As a child I admired and aspired to emulate many people who I considered my heroes. This list included major league baseball star Ricky Henderson, Star Wars character Han Solo, DC comic superhero Batman, rock star Bruce Springsteen, and professional boxer Mike Tyson.
However, these icons of my childhood paled in comparison to the reverence I held for Fred Brinkley, or as I called him, “Papa.”
Papa was an amazing man. He was an athlete, a hunter, and a family man. He played baseball against Babe Ruth, sold a radio to John Dillinger, and during his later years won billiards tournaments in his 80’s against men half his age. He also gave me sips of his beer when my Mom wasn’t nearby. Papa was a renaissance man and the epidemy of cool in my eyes.
Papa and I shared many things in common, but, our biggest bond was through sports, especially baseball. Many of my favorite memories took place in Papa’s backyard where he would pitch baseballs to my brother, cousins, and myself. We tried our best to smash homeruns over his garden fence, all while his faithful dog Sandy watched us from the shade. Papa had 8 grandchildren, and he mastered the art of making each of us feel like we were the most important person on earth.
As a child Little League baseball was the highlight of my year. I took pride in playing 2nd base, and I held the responsibility of my teams “leadoff hitter.” One particular year I put together perhaps the best season of my young life. I committed no errors in the field playing 2nd base, plus I scored multiple runs each game. I was so small that most pitchers were unable to throw me strikes, so I surely led the league in walks and on base percentage. If a pitch did find my strike zone, I would let loose a swing that would crush the cover off the ball, no doubt with the same intent of hitting a homerun over Papa’s garden. Our team won most of our games and baseball was fun.
At the end of the season the coaches from our league gathered together to select the All-Star team. The best players from our league would compete in a tournament against All-Stars from neighboring towns. My friends and teammates told me I was a shoo-in for the team, which was a badge of honor for the kids in my hometown. I couldn’t wait to receive the recognition of an All-Star and the popularity that would come along with the special title. Unfortunately, when the selections were posted my name was not on the list. Instead, the All-Star 2nd baseman chosen for the team just happened to be the son of the man picked to coach the club. He was a fine player certainly, but this kid was no where near as good a player as me. Or, at least I thought so. My dreams were crushed, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play baseball again. Baseball was no longer fun.
Several weeks passed and it was time for my family and I to make a weekend trip to visit my grandparents. When we arrived at their home, Papa asked me to follow him back to his den.
He stated, “Greg, I’m proud of how hard you practice playing baseball, and I’m impressed at how good of a player you’ve become. I know All-Stars when I see them, and you’re an All-Star. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. It matters what Papa thinks.”
He handed me a box, and inside I found a golden trophy of a baseball player with a plaque on the base that read, “Greg – 2nd Base.” Immediately my poor attitude about baseball changed from negative to positive, and I felt like the most important person in the world. Baseball was fun again. More importantly, that moment and gift were major milestones of my childhood that have benefitted me into my adulthood. It’s been over 20 years since Papa passed away, and I realize the gift Papa presented me was much more than a golden figurine. Papa gave me something much more important. He gave me self-belief and confidence in myself. Papa taught me a lesson that when someone “important” truly believes in you, it’s a source of strength with limitless possibilities. He was right, for me, it only mattered what Papa thought.
Reflect on your life. Who are the people that will benefit from your sincere encouragement and support? Who are the people in your life that need to hear that you believe in them? Where can you give a gift that won’t last a season, but will instead last a lifetime?