Roberto Osuna is a closer.
The term “closer”, in this case, refers to a person who has a critical, very specialized, and highly visible position of responsibility on a baseball team. These folks are called upon to come into the game at the most critical juncture, when the outcome is very much in doubt, and are entrusted with ensuring that all the hard work accomplished by their teammates in establishing a lead is completed by striking out the last few opposition batters. As the closer goes about his task, he stands alone, the focus of attention. His teammates, managers, the opposing team, forty or so thousand people in the stadium and millions of people viewing, are transfixed in attention to every move. If successful, there is great jubilation, and he emerges as a hero, at least for today. If he fails, it is with great public exposure and he bears the burden of responsibility for the loss.
Mr. Osuna has an uncanny way of engaging this role with cool and detached resolve. He is very successful, performing at the highest level, on a professional baseball team, in the midst of a highly scrutinized playoff race.
Did I mention that he’s 20 years old?
All this begs the question: what allows anyone to engage and excel in such a role, much less someone so young? An obvious answer is that Mr. Osuna is blessed with the ability to throw baseballs with prodigious velocity and accuracy. While certainly true, this fails to capture the entirety, or even the essence, of what’s required. There are many professional pitchers whose skills match those of Mr. Osuna and yet are ineffective in the closer role. How many of us, if magically endowed with the ability to throw the 97 mph fastball, would be able to do so effectively in the highly stressful setting Mr. Osuna faces on a regular basis? The physical skills, it would seem, are essential but not sufficient. There’s something about the attitude and personal qualities of the individual that enable him to translate these innate skills to success in his chosen occupation.
Recent attention in the press to Mr. Osuna’s dramatic emergence sheds some light (references below). Growing up in a poor coastal city in northern Mexico, quitting school at age 12 to work harvesting crops to support his family, practicing and playing baseball in the evenings, competing in leagues far away from home against men much older than himself in Mexico, Japan and the United States, overcoming language issues and, just last year, undergoing and rehabilitating from major elbow surgery, are all evidence that he has packed much life experience into his 20 years. He himself attributes his success to his family support and deep religious faith. He displays self-awareness and perspective well beyond his years: “I don’t think I deserve anything. But I try to do the best I can, get ready each day and be ready inside the stadium and outside too. I know where I came from and where I want to go.”
LaTroy Hawkins, a veteran relief pitcher who has seen his own share of adversity and began his career before Mr. Osuna was born, provides these insights regarding his new teammate: “I’ve always said, guys who are from rough areas, they’re comfortable being uncomfortable…Pitching in the big leagues is nothing compared to living where I did. Trying to live and survive in the inner city…that’s stress.”
In “Aequanimitas”, William Osler’s 1889 valedictory address at the University of Pennsylvania, he describes “imperturbability” as an essential attribute of the successful physician, and defines it as “coolness and presence of mind under all circumstances, calmness amid storm, clearness of judgment in moments of grave peril”….“it has the nature of a divine gift, a blessing to the possessor, a comfort to all who come in contact with him.” He goes on, however, to describe how a “mental equivalent to this bodily endowment”, which he terms equanimity, can be characterized and cultivated by the student physician.
This week, a hundred of Mr. Osuna’s contemporaries began the study of Medicine at our school. They’ve been selected partially because they’ve demonstrated that they possess the academic equivalent of the 97 mph fastball. As with Mr. Osuna, their career success will be determined by much more, by an array of personal qualities also considered in the application process, Osler’s “imperturbability” among them. Their medical education will be as much about developing equanimity and those “mental equivalents to the bodily endowments”, as about acquiring factual knowledge and skills – a truth as relevant in our time as in Osler’s.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education
Thanks to Meds ’16 student and former Aesculapian Society President Carl Chauvin who shared with me some key insights that contributed to this article.
Sir William Osler 1849-1919. A Selection for Medical Students. Edited by Charles G. Roland. Hannah Institute for the History of Medicine. Toronto.