If you never bat against a good pitcher, it’s easy to think you’re a Yankee. We learn where we fit by the challenges we face. I recall Jay, who taught math at TSJC. Jay was a quarter century older than I, and evaluating where he was – commenting that he was second-rate. In the science building, at a rural junior college, we could have that sort of illusion. We weren’t the major league competitors in academia. Frankly, claiming second-rate status was too long a reach – the first-rate teams were at MIT and Cal Tech . . . and they were far away and above.
On the other hand, down the hill in the gunsmithing department, there were people who had demonstrated first-rate skills. One held the distinguished rifleman badge. Another had represented his country at the Olympics 3 times – never scoring gold, silver or bronze – but three trips to compete at the Olympics isn’t shabby. I shot against them (and others) in service rifle. First time I ever used an AR-15 . . . a borrowed rifle, and my goal was just to qualify for the DCM Garand. Kind of proud of that fifth place finish – but without Harold and Leonard for first and second, I would have been competing with my peers.
I enjoyed shooting – but competing with a couple of outstanding shooters – in high power centerfire and metallic silhouette – let me know where I rated. I knew who was better, and accepted that I was a third-rater who, on a good day, might finish in style. Jay, who never really tested his performance against the best, thought himself second-rate . . . and never was. There may have been a dozen faculty members who could use the calculus, and Jay was second of the crew (and better than I) but it was a small pond. Our gunsmithing department had recruited from a different, deeper pool.
In a nation populated by over 300 million people, it’s hard to qualify for the first team. In major league baseball, there are 30 teams, limited to 26 active players each (they can have up to 40 on contract). That’s somewhere between 780 and 1,200 major league players at any given time. I remember listening to a radio interview with Edgard Clemente, who was playing for the Sioux Falls Canaries – he had gone down in class from the Colorado Rockies. (Roberto Clemente was his cousin) Edgard, in 2005, talked about how great it was to be able to make a living playing baseball – few of the Canaries ever make it into the majors. Listening to his interview as I drove the highway put Edgard Clemente into my memories – a baseball player who loved his game, even as his career had peaked.
There are 32 major league football teams – each limited to 53 players on the roster. Just under 1700 people at any given time. It gives a bit of perspective about a high school athlete’s chance to make the big time. The Bureau of Labor and Statistics identifies 1.7 million post-secondary teachers in the US – the statistics show that a high school kid is a lot more likely to have a career as a college professor than a professional football or baseball player. The academic career lasts longer, though that number includes the “minor league players” like Jay.
And there are other spots – I have no problem pointing out that Joe Biden has outstanding political talents. He may well go down as the worst president ever (though I believe Buchanan will be hard to beat). His record holds the unforgivable academic sin of plagiarism. Still, Joe has gotten a lot more votes over his lifetime than I ever will – only 45 other men have been president of the US. Slow Joe is a first-rate politician, whether you approve of him or not. May not be a good president, or even human being, but he is a first-rate politician. Even the losing presidential candidates are mighty fine politicians.
If you spend your whole life playing T-ball, a room filled with participation trophies doesn’t teach as much as one time at bat with a major-league pitcher.