The teacher shushed the class, or she tried to at least. Kids in this age group don’t shush easily. They don’t keep talking on defiantly like teenagers, they just can’t stop spreading the passion they have for their favorite cartoon character or who’s a bigger jerk-face. It bubbles out of them like a force of nature.
“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen!” She said, sternly. I could tell this was a high-end school because the teacher called them ‘ladies and gentlemen.’
The place didn’t quiet. A few kids stopped talking, the class suck-ups I suppose, but the rest kept giggling and trading ‘nu-uhs’ and ‘ya-huh’s’. The teacher put her hand up and started counting. I don’t know what number she was counting to or what happened when she got to it, but those kids snapped silent like she might unleash the boogieman if they didn’t.
“OK everyone, I want you to give a big, (pricey, private grade school) welcome to our guest, Dirk Hayhurst. He’s a professional baseball player with the San Diego Padres.”
As soon as she said that last part, gasps swept through the crowd. What little attention they had dedicated to their teacher was lost in the fantasy world of meeting a real, live, pro baseball player. The kids spun around to face me as if they expected to see Batman standing in the doorway. Instead, they go me.
I signed up to come speak with these kids, just like I’ve signed up for dozens of player appearances in the past. Appearances are organized by our respective teams, scheduled in advance, and then dangled in front of players in hopes one may bite. Appearances are optional, and most players opt out. Not every appearance is judging a bikini contest, sometimes we stand outside used car dealerships or walk around a grocery store with a mascot named Hector the Smoke Detector. Front office’s will offer perks as bait. A few bucks here, a gift card there, something to make it worthwhile.
Still, not every appearance gets a volunteer, no matter how scrumptious the bait attached to it. Speaking engagements are avoided the most, as many baseball players detest talking in front of people longer then they absolutely must. Front office interns will literally beg players to do these events.
I actually wanted to come to this one, I even shaved for it. I wanted to talk with these kids about the things I felt really mattered. Of course, the twenty-five dollar give card to Best Buy the front office was offering didn’t hurt either.
I practiced my little speech the night before, looking up famous historical figures and interesting facts to stump my crowd with. My little sermon of insightfulness, packed full of transcendent truth. I was going to make the teachers wet their pants at how a baseball player could speak with such passion about things not baseball.
Some teachers don’t like it when players show up to talk to their kids. I don’t blame them. I guess it makes sense if you look at it from their perspective. It’s kind of like if a candy company spokes person showed up at a dentist convention. Pro sports undermine the academic mantra. There were no grade requirements for me to get this job, I didn’t practice my math skills or read Shakespeare for it. You could say if I didn’t get good grades I wouldn’t have stayed eligible long enough to play, but think that’s weak argument. Look at how much money sports scholarships award compared to academic ones. I dated a girl back in my high school days who was as smart as a Star Trek computer and she had to work two jobs on top if her scholarships to make enough for school. I just had to throw a little white ball. I don’t think that’s fair, and I’m on the winning side.
Sports are bigger then academics in our culture. I wish they weren’t. Really, I do. I wish academic achievement were more glorious. I’m not saying professors should have a Top’s Card or anything, I just think there is more value in academic accomplishment then the sports achievements we saturate our young minds with. Baseball’s cool, it’s hip, it’s keen, but face it, it can’t enrich you like knowledge can. It can’t do a lot of the things knowledge can.
Ironically, that message works best coming out of the mouth of a player?
Well, stupid or not, I was going to be the player who said it today. I was going to make academics relevant. At this jaded juncture in my career, I had plenty of ammo to shoot at sports. There was just one, small problem. No one told me I was going to be speaking with third graders.
I stood staring back at them like Frankenstein. All this high-powered introspection would fly right over their heads. These are the same patch of rug-rats that come down and scream at me for baseballs until I want to strangle their parents. One kid had his finger so far up his nose I he could have been picking his brain. “Come on up Dirk, we ready for you.”
I’m not ready for you though is what I wanted to say; yet I found myself propelled before them by some awkward, cosmic force. I stood nervously at the front of the class like I was going to be asked to spell something. The kids stared dreamy eyed at me, or at least at my uniform top- my super hero costume to them. I smoothed it down and played nervously with the bottom of its fabric. The teacher gestured for me to sit, pointing to a kid’s sized plastic chair. I plopped onto it, knees hunched up to my chest. All the kids giggled, I giggled too, it was pretty funny, and I felt like Shrek. I made a silly face at them, accentuating my discomfort and they laughed some more. I felt more relaxed, they were just kids after all.
The teacher brought me a big chair and I gladly took it.
Reseating myself, I began to speak, “Hello everyone, my name is Dir…” That’s about as far as I got when the first set of hands shot up. I should have just ignored them, but I’m a sucker for kids, which is why I get so upset when they don’t use their manners at the ballpark. I act like I don’t like them, but I do. I still watch Sponge Bob and buy Transformers toys.
I didn’t know what I was going to say after my introduction anyway, so I started pointing at the raised hands.
“Yes sir, what is your question?” I started.
