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The Unexpected Dinner Guest— A Pitcher in a League of His Own

It’s World Series time. And here is your seasonally appropriate story.

We Americans are often intrigued by that athlete, performer, that entrepreneur who rises from the ashes of poverty, who overcomes unbelievable obstacles, who seizes the victory despite all odds. The performer whose resources are down to one maxed-out credit card, but she absolutely crushes the audition and the rest is history.

The comeback kid, that dark horse with virtually no chance of success but at the end of the day comes home a winner. The chronicles of these individuals are legendary and what also is legendary are those individuals who quickly burst out of the starting gate, have all the characteristics of stardom, and because of bad luck, bad choices, and bad decisions wind up “on the boulevard of broken dreams.” But there are powerful lessons. Stay with me on this one.

Immigrants and Honors

In 2015, I was invited to a formal black-tie recognition dinner in New York City sponsored by the organizers of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. This honor focused on immigrants and their descendants who have made contributions to share their talents and uphold the ideals and spirit of America, according to the group.

I was honored to have been selected since my family came from Ireland under dreadful circumstances. We were hardly unique. Almost everyone came from very difficult circumstances, but I received this recognition through just plain hard work and some luck of the American dream. The evening was a magnificent demonstration of patriotism, well before the bitter divisiveness with which we each struggle.

My wife, Peggy, and I were escorted to our seats at a table with four other couples whom we had not met. It was a profoundly symbolic and sacred evening. Next to our dinner plates were magnificently engraved and embossed name tags with our professional credentials. This was tasteful and not at all over the top.

A gentleman across the table was fit, tanned, cordial, and polite, and I knew in an instant who he was: Mariano Rivera. For nineteen seasons he thrived in the blistering cauldron of New York Yankees baseball. He always remembered his humble roots and was modest in victory and humble in defeat.

The Closer

He was a “closer”—one of the most pressure-packed positions in any sport. He typically would be brought in late in the game when winning was on the line with perhaps a one- or two-run lead and players from the opposing team in scoring positions. He might be brought in to pitch to just one or two batters.

There was no middle ground. Either he won the game or he lost a game. One statistic jumps off the page: he saved 652 games (and the pitchers in second and third after him saved 601 and 478 games, respectively).

Rivera holds the major league record in games finished (952). But under the blistering pressure of the post season leading up to the World Series, Rivera had no peer. He was on a planet entirely by himself. More people have walked on the moon (12) than men who have scored against Rivera in the post season (11). This is the ultimate clutch performance.

But what can we learn from this baseball giant?

Lightning in a Bottle

Think about this. He grew up in an impoverished fishing village in Panama, had some minimal promise in baseball, and came to America not speaking a word of English. His early efforts in baseball were mediocre at best.

One of the official commentators of a game in North Carolina said, “I thought he was on a one-way trip to nowhere.” He was also described as a “fringe prospect.” His initial call up to the “bigs” (Big Leagues) was unimpressive. He essentially had one arrow in his quiver: an erratic and sometimes unpredictable fastball. But then one day, he “caught lightning in a bottle” and something magical happened.

In June 1997 during the typical warm-up Rivera noticed that his fast balls were essentially like a round missile, which was uncontrollable and heading toward a batter’s head at almost 100 miles an hour, and this unpredictability was clearly jeopardizing his career—not to mention the health and well-being of batters!

After a month of experimentation Rivera was able to corral this erratic pitch and this throw became the cutter fastball. This is a pitch thrown at about 90 miles an hour and ruthlessly, viciously breaks down and away from a right-handed hitter when the pitcher is right-handed. As batters look at the pitch, it has all the characteristics of a traditional fastball but within 10 feet of home plate, the pitch essentially turns away from the batter and heads toward the dirt. It is almost like a billiard ball falling off a table.

Later in his career in typical humble fashion Rivera acknowledged that a major factor in his success was Mel Stottlemyre, the pitching coach for the New York Yankees.

When Rivera took the mound, everyone on the planet knew what was coming—especially the player at bat. The pitch is predictable, it is consistent, and it is almost unhittable. Tom Kelly, the former manager of the Minnesota Twins made the comment, “He needs to pitch in a higher league if there is one. Ban him from baseball. He should be illegal.”

And the Lesson?

Whether you are a butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, you have a toolbox, an arsenal, a repertoire that gets you to where you are. These are tactics, these are techniques, these are marketable skills. You may not have a fastball and never play in the World Series, but recognize that you need to keep your skills sharp.

Rivera recognized, as did his coaches, that a fastball pitcher has a limited professional life span especially because of injuries and the aging process. If he had stayed with the uncontrollable pitches, there is no doubt that his career would’ve been short and unremarkable, surely not in the record books. He would have become just another flame thrower who faded.

But there is more to the story. And this certainly came out over dinner.

He was kind, he was inquisitive, he focused on the other people at the table. And to avoid any type of confrontation when he was in public, he had an “adviser” with him who would intervene if someone was exhibiting poor judgment, but this obviously was not an issue during this program. There was no exaggeration of who he was or what he did. His focus on philanthropy is legendary, and he has largely avoided some of the perils that fame and fortune can bring specially to athletes.

Take-home messages, important inflection points for us mere mortals:

  • If Rivera had been complacent with his pitching style, it is inconceivable that he would’ve developed the cutter fastball and he would have wandered in the fog of the mediocre. He took an erratic fastball and created an unhittable pitch. If you’d like to see more of this phenomenon, check this video link.

  • Rivera did not totally overhaul and dismantle his pitching style. He added a twist, an innovation to what had been successful to ensure that he continued in the game he loved.

  • In the iconic movie, When We Were Kings, which chronicles the boxing match in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, Don King, the controversial boxing promoter, said we are useful if we are necessary. Mariano Rivera anticipated that his usefulness to the New York Yankees was on the down slope, so he made himself necessary by redefining the art of pitching.

  • We also can make ourselves useful by redefining, reprioritizing, and tweaking our gifts and skills. The future belongs to the fit, the focused, and those with the courage to leave their comfort zone and re-create themselves.

Just in case you're not sure, I'm on the left, next to pitching great Mariano Rivera at the Ellis Island Metal of Honor ceremony.

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