Life Lessons from an Unlikely Hero

Every sport, in fact every area of human endeavor, affords opportunities for heroes to emerge in dramatic fashion. In hockey, it’s the game winning overtime goal. In basketball, it’s the desperate long range shot with no time remaining that arches high over the court, seemingly suspended in space and time, before gracefully falling through the hoop.

In baseball, it’s the walk-off home run. This occurs when a batter, in the ninth inning, hits the ball out of the park assuring victory for his team. It’s called “walk-off” because it ends the game and all players depart – losers dejectedly, winners in joyous celebration. When there are runners on every base, it becomes a “grand slam” home run, adding further to the drama and celebration.

Among the more than 18,000 athletes who have played professional baseball since it’s inception in 1876, only two have hit multiple grand-slam walk-off home runs in a single season. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when Steve Pearce of the Toronto Blue Jays did just that, during a single week of play.

When these moments happen to those who have already achieved prominence, it seems the natural extension of a pattern of excellence. But when it happens to someone previously unheralded in their field, it can be particularly sweet and revealing. Such is the case with Mr. Pearce. He is not a baseball superstar. He is not even a star. He has been described by those far more knowledgeable than I as a below average defensive player. He has, in fact, been characterized as a “journeyman” or “utility player”, which sounds like the sporting equivalent of a spare part that one might search for at the auto junkyard.

He was chosen in the 45th round of the 2003 major league baseball draft, meaning approximately 1200 players were chosen ahead of him. This is like being the last kid standing when your playmates are choosing sides for a game – “OK, we’ll take him, but you have to give us somebody good too”. He actually re-entered the draft twice, finally signing with the Pirates in 2005. Over his career he has played for no fewer than 8 teams. He didn’t start a season in the majors until 2011. In 2012, he played for three different teams. In his best year, 2014, he had 21 home runs, 49 RBIs and a .293 batting average playing for Baltimore. Respectable figures, to be sure, but far from spectacular. He is described by sports writer Cathal Kelly (Globe and Mail, July 30, 2017) as someone possessed of an “intense averageness”, with “no veteran swagger”. He is, by all accounts, unpretentious and well liked by his teammates – a hard worker and team oriented contributor who appreciates the opportunities he’s had to make a living in his chosen occupation. His response to his recent accomplishment and celebrity was, to say the least, modestly measured and understated. His teammates seemed genuinely pleased about his unexpected notoriety, evoking a sense of justice for the common man.

But Mr. Pearce hasn’t always been a common man. Growing up in Florida and attending the University of South Carolina, he was an outstanding athlete, excelling in multiple sports, but particularly baseball where he led his teams, set performance records, and won multiple and significant personal recognitions for his accomplishments. In fact, it wasn’t until he entered the major leagues that his “averageness” became apparent.

Despite all this, Mr. Pearce has survived in a highly competitive occupation, has earned (according to baseball_reference.com) almost $17 million in total salary, is highly respected by his peers and, this past week, injected joy into what has otherwise been a decidedly joyless season for followers of Toronto baseball.

So, you’re wondering, how does this story find its way into a blog about the education of doctors?

In about three weeks, we will be welcoming a new class to our medical school. Those young people have been accepted based on very impressive personal academic and non-academic accomplishments. They have known much success and have experienced much external approval. In that sense, they are not unlike Mr. Pearce as he began his professional career. They will find, as do all successful professionals, that their natural abilities are essential but not sufficient to achieve career success and personal satisfaction. They will need to define for themselves their concepts of success and worth. They will need to find their place within their new community of peers and teachers, and their way to make contributions within their chosen profession. They will need to find ways to engage and overcome adversities that will invariably come their way. They will, no doubt, have “grand slam home run” days, but must be equally content with the days of unheralded, honest effort.

These are life lessons, and the exclusive domain of no particular group. They will not be found in any formal curriculum. The term “hidden curriculum” has taken on very negative connotations, but it can also be a very positive force, providing that informal but vital exchange that occurs between students and their teachers that models and promotes professional development.

I don’t imagine Mr. Pearce thinks of himself as a teacher of aspiring physicians, but his perseverance and equanimity in the face of both adversity and success are an example to us all.

 

Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)

Associate Dean,

Undergraduate Medical Education

One Response to Life Lessons from an Unlikely Hero

  1. Tony, you hit the nail on the head. All of us seem to be good at something, and will stand above our peers for varying periods of time- in sports or perhaps the study of medicine. Inevitably we will become part of a group that are just as outstanding, and, as you described so elegantly, become “average”. Some students thrive in this “new” environment and others struggle for a while- that’s life. Nevertheless it is important for all students, no matter how bright, to appreciate that this normal and embrace it.

    Thanks for your blog.

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