The Coach is In…

The Heroes of Our Youth

Hank Aaron passed away January 22, 2021. He was one of my heroes from my youth. I listened to his memorial service today. Over and over people spoke of his grace and the dignity with which he played the game and treated others off the field. We often think of heroes in their primary area that they were/are famous for. What we learn is that a few of our heroes are equally impactful away from what they were famous for.

I am a child of what was once the nation’s past time – baseball. I grew up with my older brother (4.5 years) hitting me ground balls, fly balls, etc. when I was six. Having an older brother who was very good at baseball challenged me to get better; and I did. My brother was one of my early heroes.

I have noted over the past two or three months the number of my childhood baseball idols who died last year, continuing into this year – Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, Don Sutton, and Hank Aaron (all Hall of Famers). Why is this important? It is important for a few reasons. As far as I can tell, most, if not all of us, grew up with childhood heroes – be that in sports, entertainment, politics, business, science, etc. These heroes helped shape how we looked at the area where they practiced their craft. They were the reason we loved something, and how we came to emulate them in our desire and drive to get better at whatever. “I want to be like _____.”

My guess is that I was 10 or 11 when I would watch baseball’s ‘game of the week’ on Saturday afternoons. By then I had learned much of the shorthand of keeping official score (FO-9 = flyout to right field). I loved keeping score, but there was nothing more special than going to Forbes Field to watch the Pirates play. It was a family outing a couple of times a summer. Pittsburgh has a rich ethnic tradition. You could walk through Italian, Polish, German neighborhoods, listen to their native tongue, and occasionally smell the food that was being cooked. Those are rich memories.

I remember going to one game, around 1965, to watch Sandy Koufax pitch for the Dodgers. I was 14. By that time, I spent more time pitching than I did playing in the infield. I walked down to the bullpen to watch Koufax warm-up. He would start about 20 feet behind the mound and toss the ball to John Roseboro, the catcher. Every 2 – 3 minutes he would move another 6 or 7 feet closer. When he finally took the mound, the ball had a loud ‘pop’ when it hit Roseboro’s glove. His curve ball seemed like it dropped off the edge of a table. Amazing! How did he do that? Watching him sparked in me a dream of playing professional baseball. Regardless of how unrealistic it may have been, it helped me develop an even stronger work ethic to get better. That drive enabled me to develop enough talent to play baseball in college.

Heroes, which can include our parents, can be the first to ‘introduce’ us to their world; there is something there that sparks our interest. I was not much of a reader in elementary school, preferring to be outside ‘doing’ something. The summer after 5th grade, mom took me to the library and I found a biography on Babe Ruth. I wasn’t necessarily hooked on reading at that point but reading about sports figures got me started.

Our heroes can introduce us to a lifelong passion. They can be our early guides in helping us to find our gifts, and maybe our purpose. They can seem to be larger than life figures that we look up to. The advent of the internet, with increased ‘news’ coverage, exposed some of our ‘heroes’ for behaviors ‘unbecoming’ their hero status. Nevertheless, heroes are a necessary part of our growing up. Healthy heroes are an essential part of how we engage in our life – an increased interest in a person, sport, entertainment, science (I think of the hero status of astronauts in the 60’s and beyond), politics, etc. They can provide a motivation that helps us push our limits and how to improve what we know and what we can do. They can also be who we emulate in our fantasy world – be it sports or entertainment.

Perhaps it is my age, or because I spent most of my baseball career as a pitcher, but I couldn’t help but feel a huge tug of nostalgia when all those ball players passed away in a relatively short time frame. “Time out, what’s happening?! How is it that my childhood heroes are dying?” Oh, because I’m not a kid anymore, and they aren’t either. That ‘conversation’ served to allow me to take one more long look at my youth, and theirs, thanking them for the awesome memories, and for providing motivation to improve my skill without ever knowing it.

Children need ‘heroes’ in their life. When life becomes difficult it is nice to have a place to go that allows them to escape for a moment or ten. At some point they may even come to understand why they are such a fan of someone – is it what they do, or is it more? Maybe there is something about the way they ‘carry’ themselves, their personality, what traits they demonstrate.

Recently, we elected Kamala Harris as our Vice President. Inspired by other women, Kamala will serve to motivate other girls to push themselves to be the best they can be. Often, our heroes can serve as the inspiration to raise the bar of what we are capable of doing.

A certain person heightened our interest in a subject, a sport, a field of entertainment, the presidency, etc. Who were/are your heroes? What did their presence as your hero do for you? What was the result?

Toward a better you…