CHARLOTTE, NC – Last week I received a ten-minute video of a commencement speech that was given at an unidentified small college by a former football player who was also nameless. Since the speaker was unknown to me, when he referenced playing football I couldn’t determine whether he was talking about pro football, college, or both. However, he did mention John Wooden. (Which later reminded me of Sparky Anderson.)
The John Wooden reference caught my attention.
So I took the plunge and decided to watch the video. As it turned out, it was one of the best inspirational talks I have ever heard. But it was the speaker’s anecdote about John Wooden that really made me think.
Approximately halfway through his message the speaker told a true story about former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. Coach Wooden won seven straight NCAA national basketball championships and a total of 10 titles in 12 years including a record winning streak of 88 in a row during the first half of the 1970s.
Wooden, who looked more like a college professor than a coach, became known as the “Wizard of Westwood” for his basketball success. But he was also extremely philosophical about sports in general and the role they play in developing teamwork, respect, character, and humility among other attributes.
“More than anything, John Wooden was a teacher who lived by the philosophy of making an impact with your life,” said the speaker.
“One day during the middle of the week someone went to visit the coach, but just as he neared the office he observed Wooden going to the cupboard and getting a broom. The visitor stood quietly out of sight and watched as the man with all those trophies, the man they called the ‘Wizard,’ proceeded to sweep his own basketball court.”
The story reminded me of my second year of playing professional baseball in Rock Hill, SC for future Hall of Fame manager George “Sparky” Anderson. Sparky, who was unknown at the time, was already white-haired at the youthful age of 31, which made him look considerably older than he really was.
Regardless of whether you play in the majors or the bus league minors as they are called, travel over the course of a baseball season can, at times, be brutal. The travel difference between the Bigs and the low minors is that they fly everywhere in the Show.
Despite that, there are still times when teams will play far into the night and then head for home or go on the road and the mode of travel they use can do nothing to alleviate an arrival time that sometimes occurs after sunrise. In that sense ballplayers often seem to be in some sort of jetlag or state of sleep deprivation.
Depending upon the schedule and several other variables, Sparky would sometimes insist on a mandatory workout for nine or ten in the morning after we returned home from a road trip.
Most of us hated having to go right back to the ballpark to suit up for an hour for what seemed to us to be an unjustified punishment. But there was method in Sparky’s madness because he knew all too well that most of the guys would sleep right up until time to report for the game.
The workout was designed purely to get us up, out of bed and moving around.
But here’s the kicker. After the team left the park, Sparky and his two young sons stayed back for another two hours or so to work on the diamond. While his boys went about the task of picking up tiny pebbles and other small obstructions from the dirt on the infield, Sparky cut the infield grass the way he wanted it.
After that, he gave the third-base side of the infield an extra-long drink of water to soften the grass so it would slow the speed of extra hard-hit balls just enough to give our defensively challenged third baseman more time to field the ball and make the play.
Next, Anderson took a shovel and went down each baseline to remove just enough dirt to slope the infield inward ever so slightly enough to make slow-rolling bunts remain in fair territory.
Indeed we had groundskeepers, but they had no true understanding of the nuanced adjustments Sparky was seeking.
Some fans might call it cheating, but we had another name for it. It is what is called “home-field advantage.” Every team to this day performs some sort of surgery to take advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of their team.
Once the diamond had been manicured to his satisfaction and specifications, and two bucketsful of pebbles later, Sparky went home for a quick lunch before returning to the scene of his crimes to make out the lineup for the game.
You see what Sparky Anderson did was nothing more than find his broom.
None of the players on that team even came close to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. In fact, only one player played in the majors and that was just for a cup of coffee.
Through dedication, perseverance, loyalty to his players, and sheer love of the game of baseball, Sparky Anderson found his broom, not only as a Hall of Fame manager but with Hall of Fame character as well.
During this ALS Awareness month of May we also pay tribute to mothers who find their instinctive nurturing brooms on the day we are born. And they never stop using it.
If you haven’t already found yours, keep on looking. May the search forever continue until you, too, find your broom.
Coach Wooden’s Ted Talk:
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.