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“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
—Barry Lopez
(as Badger, in Crow and Weasel)


To be nobody but yourself -- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else -- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.
- e. e. cummings


A Child's Eyes are Always Looking Upward

I like most sports. I generally prefer watching professional sports over the amateur version, though there is a certain untamed purity about the latter. Beneath the high salaries, corruption, and "big business" aspects of pro athletics you may still find these basic values if you look in the right places. This seems to be never more apparent than in our nation's pastime, baseball. Even at the controversy stricken professional level there is something basic about baseball which draws it closer to the average person.
-------Baseball is one of the few, if not only, professional sports which allows the average fan access to the players on the field. The relaxed nature of the game lends itself to pregame chatter. Much has been written and many stories have been told about the clubhouse antics of players as they try to survive the rigors of a long season. But largely unnoticed has been the gentle and often inspiring interaction these men have with the young fans who attend games in major league parks around the nation.
-------In my youth I spent a good amount of time each summer at Arlington Stadium, always arriving early to take in as much as I could as each of the stars of the American League made their way into town. I'd watch the players go through a variety of pregame routines, from batting and fielding practice or games of "pepper" all the way down to card games or sing-a-longs. I would seek autographs, scramble wildly for foul balls or errant throws which made it into the seats, beg players for souvenir baseballs, and simply enjoy the lifestyle of major league baseball. I'm thankful for the opportunity to share brief encounters with some of baseball's greatest players which were perhaps very small and insignificant to them at the time, but huge in the eyes of an adolescent American boy.
-------Two of my favorite moments centered around the camera which seemed to accompany me to most of these games. I often worked myself into position for this picture or that, hoping to forever capture the image of my favorite players. On one such occasion I made my way to field level in an attempt to photograph the star pitcher, Bert Blyleven. I never got the opportunity, for when he saw me he came over to the fence and asked me about my camera. He asked if he could see it, and who was I to tell him no? He held it to his eye and began taking mock pictures of all his teammates, asking them to pose. I wished he'd be even a bit more bold and actually snap the shutter release. What a story those pictures would tell.
-------The other story was in a sense very similar, yet it carried with it an added dimension. I was seated about six rows up along the right field foul line snapping numerous pictures as many of the Texas Rangers loosened up in the area. After completing his repetition of sprints across the outfield, second baseman Lenny Randle was resting near the wall below me. After catching his breath he turned toward the stands and asked what all the clicking was. He was looking directly at me, so I was aware it had been a rhetorical question, and my return gaze served as its answer. He asked me if I wanted to be a "Sports Illustrated" photographer when I grew up. That had never really entered my mind before, but I did let him know that I thought it would be quite exciting. He took several minutes to ask me questions about my camera and my uses for it, showing a general concern. Feeling very comfortable, I spoke as though I was somewhat of an authority on the subject, and he seemed to be interested in learning all I had to teach. He closed our conversation by encouraging me, saying that whatever I found to be my dream or chosen occupation, whether photographer or something else, I should go ahead and make it happen. A few weeks later I ran across a baseball card with his picture on the front. Turning it over I found all of his professional baseball statistics, as well as personal information. After the heading "hobbies" I was delighted and somewhat surprised to see the word "photography." He had never mentioned it at all in our conversation. I knew now why I caught his attention, but it struck me that he graciously bowed out of the way, leaving the spotlight for me. I wonder how often similar events go by unnoticed at the ballparks around the nation.
-------A couple of years later, I felt hurt by an unfortunate situation which resulted in Mr. Randle's release from the Rangers as he became involved in a heated battle with the team's manager.
-------It was on the surface a very ugly picture which gained a great deal of media attention nationwide. I didn't understand how it could happen and could not help feeling his actions were in some way justifiable. Now the nation had an ugly picture of one whom I had seen as a beautiful man, and I too was left with many questions. Many were answered for me years later in a quiet, uncelebrated magazine article which profiled his career as an aging baseball player in Central America. I rediscovered his beauty in this article and realized he had simply made a costly error of judgement years earlier. Now the only pain that lingered was the idea that the numerous positive aspects of his life were largely hidden in obscure articles and people's memories while this one error served as his public signet. Why must our society insist on the "dirt" when there is so much light in the world? And when will the media have the courage to give equal time to this light? Each of these questions serves to answer the other, and therein lies the enigma.
--------It's abundantly encouraging to think of the positive impact our sports heroes can have on a young person's life. In the same breath, it is terribly frightening to consider the lessons many of our superstars model for these young discovering minds. I am one who believes in expecting our professional athletes to earn their large salaries through setting a positive example for our youth in all aspects of life. It is true that their personal lives are often played out in the public's eye, yet this is a reality which they accept by choice when signing on the dotted line. Perhaps we can help by judging their actions alone, seeing them as mere human beings doing great athletic feats. Removing the "godlike" pedestal, we may find it easier to publicize the good news without fearing the bad. I am disturbed when these actions we observe are destructive, and will often speak out against them, yet I will always support the athlete who takes the time to make a positive difference in a young person's life.

© 2004 - The Trill House