A ball, a glove, and a measure of virtue

26 Jul


“When you were a kid, could you catch a fly ball?”


A simple, direct question, but one with consequences.


I asked him to repeat it as a way to buy time for my response.


“When you were young, could you catch a fly ball?”


You’ll notice the question doesn’t probe into the deep levels of athleticism. It was not, “What was your batting average?” or, “Could you execute the double play?” Rather, it concerned a basic, essential skill that spoke to a young person’s place in the small world of his neighborhood.


Back when cars had grills, if a kid could catch a fly ball, he could be relied on. Catching a fly ball was evidence of a competency that earned respect and trust. The person who could catch a fly ball had the tools needed for living the young life. This was a steady person; someone confident, reasonably brave, thoughtful, and probably fair. A lad who could catch a fly ball usually had the ability to see clearly and act decisively.


You wanted this person by your side, like Kirk wanted Spock, like Ishmael wanted Queequeg, like the band wanted its brothers.


No 12-year-old ever said it like that. It wasn’t outwardly understood. But it hung over everything and was very real.


“Well, I caught some and I missed some,” I answered.


“So, basically, you could catch a fly ball?”


Actually, my baseball career was more of a continuum. I started lousy and got better. At its end, I satisfied myself. It was during the early days that I had doubts.


“Let me ask you a question,” I said. “Did you ever play against someone who tried out for the majors?”




“Well I did,” and I told this story.


I was about 12. We were all small and he was big. His name was Sonny. He was a legend and we worshiped him. Sonny lived a couple neighborhoods over but one summer he started dating a girl on our street. This was the summer he tried out for the Phillies at hallowed Connie Mack Stadium. It was an event he had described to us in great detail. Since Sonny was around because of his girlfriend, he’d occasionally play with us.


One day on the sandlot I was in the outfield. Sonny came up to bat. On the first pitch he ripped a long, hard drive to center, where I was. I was deep, but when the bat cracked I went deeper. I tried to get under the ball but couldn’t. Finally, I dove, desperately. Somehow, the ball landed in my glove. A small miracle.


That was the final out and I went in. Sonny was coming out and he said to me in mock seriousness, “Hey kid! You robbed me of a homer.” I stuttered and apologized. “Sorry Sonny. I didn’t even know I had it.”


Then he smiled and said, “I’m just kidding. You did good out there. Keep playing like that.” He touched me on the head and ran to short.


“Cool story,” my inquisitor said. “It’s settled. We’ll say you could catch a fly ball.”


Then he pointed to the cover of a DVD he was about to loan me. It was the kid’s movie “Sandlot.”


“You’re him,” he said, showing me which character probably was most like me.


That’s what started this. A movie. Outwardly, it was not about competency, trust and virtue. Inwardly, it was, and I guess I passed the test – a test for 12-year-olds.


In adulthood, there is no gauge equivalent to a caught fly ball. The ancient Greeks spent much time discussing and analyzing noble qualities and the nature of virtue, defining it as excellence and goodness. But they were unsure if it could be taught or if it had to be naturally acquired. They saw it primarily as wisdom, from which all good things come. The Greeks knew a virtuous person when they saw one, yet failed to pass down a yardstick appropriate to our times.


Still, we can try to judge. I once worked with a man whose every action spoke of goodness. This was partly because he was selfless. We worked together in a country that didn’t hire janitors. With no allowance for rank, the regular staff was responsible for cleaning the office. Of course, no one did. The one exception was this senior gentleman, who by the simple act of dusting and mopping set himself apart from everyone else in the office.


This was a man of virtue.


The world really is not made for the virtuous. Before I met him, this virtuous man had served 10 years in solitary confinement for the crime of being an intellectual. In theory, identifying the virtuous so that they can lead and guide is wise; in practice, it is pointless. At least a time once did exist when small boys could look out over a diamond drawn in dust and know for sure who they could trust.


So how do you catch a fly ball? If you’d like to learn, follow these three steps:

  1. Gaze at the ball.
  2. Run.
  3. Adjust your speed so your gaze stays constant.


That advice comes from mathematics philosopher Gregory Wheeler. For a more instructive lesson from someone who is not a philosopher or a mathematician, watch this video. It could set you on the path to righteousness.

Lanny Morgnanesi

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