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.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Expectation Management

It's fair to say that this past year was a lesson in understanding and managing expectations. I moved 11 times in just over 8 months. Lived in various hotel rooms for 2.5 months straight, from my birthday in mid-June to late August when I was offered a spare room in a recently deceased...I mean, released...teammate's apartment. I played for 2 different organizations and 6 affiliated teams. I lived in all 4 US time zones and spent a month in that weird half time zone in Venezuela that's 30 minutes earlier than EST. Get it together, South America.

My dreams and expectations evolved almost daily. Beginning the year in my first Big League camp with the New York Mets, I expected to get a fair shot (whatever that means) to break camp as the 5th starter in their rotation. Two weeks into camp I was sent back down to the minor league side of Spring Training having been told that there was never a real chance that I was going to head north with the team on April 1st.  My expectation and destination changed in that moment from the bright lights of NYC to the bright neon desert oasis of Las Vegas. I'd never been to Vegas and all my knowledge of its endless Craps tables came from Chevy Chase in "Vegas Vacation." We lived a block off The Strip, as it's affectionately called, in a luxury apt. compound that housed about 15 of my teammates and a few local night club promotors/drug dealers. I didn't really have a bunch of preconceived notions about what life would look like out there, but whatever this was, it was certainly different that what I had expected. We rented cars, lived with 2 roommates (and sometimes more when their wives/girlfriends/family came in town) and learned what real Mexican tacos were all about. We baked in the sun and grilled meat poolside with our teammates. I pitched and pitched very well. We found routine.

Life began to feel pretty normal...and then I got a phone call. I wish I could've captured that moment in time and bottled it up, because that series of events marked just about every change we experienced over the next few months.

I was told that I got called up and would be pitching in New York again. Trying unsuccessfully to stop my imagination from running wild, I began to plan out what the rest of the year would look like. I would obviously be starting up there and if I continued pitching well I could end up as an integral part of the rotation by years' end.

That was not the case.

I was stuck in the bullpen behind an all-star closer, a 19 year veteran, a couple left handed flame throwers and just about everyone else (and their dogs). I pitched just 6 innings in 27 days. I had one really mediocre start in Miami that all but cemented my return to Limbo (aka the back of the pen). In the midst of all of the baseball expectation shattering, my wife and I were playing our living situation very much day by day. We knew that the second we decided to settle into a place in the city we would be sent away. It's a weird gut feeling that's surprisingly accurate. Therefore we couch surfed with friends, extended the stay in our team hotel and generally tried not to get our hopes up. But just as poorly as baseball was going, the team gave no indication of sending me down. Quite the opposite actually. Some coaches told me that it didn't look like the injured player I was up there for was coming back in the near future. Fighting our gut instinct we decided to move our 5 suitcases and two backpacks into a vacant teammate's apartment on the upper east side. We settled in, slept in an actual bed and bought some simple groceries. It was a big step for us as we set our expectation toward being there for the long haul.

I walked into the clubhouse the next day and was ushered into the manager's office. Now, for those of you who don't realize the significance of that event, let me spell it out for's not good. You either go into the manager's office to get cut, sent down or fined. I was praying that I had broken some unwritten rule and needed only pay a fine to wash away my sin. No such luck. I was told that I was being sent down and needed to report to Las Vegas again in 24 hrs. This was less than 24 hrs since we had moved into the apartment. Less than 24 hrs since we made the gut defying decision to settle down into the expectation of staying put. So 24 hrs later I was back in the desert.

After 10 days of getting re-acclimated to Vegas, the phone rang. I had been designated for assignment by the Mets and was not allowed to play, practice or even step foot inside the clubhouse until I cleared waivers.  My next step was to figure out what the hell "being designated" and "clearing waivers" meant. How long would that take? What was I supposed to do in the meantime? Was everything about to change again? I read the collective bargaining agreement from front to back, understanding about 3% of the lawyer lingo and decided there were no less than 30 different possibilities of how this thing could play out.

We decided, since they're obligated to buy me a ticket home if I want, to go back home to Atlanta and wait out the due process. We flew in the night of June 17th, and at 11:50 on June 18th (10 minutes before my 26th birthday) I was told by the Mets front office via phone call that I had been traded to Colorado. They thanked me for my service and wished me luck. It felt like getting dumped. Like the pretty girl at the dance finally realized she didn't have to dance with you anymore. The Mets were family to me. 6 years of building relationships with the guys and their wives and kids all washed away in the span of a :35 phone call. I looked over at my wife in the back seat of my parents' car and we both felt that first tear crawl down our cheeks. We would officially not be living in NYC. Not be hanging out with Greg, Kai, Murph, or any other teammates and their significant others. We would be moving across the country and leaving everything that resembled security and safety. It all hit us in that moment and we silently wept in the car, holding hands and internally managing whatever expectations were building inside of us.

