Strike Out Cancer: A Volunteers Perspective.

Jul 2, 2012 by

Strike Out Cancer:  A Volunteers Perspective.

In Richmond Hill, on June 10th, I had the chance to volunteer at the second annual Strike Out Cancer event in support of Mount Sinai.  This event culminated with a day long celebrity softball tournament which included twenty or so former Major League baseball players, with former greats like Ricky Henderson, Jack Morris and Gary Sheffield participating.  As a volunteer umpire/ ‘diamond supervisor’ I had a chance to mingle and shoot the breeze with players like Dave Parker, Ricky Henderson, and Brett Saberhagen to name a few. As a long-time fan of baseball it was a real treat to interact with and watch some of these former greats play.  What stood out for me was the otherness of the players, the expectation society has placed on them and the physical toll the game has taken on their bodies.

As an outsider and first-time volunteer, the event itself felt like a success. It was a hot, clear, sunny day, with temperatures ranging in the low to mid thirties.  There were rumblings that the event raised roughly a million dollars for Cancer research at Mount Sinai.  For a one-day event, that has to be considered a great achievement and must be rewarding to all involved. But what really made the event a unique experience, and a great success, was the participation of former MLB greats. The chance to play with and watch former ball players is a rarity that most fans of the game would relish given the opportunity.  In order to participate in the tournament, teams were required to raise at least $25,000 towards cancer research at Mount Sinai.  This is a great incentive and team-building experience that every company with a sizeable charitable budget should considerIn my crudest evaluation of the experience the whole event can best be summarized for sports fans in one word – cool.  The night before the event a draft took place where every team selected at least one ‘celebrity’ player. The day of the event, each team played a handful of games with the highest fundraising team rewarded by receiving a place in the final against a team composed solely of celebrities, most of whom were former baseball greats.

The actual day was a bit of a grind, with a very short break in the play between games and, combined with the sweltering heat, convenors asked a lot from everyone, especially from the former ball players – who pretty much played straight from 10am-5pm.  Nonetheless, very few complained and the talent took it in stride, performed admirably and all of them were incredibly approachable and accommodating to autograph- and photo-seeking fans alike.   It is clear that this aspect of their life must be a great burden at times.  This, among other things, puts athletes, current or former, in an unenviable position, especially for those who wish to preserve some privacy.  It is also a reminder that there is an otherness to their life very few of us can possibly understand or fully appreciate.

These former baseball greats roam among us, but they live in a world of their own. They are a spectacle constantly subject to the curiosity of the voyeur and the demands of sports fans. All seem keenly aware of their surroundings and the presence they create when they enter a room.  Some fully embrace it, actively greeting fans, offering handshakes and autographs at will, while others try to maintain a distance, fully aware of the inevitability of an impending request from some stranger.  Never did I see an athlete refuse to give an autograph; but at times you could see the projected strain from being bombarded with various requests. The demands are especially pronounced for generational favourites and hall-of-famers – the greater the player the higher the expectation. In reality these men have very little choice in the matter: they are expected to sign all autographs and accept photo requests or otherwise be stigmatized as ungrateful, arrogant or some other derogatory adjective.  There’s a naive pervasive attitude among many fans, and non-fans, that athletes owe their time to the public for being paid extraordinary sums of money for playing a game.  In fairness, there is an unwritten accountability to fans, but how far should that obligation go and why are these so expectations so invasively high?

At a celebrity event where the athletes are the centre of attention there should be an expectation that athletes are reasonably accommodating; but the lines get blurred once events such as these end, and for some of these men it is especially difficult to escape the attention.  Men like Dave Parker, Cecil Fielder and Andre Dawson cannot simply blend in.  They are large physically impressive men who were once greats at a game in which their performance was broadcasted on a nightly basis nationwide.  They are highly recognizable and even if you don’t know who these men are, they project an aura that causes people to stop and at the very least stare.  These men cannot simply go about their day and go to Starbucks, or go to the local mall to buy a pair of loafers, or even use public bathrooms without being hounded (sorry Brett Saberhagen).  It is part of the unwritten contract that goes along with being a professional athlete – he must be accessible to the public and the media – they demand it – and unless he wishes to live as a hermit, or be negatively branded, he has little choice in the matter.   This isn’t to suggest that fans should be criticized for wanting to capture an experience in the off-chance they run into one of their sports idols.  It’s simply a by-product of sports and media empires’ building their brands around star athletes and the players are forced to cope with the constant demands of being a celebrity – even when their careers have ended.

Four clutch performers sitting from left to right: Tim Raines, Jack Morris, Gary Sheffield and Devon White.

The physical toll years of playing baseball has had on the players is also noticeable.  Recently retired players like Gary Sheffield still look like they can play at a professional level; but the bodies of many of the older former players are breaking down, in some instances in crippling ways.  Dave Parker could be seen painfully hobbling around, with highly prominent scars stretching down his legs after having both knees replaced.  In the celebrity tent Andre Dawson could be seen sitting uncomfortably with a giant ice pack on his elevated knee trying to reduce inflammation. After a short conversation with him I learned that his other knee will also need reconstructive surgery.  Other greats like Jack Morris and Cecil Fielder could be seen labouring on the diamond with similar ailments. There is part of me that finds it hard to believe that these former greats are physically susceptible to debilitating injury, but there also comes the realization that these men are not superhuman – they are mortal.  They are no longer the men who once dominated a sport, drawing the admiration and reverence of a generation of fans.  That doesn’t diminish who they are and what they have accomplished – it’s just a healthy reminder that we are all equal in some fundamental ways – yes, even former great professional athletes are humbled by time. But like the true competitors and professionals they are, the ball players went out and competed and fought through their injuries for the purposes of a greater cause – even if their bodies fought them in the process.  And they should be applauded for their efforts. Some will argue that it is their obligation to use their power and influence for greater causes and although it’s hard to completely disagree with that sentiment, it is also important to note that these players have fulfilled their contractual obligations as athletes to their organizations.  Yes they earned extraordinary salaries in comparison to the average person, but that doesn’t mean they should be held to too high a standard or regarded as novelty items that are free to be exploited in order to fulfill our unrealistic collective expectations.  They are human after all; their bodies break down like yours and mine, except a career in professional sports has expedited the aging process on their bodies.

The Strike Out Cancer event is a great concept that will hopefully become a charitable mainstay for years to come.  The convenors have found a way to raise a significant amount of money for cancer research by bringing together baseball fans and former baseball greats.  Getting a chance to be involved was a personal thrill and it reinforced some of my own perceptions of the unique world in which athletes live.  It also served as a reminder that these men may have once been exceptional athletes but they are not impervious to the realities of Father Time.  Many of these athletes have earned small fortunes for their years of play; however, there are costs to this service that extend far beyond their playing days. The lack of privacy and the high expectation that comes with celebrity and the physical toll on the players are factors that very few of us consider when we think about athletes.  We simply expect too much from them.  As an average fan your instinct is to extract something from interacting with an athlete in the form of a signature or picture, which is a reasonable request; but perhaps some of us, should re-evaluate this desire and take gratification in just being a fly on a wall.  The life of a professional athlete is an extraordinary one filled with unfathomable perks and some extravagance, but it should not forever be synonymous with lifelong public servitude.  Nonetheless, we should be grateful to those athletes’ who continue to use their influence to support charitable initiatives, but not be unreasonably hard on them if they don’t quite live up to our lofty expectations.

by Nick Kazos





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