I was sitting at the locker room dining table, pen in hand, contemplating my pitching goals for the year. Our pitching coach, Phil, had challenged us to make a list of 5 goals for the year. He stressed the importance of having tangible milestones to continually look towards through a long a grinding season. Being a goal oriented person myself, I relished the opportunity. I thought of every possible goal. Wins, ERA, WHIP, K/BB ratio, Innings Pitched, etc. etc.
1) Win 10 Games
2) Throw 150 innings
3) Walk less than 38 guys (last year's total)
4) At least 9 k/9 innings
5) Not miss a start due to injury
I walked up confidently to the coaches office to turn in my goals that were inked in my best (still pretty mediocre) handwriting. Coach took a look at them, looked back up at me in his "are you sure about this?" look, and set the paper back down. Taking out a red pen, reminding me of my English 101 critiques, he marked out # 1, 2, & 5. He then said something so profound, yet so simple. "Control what you can control. Don't try to control things you have no control over." He was aware that I was not in control of the amount of wins I got, how often I pitched, or the health of my body. Those things were in someone else's hands for the most part, so to set goals based on things out of my control was setting myself up for disappointment.
This was not a new concept for me. Through my years as a hard-headed Berry College Viking, my pitching coach, Josh Hopper, tried to explain that very same thing in words that I would understand. Being a cocky college pitcher I always wanted to throw a no hitter every time out on the hill. I figured if I wasn't shooting for perfection then I was selling myself short. Hop (as we affectionately called him) wasn't interested in throwing no hitters, or throwing 95, or anything I deemed "cool". He was interested in throwing strikes...period. His philosophy, similar to my minor league coach, was that you could only control a few things on the mound. 1) Your tempo on the hill 2) How long you hold onto the ball to control the running game 3) Fielding your position 4) The pitch selection, and 5) The pitch itself. Everything beyond that was out of my hands as a pitcher. Whether it was a strike or not. Whether it was hit or not. Where it was hit. Whether a play was made or an error was committed. Whether a run was scored. Whether a game was won or lost. All of that was completely out of my control once the ball left my hand. So for me to concentrate on anything beyond making the best pitch I could with the most conviction I had, was once again setting myself up for disappointment.
I wish I could say that the issue of control was only a baseball thing. The truth is, however, we all struggle with this idea of trying to control things we cannot. In this day and age job security is anything but secure for most people. We do everything we can to retain our current positions, hoping that at the end of the day we've done enough to stay put. We worry, lose sleep, make secret resumés. The things we can't control end up controlling us. The same process takes place in the minor leagues.
Clarity is a prized commodity in the MiLB. The vast majority of us have so little of it, that tomorrow itself is a surprise. Guys get moved up and down with a simple changing of the wind (or pulling of a hamstring). You hear locker room conversations constantly about which guys are probably going where, and if they do, what that means for the rest of us. I tend to call them the Locker Room GM's. Up until the middle of this summer, I was the worst of them. No one hypothesized more about what might happen, discussed what could happen, or debated what should happen more than myself. I didn't think it was a bad thing. After all, it was MY career so shouldn't I be interested in what direction it was heading? The perspective (Ah Ha moment) came this summer.
When I got moved from Port St. Lucie, FL to Binghamton, NY my wife was stuck in Limbo in Atlanta. The plan was for me to pitch only a week or two in Binghamton then return to FL. Well, after a couple quality starts I began to wonder if they were gonna send me back. Every day Ashley and I contemplated the variety of scenarios that would either send me back or leave me pitching in AA. Things out of our control were beginning to control our mindsets, our perspective, and our marriage. Time went by and I kept throwing pretty well. I stayed in Bingo and Ashley finally made her way to meet me in NY. Unfortunately, the struggle with control didn't stop there. As things between the lines began to improve, the question of offseason plans became our focus. If I was chosen to play Winter Ball then we wouldn't be able to have our Atlanta apartment for 6 months, and we would miss our friends, family, and favorite restaurants. Life was getting complicated before it actually even happened, and it was all our own doing.
Ashley and I were sitting in the car on the way to Philly during our All Star Break. Exhausted from our worry and nervous over things still on the horizon, we hit our breaking point. Ashley leaned over to me, looked me straight in the eye and said, "Let's just leave our stuff in storage. Let's forget about the what if's and just drink the punch!" Looking slightly amazed at my wife's revelation, I said "ok!" We decided then and there that whatever life threw at us (baseball included) we were going to look at it with fresh eyes. What earlier in the summer looked like hindrances to our normal way of life, now looked like exciting opportunities that few people ever get. It came down to exactly what both of my coaches had said. "Control what you can. Don't worry about the rest." We couldn't control where we were asked to go, how long they wanted us to be there, or what we got paid to do it. The only thing we could control was our perspective. The power we had to look at our baseball life as a deterrent to the life we wanted or as a gateway to a life we couldn't imagine. We shook hands in the car and agreed that from this point forward we were "all in." Ashley took a picture to commemorate.
I was selected to go play in the Arizona Fall League for 6 weeks this fall. It was kind of the perfect answer to our previous worries. We would be playing winter ball in one of the most prestigious leagues in the baseball world...and we'd be home for Thanksgiving, Ashley's birthday, and Christmas. It looks like I have a shot to be added to the 40 man roster this fall, but that's out of my hands, so it's out of my mind too. Ashley and I had a great last month to the season! I pitched in Fenway, played with Jose Reyes, and threw my first professional complete game. We picked apples and pears in our back yard, drove back home through a hurricane, and made it out better on the other side. Most importantly, we had fun. Pitching became fun again (maybe for the first time since high school). Marriage, which was so hard earlier in the summer, became exciting again. And worries got flushed down the drain.
I'm not saying life isn't gonna be hard again. Nor am I saying that I will never worry again. We're human. And it's life. But I like where we are now, and I like the direction we've chosen to head in. Life brings enough challenges our way every day, there's no need to worry about the ones we bring on ourselves.
Thanks Phil. Thanks Hop. I know it took long enough, but I'm starting to get it!