We celebrated my birthday the following evening and braced ourselves for what was certainly going to be a crazy next 3 months. By the next morning I was in Tulsa, OK playing for the Rockies AA affiliate in the Texas league.

The 2 weeks I spent in Tulsa were spongy. Meaning, I soaked in as much as I could about my new station in life. New people, a new organization with new rules. My expectations of them and their expectations of me. I saw some old familiar faces and forgot everyone's name at least 3 times. Even though I was immediately the veteran guy on the team, it was pretty humbling to realize how much I didn't know. I was all at once trying to make a good first impression while staying true to who I was. It was a constant battle between "what's expected that should I do?" and "who am I?" It became a daily battle between identity and expectation.

"They traded for me so they must expect some sort of return on their investment."

"I was traded but that doesn't change who I am, what I expect of myself or what I'm capable of."

These divergent conversations were on replay in my mind and there wasn't a clear winner on either side. I became self-conscious. Irritable. Shy. And more importantly, baseball became less and less fun. I still threw the ball pretty well (well enough to be promoted to AAA) but the joy that characterized my baseball career for the last couple years was gone. It became increasingly clear that the only way for my expectations to be met was for me to get to Denver and thrive.

Three weeks in AAA Colorado Springs and I got called into the manager's office again. I know I told you that no one wants to be called in there, but that was in the Big Leagues. In the minor leagues there is the possibility of a promotion every time that door swings open. Sure enough, that was the nature of that particular managerial meeting. I was told that I would be starting in a couple days against Milwaukee at home in Denver. Finally!! My chance had come to prove myself. To prove that their investment was a good one. To prove to myself that I was capable, worthy. 5 innings and 6 runs later, my expectations were once again dashed against the rocks of failure.

I spent about 36 hours in Denver during that brief stint. I was sent down the next morning after having packed for a 10 day road trip the team was about to take. The trip went through New York and finished in my home town of Atlanta. My wife was supposed to meet me in both NYC and ATL, but instead I was sent with my bags packed and suit freshly ironed to Colorado Springs.

I was embarrassed. Embarrassed that I had allowed myself to expect so much. Embarrassed that I had failed again and that my reputation was forever stained. Embarrassed that I couldn't hang on for another 3 days so that I could see my wife.  Life, it seemed, was telling me at every turn that being hopeful was a useless emotion. That the moment I allowed myself to hope, to expect, in something good, the opposite was sure to happen. So I went back to Colorado Springs, tail between my legs, determined to expect nothing from here on out.

It seems pessimistic, I know. That expecting nothing is preferable to expecting success. But the problem I had, the problem I assume most of us have, is that I had substituted expectation for entitlement. I felt as if I had earned some sort of success. As if the work I put in and the price I paid had secured for me some cosmic balance wherein some good things would balance out the bad things. I was playing this eternal game of tug-o-war against a brick wall, determined to pull hard enough to tear it down. The words "fair" and "unfair" kept trickling from my mind to my tongue. I had deemed the events of the year to be good or bad. When in reality, they were just events. Life changing events? Of course! Hard and testing events? Most certainly. But simple turns in the road nonetheless.

I finished the minor league season with Colorado Springs and got a chance to pitch again with the major league team. It was more ups and downs, minor successes and minor failures. Overall the season ended with both my wife and I looking at each other and saying "we have to figure out a way to deal differently with all of this." We were convinced that our marriage and sanity couldn't take much more of the way we had managed our expectations. I decided that I needed to look at baseball as more of a job and less of a "calling." The roller coaster of events surrounding baseball were taking up way too much emotional space in our lives. It might not change the actual things that happen (how many times we move, how long we get to build relationships with people, how many tacos we get to eat in Vegas) but seeing these events as normal hazards of the job and not personal vendettas on my expectations has made the transitions a bit easier. Building expectations on a foundation of things you can control is key. I won't set up my expectations to fail because I won't hinge them on how I pitch or where we live. I will build my 2014 expectations on my identity. Who am I and what should I be able to expect of myself in my relationships, my job, my faith? These aren't entitlements. There is no phone call that I can get from a front office executive that can crush my expectation of myself. I control those. God controls the rest. I think that's a pretty fair deal.

In poetic irony, we were just claimed by the Houston Astros on Dec. 18th (my wife's birthday). Since we're talking about expectations, here are a few that we had to break when we heard the news:
- Spring Training in FL and not AZ
- Not moving to Denver (leaving a community we built there)
- AAA team in OKc is 6.5 hrs from Houston while Co. Springs is 45 min from Denver. Makes prospective travel a little less convenient.
- Houston is hot. Denver was cold.
- beach vs. mountains
- liberal vs. conservative

Just to name a few...but we believe things happen for a reason. And some things won't change just because we change cities:
- I expect to be a great husband
- I expect to be a great teammate
- I expect to treat everyone with respect
- baseball will be baseball, but I expect to work my hardest in the hope of reaching my fullest potential as a ballplayer...wherever that may be.