“Have you ever played with A-rod?”
“No, I’ve never played with A-rod.”
“Do you like the Yankees, I hate the Yankees.”
“Uh, No, I love the Padres.” I said, winking at my front office chauffeur.
“What team to do you want to play for?”
“Anyone that wants me to play for them.” Some of the adults who came chuckled at that line.
“Have you ever hit a home run?”
“No, I have not. I don’t get to hit. I’m a pitcher.”
“Do you throw ninety-nine miles and hours?”
“No, I don’t throw real hard. How about you, how hard do you throw?”
“I throw one-hundred… in a video game, hehehe” He snickered to himself.
“Have you ever given up a home run?” Asked another.
“Yes, several of em’.”
“Is it scary?”
“Is it scary to give up home runs?”
“No, is it scary to play in front of lots of people?”
“It can be.”
“Do you get scared?” asked a little girl, sitting Indian style. She seemed genuinely worried about me being afraid out there. I looked down at her and smiled.
“Course’ he doesn’t get scared, he’s a player and players aren’t scared, it’s just part of the game to them.” Said a boy, answering on my behalf. He must have lifted that directly from some player interview, the way ‘just part of the game’ rolled of his tongue. You could tell he was proud of himself for saying it, like he does post game interviews all the time.
“Well, that’s not true. I’m a player and I get scared a lot.” I said.
“You get scared.” Echoed the children.
“Because, you could pitch real bad and then people will think you stink.” Talking to kids made me think about it differently. Simplifying it purposefully for them made me aware of all the information I was leaving out.
In my mind, stink was defined with words like; unemployed, failure, career termination, washout, looser, etc…
“But you can’t stink, you’re a pro.” Said the little girl.
“Why can’t pro’s stink?” I asked, and I really wanted to hear the answer to this.
“Because pros are the best, and even when they do bad they’re still the best.”
You never know what will come out of kids. Sometimes it’s a harsh, unrefined comment that makes you wonder if you were ever that cruel when you were little. Sometimes it’s something so simple and beautiful a child can’t possibly understand the impact of it. I was sitting there, focused on my negatives, even dragging them out to the mound with me. Here was this innocent face, worried about being afraid, looking up at me seeing only positives. I can’t stink, I’m a pro. She didn’t care about my numbers; I was bigger then numbers to her. I was bigger then baseball to her. I was an avatar of something great, wielding a power reserved only for those who do a job like this.
“No, pros can stink,” said the same little boy, interrupting my Zen. “They stink when they don’t get the job done and let down their teammates and fans,” he finished in his rehearsed voice.
“You’re going to make a fine press agent someday, son.” I said to the boy with all the answers. “What’s that?”
“It’s one of the folks who discusses things that happen on the team with the media. They help spin…” He didn’t let me finish.
“I don’t want to be a press, I want to be a big leaguer.”
“Yeah, me too. I want to be a big leaguer,” said several of the other kids.
“Yeah, me three!” I said, smiling back at excited bodies.
I pointed to one of the kids and asked why he wanted to be a big leaguer. “Because they are millionaires, and they are on television all the time, and everyone wants to be them, and they get to play my favorite game.”
“OK. I can understand that.” I said. I shifted in my seat and acted confused. “What if big leaguers weren’t millionaires or on television, would you still want to be one?”
“Yeah, because playing baseball is fun.”
“But you don’t have to be a big leaguer to play baseball.” I said.
“I know, but I want to be one.”
“What would you like to be if you weren’t a baseball player?”
“I don’t know… Ummmmm. I want to be ninja!”
“Well I don’t think there is a high demand for ninjas right now, but you can be one if you want to be. Still, I think it would be wise if you thought about a back up plan in case ninja doesn’t work out.”
“Well, what would you want to be?” Said the kid in question, other kids jumped in with him, hoping to put me on the spot. They really seemed to care about what I had to say. It may not have been for the deep reasons I had in mind when I showed up here today, but they cared nonetheless.
I went with it.
“Me?” I said, turning my thumb to my chest. “You want to know what I would want to be if I couldn’t play baseball anymore? Well, that’s pretty tough; baseball is a very cool job. But! There are lots of things that are more important then baseball. In fact, I’m willing to bet you would all be just fine if none of you could ever play baseball again.”
Sacrilege! The kids panicked, their shock stricken faces contorted in horror as if they expected a band a baseball snatchers to burst in the room with Dr. Seuss style equipment and suck all the joy out of them. “Listen kids, listen to me. Baseball isn’t going away. But, if it did we’d be OK. I promise. You see the world could keep spinning if there were no more baseball players, however, it may very well stop if there were no more doctors, or scientist, or peacemakers, or teachers.” I said, gesturing to their teacher.
“Kids, playing baseball is great, it’s fun, and you all have my blessing to grow up to become big leaguers if you really want to. But, think of some of the other professions out there that have changed the very face of the world. You hear about baseball players on the news all the time, but what about this guy?”
“Let me read something to you.” I said, pulling out a piece of paper I’d written piece of my speech on. ”I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…”