Owning the Moment and Your Words

Professional sports has taken a beating in recent months. Michael Vick’s guilty plea for dog fighting is only the latest event involving a professional athlete. In contrast, I want to highlight an athlete whose professionalism is an excellent example of how to behave, not only in athletics but in life.

If you have any familiarity with baseball, you’ve likely heard of Lou Gehrig. For those baseball agnostics, he was an All-Star first baseman for the New York Yankees, and his record for the most career grand slams (23) still stands. In 1939, Gehrig was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of 36. He succumbed to the disease June 2, 1941.

I’m not sure what triggered the memory, but I found myself looking for his short speech at Yankee stadium after the announcement of his retirement. Here’s the full speech:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.”  (link)

I look at someone like Gehrig, who did nothing wrong, and yet paid the heaviest of prices with dignity. I compare his words with those of Mark McGwire‘s when he gave testimony about steroid use:

Asked by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., whether he was asserting his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, McGwire said: “I’m not here to talk about the past. I’m here to be positive about this subject.”

Asked whether use of steroids was cheating, McGwire said: “That’s not for me to determine.” (link)

The lesson I take from this comparison is that you will always have a choice about how you comport and represent yourself. Gehrig could have easily stood before his audience and talk about the unfairness of his situation. I doubt anyone would have begrudged him the moment. Instead he proclaimed himself “the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” McGwire, retired and a figurehead in his sport, hemmed and hawed, making it obvious he was uncomfortable with the situation. Regardless of his answers, the behavior made his words suspect. Imagine if he’d been open and could speak with a clear voice? Regardless of his answers, wouldn’t it be easier to respect him?

When the opportunity presents itself, what will you choose?



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September 2007
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