Nobility

Sometimes, in spite of all the practice, persistence and patience we still miss an opportunity. And sometimes that loss comes when we least expect it and from circumstances beyond our control.

This is the story of left-handed pitcher Brian Mazone who, after eight years in the minor leagues, finally got a call from the Philadelphia Phillies in 2006. He was within inches of his first start only to face the biggest disappointment of his professional life.

Stories like Mazone happen every day to millions of us, and while they don’t typically make the front page of newspapers, Mazone’s story did appear on the front page of The Washington Post (Aug. 30). Sports writer Dave Sheinin wrote it and it’s one of the best sports stories I’ve read in recent years. It’s about practice, patience and the passion to persist in spite of obstacles real or imagined.

“Out of the Philadelphia Phillies’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park he strode,” Sheinin writes, “past the coaches’ offices and the video room, down the steps, through the dugout tunnel, clad in team-issued, home-white game pants and a T-shirt. It was perhaps 21/hours before the first pitch of a game that, judging from a radar full of giant yellow and orange blobs, appeared doomed. He was 30 years old, with eight years in the minors, and that evening, weather permitting, he would be making his big-league debut. …

“Mazone had rarely known rain like this; the nearly 21/inches that fell in Philadelphia that day, the biggest day of his professional life, were roughly half the total rainfall for all of 2006 in his native San Diego. …

“ ‘When you see that kind of rain, you know you’re in trouble.’ …

“ ‘Rainout kills major debut for 30-year-old rookie,’ one headline read…

“ ‘I’ll never forget it,’ said pitcher Randy Wolf, whose spot in the Phillies’ rotation Mazone was to have taken that night, after back-to-back doubleheaders over the weekend had overtaxed the team’s rotation. … ‘It’s brutal. You have this moment you’ve worked your entire career for, and it literally gets washed away. It’s tragic.’ …

“Why Mazone? Because in his journey, and in his tears, there are universal truths.

“Within the journey, from the lowest rung of baseball to the cusp of the highest, is a trajectory familiar to all who started at the absolute bottom of their profession and, through sheer effort, will and an obsessive single-mindedness, worked their way to the top.

“And in the tears, deep-rooted, brought to the surface only because someone was asking uncontemplated questions — ‘Obviously, this is still hard for me,’ he said haltingly in his living room — there is a pain familiar to those whose biggest moment was yanked away when it was nearly in their grasp. …

“ ‘I had that thought that everything I’d done had been validated: all those hours, all that time away from home, the sweat, the blood, the tears — it was validated to myself, to my wife and kids,’ he said. ‘And I could stick my middle finger up at everyone who told me ‘no’ along the way.’ …

“Baseball is supposed to be the purest of meritocracies: You’ll make it if you deserve to. You’ll go as far as your performance dictates. But in reality, it is far from fair, with personnel decisions influenced by everything from pedigree to politics to contract status to roster flexibility.

“Mazone was 13-3 with a 2.03 ERA that season for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, by all measures the sort of season that should have earned a promotion to the majors — if not that day, then certainly after the International League playoffs. In September, by rule, big league rosters expand from 25 players to a maximum of 40. When Mazone walked out of the clubhouse in Philadelphia that evening, he fully expected to be back in a matter of days.

“But because Mazone was not on their 40-man roster of protected players, and because that roster was full, the Phillies, in the heat of a playoff race, would have had to risk losing another player to make room.

“Back in Rochester two days after his big-league debut was rained out, Mazone took the mound for the Red Barons in the playoffs and got hammered, his season’s worst start. The season over, the coaches pulled aside the players the Phillies had decided to bring to the big leagues. Mazone wasn’t among them. …

“In May 2007, a rash of injuries left the Phillies scrambling for a starter, and it almost certainly would have been Mazone, who was back at Class AAA — except days earlier he had signed a contract with South Korea’s Samsung Lions, a difficult decision that ultimately was little more than a cold cash-grab. The $300,000 salary was roughly four times what he was making in Class AAA. He left the following week.

“ ‘It paid for our house,’ he said, ‘and everything in it.’

“And in late March 2009, back in the states, he was one cut away from making the Los Angeles Dodgers’ roster out of spring training and was preparing to head west with them for a final exhibition game at Dodger Stadium — when he was diagnosed with a staph infection in his leg, which required six weeks of rest and agonizing, twice-daily flushing of the open wound. He stayed back in Arizona as the team flew to L.A.

“ ‘It just wasn’t meant to be, I guess,’ he said softly. …

“He lasted until the spring of 2011 before grim reality and the tug of home finally extinguished the dream. He landed a real job, coached his boys through their Little League years, settled into a new daily rhythm free of buses and bullpens.”

Perhaps 19th century poet Alice Cary sums it up best with these words:

True worth is in being, not seeming,

In doing, each day that goes by,

Some little good—not in dreaming

Of great things to do by and by.

For whatever men say in their blindness,

And spite of the fancies of youth,

There’s nothing so kingly as kindness,

And nothing so royal as truth.

 

We cannot make bargains for blisses,

Nor catch them like fishes in nets;

And sometimes the thing our life misses

Helps more than the thing which it gets.

For good lieth not in pursuing,

Nor gaining of great nor of small,

But just in the doing, and doing

As we would be done by, is all.

 

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