my wife hadn't gotten used to that stuff yet. It's doubtful that she or any of these athletes' loved ones will ever be able to rationalize how people could be so terrible to the men/women they love so much. The athletes and celebrities sitting behind their avatars and profile pictures are real people with real families. They aren't virtual dart boards meant to be peppered with hurtful words every time they fail to live up to the fans' standards.

There are few people who have as high a regard for the First Amendment freedom of speech as I do. I love the fact that, as Americans, we have the right to say (limited only by the scope of the other innate freedoms) whatever we want. There is no one taking away our computers or censoring the Internet without our approval. People aren't being killed in the street daily over waving a protest banner.  We have as much freedom with our words as any people have ever had in the history of the world. But that still doesn't mean that we are free from the consequences of those words. Yes, Richard Sherman made kind of an ass out of himself. Perhaps he lost some respect from his teammates, his fans and the organizational front office. Perhaps he is paying for those words with endorsement deal cuts or with an NFL sanctioned fine. His words aren't without consequence. But I urge you (and myself as well) to remember that your words aren't without consequence either. Every time you type or say a hurtful word from behind a computer screen remember that there is very likely a wife, mother or child reading what you've said. Very likely, they don't see the person you're slandering the same way you do. And very likely, these wayward words that mean nothing to you mean the world to them.

I say these things from personal experience and I say them as a man still tending to the wounds me and my family are trying to heal. Think before you speak. Think before you type. And think about what you want your words to say about you as a person. In them are the power to wound and the power to encourage life. Which will you chose?

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue, And those who love it will eat its fruit." - Proverbs 18:21 (NASV)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Offseason and My 20s

During the offseason, I wake up 4 days a week with the intention of preparing myself for the next season. I make coffee and a quick breakfast, lay back down in bed with my wife for a minute (because who can resist it!), then I'm out the door to the gym. Each workout is specialized. Carefully crafted to mold and shape my body to be the best ballplayer I'm capable of being. Then I throw, following a program tailored to fit my needs as a pitcher. After my baseball related activities are done for the day my mind turns to what else I'm gonna do (eat). Recently, I've been much more conscious about what I put in my body, so it takes a little more time and planning to make sure I get all the nutrients I need to recover and do it again the next day.

However, in between the time it takes to do all of the things above I'm left with a good bit of "down time". Time that seems like it could or should be used for a specific purpose, but instead is usually spent doing whatever I feel like at that moment. Reading a little, playing my guitar or ukulele, watching Law & Order SVU (don't judge me), or generally bumming around. I feel guilty about it sometimes. Like I'm cheating my future self, my next season, or my betterment as a human being. I feel self-conscious that other (older) ballplayers must be doing it so much better than I am. That the great ones, when they were my age, never wasted a moment. It can be pretty defeating if I let it resonate too loudly.

Interestingly enough, I'm discovering that my offseason and my 20s aren't that different. I'm 26 years old, officially on the backside of this decade in my life, and the same feelings I have about my baseball preparations, I have about preparing to be in my 30s. It feels like I'm working so hard, focusing and taking great care to make myself the best possible 30 yr old version of me. I cut out gluten so I don't get fat. I started doing Hot Yoga, because who can resist a 105 degree room where people sweat and fart a ton? I cut my wardrobe in half and gave away as much "stuff" as I could so that I don't become some old weird hoarder guy who can't move because he has too many hoodies and old socks piled up in his living room. Steps have been diligently taken to ensure that I will be better at 30 than I am at 26. Yet is still seems like so much more could be done, right?

I'm hoping I'm not alone here, but I look around me at other men in their 30s and think, "to be where they are, I have to be doing twice as much as I am now!" I see entrepreneurs with PhDs and a sophisticated palette that can sense the nuances of various 18 yr. scotches. "I WANT THAT!" says 26 yr old me...and I don't even like scotch. It's so easy to look at older people's accomplishments and feel crappy about the work or amount of work you're doing. It seems like a lot of us in our 20s are working hard yet still feeling aimless and under prepared. If we haven't found a career path that seems suitable then we freak out, knowing that time we're wasting is irreplaceable. And even if we have found a career and are plotting along it's path like a good soldier, we worry that others are moving faster and we are at risk of being left in the proverbial dust. It's a self induced panic rooted in irrational fears.

Sure, it is healthy to have a sense of urgency about life. To see time as the most precious of all non renewable resources. But to obsess over the time that has passed, fret over present comparisons and worry about what the future may or may not look like is useless. The only thing we are actually capable of doing is our best today. Show up and engage in whatever work you do. Be on time and finish the things you start. Get up, go to the gym, throw the baseball and eat healthy. If we can do these things, it doesn't matter what season we're preparing for, success will follow. Life has a way of working itself out even better than we could imagine. Sure, I might not ever get a PhD or have immaculate taste in liquor. I might not win 20 games this season or throw a no hitter. But when it's said and done both this offseason and my 20s will have been worth every second.