[My pal Philippa and I have just kicked off our version of National Blog Posting Month, where we cover the whole month by alternating days. It’s supposed to jump start my writing, or my insomnia, or both…]
Last weekend, my brother was inducted into the West Springfield High School Athletic Hall of Fame’s inaugural class: a very big deal.
L.J. never would have described it in those terms — “don’t get a big head” was one of my father’s mantras when my siblings and I were growing up, plus my brother is a humble team-player by nature–but statistics don’t lie.
As a right-handed pitcher for the West Springfield varsity baseball squad from 1991-1993, he helped the team win a State Championship, pitched on the silver medal-winning USA Junior National Team, landed repeat berths on the Washington Post’s All-Met Team, and was named the All-Met Player of the Year in 1993. When the Minnesota Twins made him an 18th round draft pick in 1993, he opted instead to accept a full athletic scholarship to Georgia Tech, an engineering and Division 1 baseball powerhouse. In his first year on the talent-loaded Tech team, he helped pitch the team to its first-ever College World Series appearance. He was a perennial ACC Honor Roll-er, a two-time academic All-American, and the recipient of Tech’s prestigious Total Person Award in 1998, an honor given annually to two student athletes who excel on the field, in class, and in the community. (Did I mention that he’s also a nice guy? It’s true.) He closed out his pitching career at Tech with a record of 25-4, the third-best in Tech’s history at the time. When the Atlanta Braves drafted him in 1998, L.J. was not just a member of the team’s pitching staff but also its only engineer. During five seasons, he pitched four hundred-plus innings in over 100 games on Braves teams in Macon, Myrtle Beach, Greenville (SC), and Richmond. He made it to AAA before injuries nudged him off the field.
Though he’d had a spectacular run, its ending was without spectacle, so this whole Hall of Fame thing gave our tribe an opportunity, however belated, to give my brother’s accomplishments their due. I can’t speak for anyone else in the family, but I really needed that second chance.
It’s not that I hadn’t known my brother was an incredible athlete; of course I did. I’d been aware that he was a gifted pitcher long before he got to West Springfield, though that’s when his true potential really began to show. Unfortunately, I simply failed to appreciate that time. I had just started college and was not merely determined but flat-out defiant about blazing my own, non-baseball trail. This might have been fine if I’d had any idea where that trail should go —navigation has never been my strong suit –or what my own potential was. But I didn’t. So at the precise moment when I should’ve been cheering L.J. on with the rest of Team Yank, I was busy trudging through the Great Seeking Swamp (a place that’s easy to get stuck in but turns out not to be all that deep), my progress hampered by the fact that I had blinders on and my nose in my navel. I went to my brother’s big games, but those gorgeous curve balls, sinkers and sliders whizzed past me just like they did all those hapless batters. I wasn’t present. When I emerged from the Swamp, at about the time when L.J. was heading to Tech, Team Yank didn’t act like I’d spent a couple of years warming the bench. I knew I had, though, and I knew I’d missed out on some great stuff.
So when the Hall of Fame news broke, I reacted with what my brother probably saw as extraordinary enthusiasm. It’s not every day that a family member gets inducted into a Hall of Fame, and it’s certainly not every day that you get a second chance. A second chance may not be the same as a clean slate, because that botched first attempt lives on in your memory (and who knows where else), but that’s exactly what makes second chances so great: remembering what you screwed up the first time frees you up to make an altogether different mistake the next time. Or to learn from it. Or both.
Instead of reprising my role as benchwarmer, this time I helped rally Team Yank. Together, we compiled a video commemorating L.J.’s greatest moments, both on and off the field. It was some of our better work. In a nod to Dad’s “don’t get a big head” mantra, the off-the-field segment was part roast and part heartfelt tribute. There were cameo appearances by family, friends, and L.J.’s mullet (yes, the mullet was of such magnitude as to warrant a separate credit). There was a dramatic re-enactment of my brother’s pitching career, featuring every member of the family and the music of, who else, Barry Manilow.
But the real scene-stealer was L.J. After the ceremony and after we’d watched the video, when he’d earned the right to bask in the glow of his accomplishments and our family pride, my brother refused to stand in the spotlight by himself.
“Anything I’ve done, I didn’t do alone,” he said.
Whether or not we all agreed with L.J.’s words, they shouldn’t have surprised us. I scoured a bunch of old articles in the weeks leading up to the induction ceremony, and in every article that praised my brother, he credited and thanked his team, his teachers, his coaches. It seems he understood even 20 years ago the value of humility, and that you strive not so much for individual gain but to elevate those around you. I couldn’t be prouder of my brother, for what he’s done and who he is. And I think I speak for all of Team Yank when I say he’s definitely helped me raise my game.