On Sunday, September 25th the sporting world was punched in the gut with the deaths of Arnold Palmer and Jose Fernandez. The golf great Arnold Palmer was 87 and passed away from complications related to his heart issues while Jose Fernandez was a 24-year-old beloved young superstar in Major League Baseball who had his life cut short in a tragic boating accident. Their stories of how they made it are as different as what took their lives, but the things they will be remembered for are quite similar and provide us another lesson that we can take from athletics. Palmer grew up in Latrobe, PA and was the son of a greens keeper turned club pro and after high school he attended Wake Forest University on a golf scholarship. He left Wake Forest early after the death of a friend and joined the U.S. Coast Guard where he was able to keep working on his golf game. Then in 1955, Palmer won his first pro tournament, the Canadian Open, at the age of 26. What followed was an amazing career spanning decades and from 1955-1971 when he won at least one PGA event in each year. His greatest run came between 1960-1963 when he won 29 PGA events.
Fernandez was born in Santa Clara, Cuba and successfully defected to the United States on his fourth attempt in 2008 along with his mother, step-sister and his step-sister's mother. The first three attempts landed him in prison and on the final attempt he risked his life by jumping into the water to save a person who fell over-board, only to discover that person was his mother. Baseball is a game that has stats for everything and there are plenty of amazing numbers to throw around to explain his greatness. But if you could only use one statistic to sum up Fernandez's brilliance it would be this: among starting pitchers with at least 400 innings in their careers none struck out batters with a great frequency than his 31.2%, not even Hall of Famers Randy Johnson (28.6%) and Pedro Martinez (27.7%).
However, both these men transcended their sport and are remembered as much for what they did away from the game as for their incredible athletic feats. They touched people outside of their sport simply by what they stood for and how they treated people.
Arnie was described by Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the greatest golfer ever, as a charismatic golfer and a man of unshakeable character. Nicklaus went on to point out that Palmer was a competitor and a friend and if a situation ever arose he knew that Arnie had his back and ‚ and he knew I had his. Arnold Palmer was a gentleman always seeking out fun who sought out personal connections with young players and fans. He was a gutsy player when safe became a strategy and a regular man in a sport that was dealing with elitist barriers. In fact, Palmer's social impact on behalf of golf is perhaps unrivaled among fellow professional; his humble background and plain-spoken popularity helped change the game of golf as an elite, upper-class pastime to a more populist sport accessible to middle and working classes. Very simply, he was The King.
Though Jose Fernandez's major league career only spanned four seasons, he touched many lives which was evident by the reaction of players and fans around the league when they paid tribute to him. Having one of the brightest and most recognizable smiles in baseball, he was the embodiment of joy. He was an extraordinary player but what his teammates talked about was the fact he was a genuinely wonderful human being. Fernandez helped ALS charities, was extremely active in the Live Like Bella Childhood Foundation and provided opportunities to kids in depressed neighborhoods to spend game days at the park visiting with him and other players. Marlins manager Don Mattingly said, "there was a joy to him when he played. When he pitched you see that little kid you see when you watch little kids play Little League." "He had a personality that was very rare in sports." Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said, "Getting to see it over the years it was a personality you got drawn to. Always smiling and having fun. Every time he got on the mound he brought out the best in you."
The Take Away
The last couple of nights I stayed up late reading as much as I possibly could about Arnie and Jose. I felt compelled to, because I truly believed there was a lesson to be learned. While most of the country watched tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum make fools of themselves in the Presidential debate I dug in trying to find positives.
Both of these men intentionally touched others lives on a daily basis and made the world they lived in a better place. Some may say that they made a living just by playing a game, but I believe they did much more than that. It was Winston Churchill that said, "We make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give." Arnie and Jose both engaged people and provided hope. Jose to the Cuban population and Arnie to the middle class and everyday working man. Both were game-changers while radiating joy, passion and energy.
A couple of years ago I read a book by David Brooks, The Road to Character, which focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives. The book is very fitting as Brooks wrote it in response to the culture of the Big Me, which emphasizes external success. The author challenges us to rebalance the scales between our "resume virtues"-achieving wealth, fame and status-and our ‚ "eulogy virtues",those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, and faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed. I think it is safe to say that these two men did their best to balance those scales.
What does this have to do with 'The Athletics of Business'? Everything! Before I called it a night I asked myself these questions and I challenge you to do the same.
- Is my focus on getting or giving?
- Do I add value to others on a daily basis or do I concern myself with what they can do for me?
- Do I bring energy everyday?
- Do I let my passion for what I do show every day, even when the challenges mount?
- What would my legacy be if I were to die today?
- What do I want my legacy to be if I am fortunate enough to live a full life like Arnold Palmer?
- Am I doing something today that could open doors for others that otherwise may not have opened for them?
I will leave you with this quote from Stephen Grellet:
I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.