I was lucky. When I was growing up, I had parents, a school system, and a supporting culture that set standards and placed a high premium on performance and outstanding achievement. In the classroom and on the playing fields, we were expected to do our best, and then to work harder and do even better. No one was expected to excel in every domain, but the guiding ethos was this: develop your talents, find your passions, and then work your tail off and reach for The Golden Ring, strive to be the very best in your chosen field. In my case, I didn’t have anyone sit me down and spell it all out for me; I absorbed it naturally, by osmosis, and the best lessons came from the most gifted of teachers: Baseball.
Yes, baseball. On the baseball diamond, you couldn’t tell the teacher you forgot to do your homework and you couldn’t beg to take a makeup test. With runners on base, you either delivered the key hit or you failed. There was no do-over. And no excuses. On the field, there were always, at the end of the day, winners and losers; your “self-esteem” came from results, from winning, not from consoling pats on the head. And there was this: Baseball measures everything. Wins and losses. Runs scored, batting average, a pitcher’s ERA, even your performance with runners on base, meaning when it matters most. Yup, baseball measures success — and failure — and that, in turn, makes baseball an ideal platform for teaching and learning many of life’s most essential lessons: the importance of character and hard work, the satisfactions of individual and collective achievement, the joys and rewards of team cohesion and spirit. And it taught this: how to win and lose with equal graciousness and equal respect for your opponent. Yes, all that flows naturally from baseball, and so does one of the greatest lessons anyone came learn: in this game, you can’t blame anyone else for your own poor performance. Whatever you do on that field, you own it. If you hit the game-winning homer, you own it and you can go home in glory. And if you blow the grounder or drop the fly ball, you own that too and you can go home and sulk. But you can’t go home and blame anybody else. No. All you can do is learn the lesson, work harder, make adjustments, and do better the next time. Yes, in the end, baseball teaches what most of our politicians never learn: Humility. Even the greatest hitters rarely hit better than .300 on the year. No pitcher goes an entire season without losing a game. Humility is built into the game. And with humility comes maturity. And character. And compassion. And grace under pressure.
All of this is prelude to my personal “Bravo!” to Matt Cain. This week the 27-year-old Cain pitched a perfect game for my team, the San Francisco Giants, and it was a rare feat indeed. In the entire history of baseball, there have been only 22 perfect games pitched — 27 batters up, 27 down, with none safely reaching first base. No hits, no walks, no errors. Pure perfection. And Cain struck out 14 of those 27 batters, another towering achievement. In their 128-year history, no other Giants’ pitcher had ever managed the feat. And Cain did it all with character and class. No hoopla. No fretting. Just quiet concentration throughout the game, a total focus on the job at hand. And he was modest at the end, praising his catcher, Buster Posey, for calling a great game, and giving much of the credit to the team behind him, for making sensational plays when it mattered most. That, my friends, is baseball at its best. It was a shining performance, a magnificent expression of individual and collective achievement. Matty and The Giants reached for The Golden Ring and they now hold it in their grasp. When I look across America today, too often I see decline, decadence, even depravity — and a far too complacent acceptance of the day-by-day erosion of the values, character, and constitutional principles that once made America the envy of the world. Thanks, Matty. You give us hope that not all is lost.