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Sports and Heroes: The Test

Some words we toss around are substitutes for more precise vocabulary that could express our thoughts with greater accuracy. But without the time or inclination to come up with more apt words, we resort to others as pinch hitters, a metaphor appropriate to my topic.

For example, we often overstate impacts of exceptional deeds, particularly those that seem far beyond our ability to perform. That others are able to do so, we acknowledge with the verbal medal of valor, “heroic.” The term separates us, the observers and admirers, from those who actually perform the exceptional. Deserving as the accolade may seem, it’s often bestowed with too little thought about its deep implications.

I spontaneously uttered the word some days ago when Bryce Harper, his team behind in the late innings, launched a home run that propelled the Phillies to the unexpected (at least as far as I was concerned) status of World Series participant. Elaine and I were exuberant in our living room, from which, appropriately, we could see the lights of the Phillies’ venue, Citizens Bank Ballpark, several miles away. The glow from the field insinuated itself into our hearts. With the final San Diego out, we became parts of the celebratory eruption spontaneously engulfing Philadelphia.

When things settled down a bit, I tried, as a baseball aficionado, to understand the intense pressures weighing on Harper as he strode to the plate for his match-up with the opposing pitcher. I tried to imagine elements fueling an epic battle between an individual and the powerful forces he’d have to overcome to achieve success. Some remarkable acts, of course, happen spontaneously, blending visceral courage and dominant personal values. Like racing to rescue someone in a burning building, these automatic responses occur almost insulated from thought before the possibility of failure can fully take hold mentally and emotionally. In Harper’s case, moving into the batter’s box, he had to be totally aware of multiple pressures. As a veteran player, this wouldn’t be the first time he had occupied center stage, but never had the circumstances been more dramatic and involved higher stakes. Millions of fans across the country, some wishing him well and others yearning for his failure, had eyes fixed on his every move. Of course, the high decibel roar from fans on their feet in the stands had to be heartening, but, I must remnd you, the affections of Phillies’ fans aren’t to be toyed with. With these most discerning and critical of sports mavens, success is celebrated exuberantly, but there’s limited capacity for sympathetic reaction to failure.

And there was an additional pressure that could be felt only by Harper himself. Through many TV interviews and print comments, he had earned acknowledgement as being the team leader. Off the field, he was the go-to guy for explanations of team failures and successes. More important though, his reliability as a hitter made him the one player in a crucial situation fans wanted to see come to bat. And no situation could have been more crucial than the one whose outcome he was about to determine for better or worse. Certainly, he understood the waning hopes of his team were almost entirely invested in him. Of leaders, much is expected. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be leaders.

What thoughts must have surged in his mind! How had he dealt with so many cross currents swelling within? Was he self-disciplined by the “power of positive thinking,” mentally previewing a raucous celebration moments away? Was he able completely to ignore the possibility of devastating dejection that would follow possible crushing of hope? Had his long stint as a major league player, seasons filled with both glorious victories and wrenching defeats, helped armor him against destructive distraction? In short, could he deliver on his reputation as a disciplined, focused star?

He could and he did. When the winning home run ball began its ascent into the damp night air, action ceased momentarily. Harper, obviously aware it was destined for the stands, watched its flight before beginning to circle the bases. His teammates in the dugout looked aloft, faces on the brink of smiles and laughter, feet poised to leap onto the field. Actually, the first to acknowledge what had happened were the fans, who exploded as soon as the ball left the bat.

So, yes, in the immediate aftermath, I labeled Harper’s fete “heroic” and I’m not apologetic about it. I wouldn’t consider that total overstatement, especially for a Philly fan from whose vocabulary “pennant winner” had long been a no-show. On further review, as umpires say when they’ve botched a decision, I think “courageous” would have been better. Do not underestimate the significance of that word. In literary terms, it’s been defined as “grace under pressure.” Considering the circumstances that inspire its use, “grace” may seem too calm a word to convey the concept of raw fortitude that triumphs over demons of self-doubt.

In the end, to describe Harper’s achievement as “courageous” does nothing to de-value it.

“Heroic” should be applied to human actions that risk, for performers of such deeds, long-term, possibly ruinous consequences. It shouldn’t be confined only to physical responses to challenges, either. In my estimation, Liz Cheney and Adam Kinsinger, having willingly dissociated themselves from myriad flagrant butt kissers in their party, deserve to be called “heroic.”

There was much at stake for Harper that afternoon. While in the connotative sense of the word he may have performed heroically, he deserves complete credit for personifying courage. He faced countless challenges, and he prevailed. I wish all of us, athletes, politicians, as well as the rest of us could respond similarly when put to the test.

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