By Dave Keller, Director of Transformation & Strategic Initiatives
The moment last night was powerful and uplifting — and well deserved.
In the history of Major League Baseball, no one has done what New
York Yankees’ relief pitcher Mariano Rivera has done. Simply put: He is the greatest closing relief pitcher ever.
But that’s not why I’m writing about him in a character blog.
Truth be told, he just might be one of the classiest, character-driven men to ever play the game. Despite his athletic dominance throughout the years, Rivera doesn’t seek personal glory or try to upstage his opponents. His personal philanthropic contributions, as well as his work through the Mariano Rivera Foundation, have benefited thousands in New York and in his native country of Panama.
Rivera’s sustained excellence, both on and off the field, was punctuated during last night’s MLB All Star game with an enduring tribute from players of both teams. As Rivera stepped on to the field late in the game, players from both dugouts, along with more than 45,000 fans in attendance, stood and gave Rivera a thunderous ovation lasting almost two minutes. The humble Rivera doffed his cap and repeatedly touched his heart to show his appreciation.
It was one of those genuine, rare, surreal moments that transcended the game itself. New York Mets captain David Wright – an opposing player – said it this way: ”First class all the way. Well deserving for Mariano. I was on the top step clapping and cheering as loud as I could.”
Before the game, Wright had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with Rivera. “Before it was too late, I had enough courage to go grab him and just tell him how much I appreciate his body of work, the way he carries himself, how great of an ambassador he is to this game,” Wright said. “Forget about the numbers. Forget about being the greatest closer of all-time. The way he carries himself and the way he goes about his business is special.”
Perhaps that’s why Wright, and so many other players, respect Rivera so much. Last night’s tribute was simply an outpouring of appreciation for a man whose sustained excellence is worth celebrating. It was one of those moments that the world of sports seems uniquely capable of providing.
Unfortunately, it is also the kind of moment that seems all-too-uncommon these days in the world of sports.
Let’s face it . . . the world of sports needs a few good character stories right now. Consider this week alone:
• World-class, high-profile track athletes were suspended after testing positive for performance-enhancing substances
• Two top NFL executives – from the same team – were arrested on separate drunk driving charges
• The reigning Heisman Trophy winner was booted from his position as a counselor at a developmental youth camp for missing required meetings
Within the past few years, character and sports have often seemed at odds. High-profile collegiate programs have been jarred by scandal. Professional athletes have been arrested for crimes ranging from domestic abuse to murder.
Even youth sports are not immune. Far too often, young athletes find themselves in a winning-above-all-else culture. In many cases, disrespect toward opponents and officials is not only accepted, it is often modeled by parents and coaches during the course of the game.
In a Sports Illustrated for Kids survey, 74% of children said they had witnessed out-of-control adults at their games. The most common bad behaviors cited were parents yelling at officials, and coaches and parents yelling at children.
We often say that “sports build character.” The reality is that mere participation in sports does not automatically build good character. Authentic character development through sports requires a more direct and intentional focus. To be sure, participation in sports helps build habits and attitudes. Those habits and attitudes – be they positive or negative – ultimately drive the behaviors that reveal one’s character.
As a result, it is imperative that all stakeholders – coaches, parents, athletes, administrators, officials, and fans – take a much more intentional approach to modeling and developing the values and virtues that influence those habits and attitudes. As a father, I am thankful for athletes like Mariano Rivera who model those types of virtues for my children.
Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to view the movie “42” in my local theater. This powerful film chronicles the challenges of the great Jackie Robinson as he overcame blatant racism while becoming the first minority athlete to play Major League baseball. In my opinion, the film masterfully depicted Robinson’s personal growth as he steadfastly tried to hold on to his personal character in the face of overwhelming challenges (the film will actually be released in video this week).
In 1997, as a tribute to Jackie Robinson’s character and competence, Major League Baseball decided to retire his number “42” throughout the entire league. However, any player currently wearing the number 42 at the time could continue wearing the number until he retired.
A young Mariano Rivera was among the players who wore number 42 at that time. Today, in 2013, Mariano Rivera is the only MLB player who still wears the number 42. When Rivera retires at the end of this season, the number will be officially retired throughout the entire league.
Rivera is keenly aware of this. He recognizes his unique responsibility to honor Jackie Robinson and honor the game. In many ways, Rivera’s own character and competence make him uniquely qualified to represent Jackie Robinson at this moment in history.
You and I will very likely never be professional athletes like Mariano Rivera or Jackie Robinson. But maybe – just maybe – we can learn from their example and each endeavor to demonstrate the qualities of character and competence in our own way.
As we do, we might create a character legacy of our own – and inspire others to do the same.
• At the Character Education Partnership, we are currently working with representatives from various sports to capture promising practices and provide meaningful resources for coaches, parents, and teachers. You can access many of these resources at http://www.character.org/about/character-and-sports/ .
• Do you have an inspiring story of a coach or athlete that inspired you? Share it in the comments section below: