Stephen and Jonah Ruisi

27 Outs: Lessons in Life by Guest Blogger, Stephen Ruisi

This week, I extended an invitation to my son, Stephen Ruisi to be my “guest blogger” and share with us an excerpt from a book he is writing about one of the most challenging experiences in his life. In this piece – written for his son – he uses the “27 Outs” in a baseball game to help his son build a path for a successful and meaningful life. Read on, enjoy and learn.

27 Outs

I last played organized baseball when I was slightly older than my son Jonah. I was 13 and in the 8th grade and it was in the local Babe Ruth league.  In the span of a year, I went from playing on a little league field to a major league field.  My growth spurt would not happen for some time whereas most of my teammates had grown exponentially in size and strength. Needless to say, I encountered a lot of difficulty and frustration.

Despite being in “retirement” from baseball for nearly 30 years, baseball remains one of the great loves of my life.  I love everything about it – the way the bat feels when you hit the ball hard on the sweet spot, the sound the dirt makes when you slide under a tag, the popping of a catcher’s glove from a hard fastball.  Baseball appeals to my intellectual curiosity as I love the strategy of game management. As a father and little league coach – the look of my children’s face when they get a hit or make a great catch.  And recently – watching Olivia, the only girl in our league, throw heat and strike out the side (as a side note, I enjoyed the look of shock and bewilderment on the face of the boys she struck out).

One of my favorite elements is the fact that unlike other sports, baseball games are not governed by the arbitrary nature of a clock.  To win a major league game, one team needs to get 27 outs.  And, even though a team may be down to the last strike of the last out, the game is not over until the last out is recorded.  So, in turn, that means that until the game is over, anything and everything is possible.

But more significantly, baseball permits a last strike, a last out comeback, particularly when it looks like the prospect for victory is all but extinct.

Given how baseball facilitates the comeback, one might assume this is the reason why I choose to write about baseball instead of something else (say track, a sport in which I competed for over 10 years). While that’s a big part of the reason, there is more to it that this one-dimensional view.

When Jonah was born, I was excited for many reasons. One of which was the fact, that like many fathers, I was excited to share my love of baseball with my son.  I saw in my future catches in the backyard, me coaching him in little league games, going to see games.  Most of all, I was excited to take him to his first baseball game.  In the weeks prior to my diagnosis, my older brother gave me for Father’s Day tickets to take Jonah to his first Met game. Though I knew he would have no concept of being at a game, for me it marked the beginning of a tradition much like the one my father started by taking my brothers and I to Met games.

Unfortunately, the ability to take Jonah to Shea Stadium was thwarted by cancer; just one of the many things’ cancer took away from me in the early days.  Though I would eventually take Jonah to his first game (he was more intrigued with the cup holders than the actual game), I never was able to share Shea with him as it was torn down before we could attend a game.

Despite the fact that it was at Citi Field and not Shea Stadium, I thoroughly enjoyed taking Jonah to his first baseball game.  It was the first of many games that we saw together, including Game 5 of the 2015 World Series.  Though I’m sure it was filled with more germs than my oncologist would have liked, the ability to take Jonah to his first game was worth every germ filled dirty thing I touched in the Stadium.  I would have licked the floor if it meant being able to take him to that game.

I have always loved how the lessons of baseball transcend the lines of the field into every aspect of life off the field.  Other than the cliché phrases people frequently utter such as “Swing for the fences” or “Keep your eye on the ball”, the fundamentals of the game are just as true outside of the game as they are during it.

As I was released home from transplant, I continued my TV binging to pass the time. Fortunately, my return home coincided with a lot of baseball news – the beginning of spring training and Alex Rodriguez being caught using steroids.  Though I never followed baseball in February, it was a welcome distraction as I awaited the news of whether or not my transplant had succeeded.  If it worked, it means I bought time (who knows how much); but if it didn’t, it might signify that I might be borrowing time.

The fear of uncertainty played havoc with my mind. But chief amongst my concerns was making sure I was able to impart to Jonah a roadmap for how to “win” in life.  Given that I was certain that I had not exactly “won”, I turned to baseball for guidance given the ubiquitous nature of the lessons I learned from my brief stint as a player and lifetime as a fan.

During my first post-transplant visit to my parents’ house, I saw the gift that I had given my older brother in his old room – a picture of the first and last pitch of Don Larsen’s “perfect game” in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series (the only perfect game in the World Series in the history of baseball).  The image of Yankees catcher Yogi Berra leaping into Don Larsen’s arms is an iconic one.  To me it signifies the ultimate success in team play.

Seeing these pictures caused my mind to wander to how in the months preceding my diagnoses, I was more concerned with getting perfect grades in law school than I was with the toll it was taking on my personal and professional life.   And I realized that though I had previously felt pride in being a perfectionist, that the pursuit of perfection is the enemy of progress.  I had also ignored the reality that to throw a perfect game, a pitcher needs a lot of help from teammates.  Don Larsen recorded 7 strike outs in his gem; so his teammates bailed him out another 20 times.

In my quest for perfection in school and work, I had failed not only to give credit to my teammates (namely Mary) but to also seek their help.  And in doing so, I found myself isolated from my own team. But, when I needed a comeback, my teammates backed me when only a perfect game would do.

But, regardless of a perfect game or not, to win, a team still needs to get the other team out 27 times.

And so using the 27 Outs theme seemed like the perfect (pun may or may not be intended) backdrop through which to frame my game-plan for Jonah.

1. There’s always another at-bat, another game, or another season to make up for mistakes of today.  However, always play like it’s the last at bat in Game 7 of the World Series in the last season of your career.

As a child growing up, I would imagine myself as a pitcher or center fielder playing a pivotal role in helping my team win the World Series.  My fictitious World Series would always last 7 games and go down to the last at bat in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7.  Why? Because no game in any sport is as big as Game 7 of the World Series. Admittedly, even now, if I were given a choice to see any sports championship, I would pick front row seats to Game 7 ten times out of ten.  Don’t get me wrong, winning the world series in 4 games would be fantastic, but there’s nothing like a Game 7.  It’s the last game of the year; it’s the point where there is no tomorrow and there can be no post-game regrets.  In Game 7, the team that wins is the one that is willing to give 110%.

There’s nothing wrong with a “We’ll get ‘em tomorrow” attitude, except that after Game 7, tomorrow never comes.  The same is true for life in that people often take for granted that there will be a tomorrow in which you can “catch up”.  This, unfortunately, doesn’t match reality.   In reality, we never know when the last game of our season will be until that game is over.  So, we must play under the assumption that each game is Game 7. And, we must play to win at all times.  However, I caution that in playing to win, integrity cannot be sacrificed.

Don’t be intimidated or overwhelmed by the finality surrounding Game 7; the most important thing is that when the game is over, you have no regrets or doubts about whether you gave your best efforts.  How does one know if best efforts were given – simple, by how soundly one sleeps that night.

While in baseball, the score dictates who wins Game 7, life is a little murkier about the ultimate winner. As a father and a husband (the only game that is truly important to me), my concern has never been trying to win Game 7; rather, my focus has been on putting forth a Game 7 effort every day.   At the end of every day, I hope and pray for another Game 7.

2. Sometimes the ball bounces your way and sometimes it takes a wicked hop.  But always want the ball.  Watch out for curveballs and off-speed pitches; however, always be prepared to hit the fastball.

3. Play with integrity and passion and lead by example.  Play each game giving 100% of yourself to it; some days this is enough to win while on other days you will lose a game despite playing your best.

4. Some will cheat to gain an advantage and you may be tempted to follow suit.  Just remember that your name is the only one you ever get; it’s your job to keep it clean.

Cheating is really any shortcut one takes in lieu of doing the work his or herself.  It’s easy to forget that usually those who cheat are caught and disgraced.  However, for those cheaters that “succeed”, it creates great temptation to follow their lead in lieu of doing the necessary work.  Copying someone’s work to succeed seems like a better way to go than working diligently through an assignment.  However, remember that your name is on the line.

Except for rare occasions, cheaters are eventually found out.  When this happens, all their accomplishments and accolades are effectively wiped out.  Why? Because you just can’t tell which of their accomplishments were honest.  All that endures is a legacy of a cheater.  Nobody remembers that the 1919 White Sox team was probably one of the best of all time; what lasts is their image (fairly or unfairly) as a team that threw the Series.  Will history remember Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens as the greatest players of their era or simply the biggest cheats?  My vote is on the latter.

It’s easy to blame peer pressure as the reason for cheating.  But, at the end of the day, you make the conscious decision to cheat or play it clean.  Always remember the choice is yours.  However, remember once your name is dirty, it’s next to impossible to clean it.

5. You will strike out and make errors; but this is not a bad thing.  This is how we become better players.  Nobody gets a hit in every at bat and everybody makes errors; you are not perfect and will never be perfect.  But that doesn’t mean not to strive for perfection.

Everybody strikes out.  Point in case, Ty Cobb, who owns the record for career batting average, struck out 357 times in his career.  As a lifetime .366 hitter, Cobb was unsuccessful 63% of the time.  Despite this alarming statistic, you can bet that after each at bat in which he made an out, Cobb learned something that he could use in his next at bat.  Everybody makes errors.  I’ve seen Gold Glove fielders make errant throws and miss sure plays.  I’ll always remember Bill Buckner’s error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.  However, I’ll guarantee that Buckner learned from that misplayed ground ball to always look the ball into his glove.

Errors and strike outs are a normal part of life and are rarely a bad thing.  What makes them haunt us is if we repeat them or worse, don’t learn from them.  I know I’m not a perfect person nor will I ever be one.  I’ve made countless errors both professionally and personally.  If I had to list out all my errors, I’m pretty sure that I’d run out of ink.  But I could make an equal list chronicling the lessons I’ve learned from each one.  Errors come in all shapes and sizes.  And they will happen.  However, you can’t fear making mistakes or be afraid to own up to those that you have made.  If you do, that’s a guaranteed way to make more mistakes.  Above all, the worst thing you can do is try to cover up a mistake.  Not only do you not learn from the mistake, but you’ll also compromise your own integrity.

There’s a funny thing about mistakes.  If you learn from them, you stop remembering the incidents as mistakes.  You recall them as little lessons that you’ve learned along the way.  After you’ve made enough of them, you’ll look back on your mistakes and realize that they were the building blocks of your successes.

6. Sooner or later all of us have to retire; this rarely happens on our terms.  All you can do is play your best your entire career and hope it’s enough to be voted into the Hall of Fame

7. Play to win no matter what the score; however, always treat your opponent with respect.  Never taunt a defeated opponent.  One day he’ll beat you.  Or worse, one day he could be your teammate.

8. The game isn’t over until the last out; there’s always a chance for a late inning comeback.  You just have to believe in the chance.

One of the greatest moments of my childhood was going to bed after Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.  Watching Mookie Wilson’s grounder go through the legs of the helpless Bill Buckner made me want to (& probably try to) run up and down Dahlia Street yelling at the top of my lungs.  At the time, I was a jubilant almost 8-year-old ecstatic that the Mets won the game and ignorant to the fact that the events of the 10th inning are what make baseball a unique sport.  Unlike other sports in which the clock is an arbitrary third entity who determines the end of the game, in baseball, as long as a team has at least one strike left, no matter the score or how dire the situation may look, there is always a chance for a comeback.  As Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”

As much as this rings true on the ball field, it resonates a great deal louder on the field of life for me.  When I heard the news of my cancer diagnosis, I felt myself go weak; sort of like how the Shea crowd grew eerily quiet as Keith Hernandez flied out for the second out in the bottom of the tenth.  In my mind, the game was lost; no chance to stage a comeback.  (Apparently the same thought was in the mind of the Shea Stadium scoreboard crew who flashed ‘Congratulations Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Champions.)  However, like the 1986 Mets, I clawed my way back one hit at a time (with a lot of help from my fans) and eventually staged my own late-inning comeback.

There is a common element in all late-inning rallies – they all start with some sort of rally cap and a belief that a comeback is possible.  On the surface, these are silly and sometimes juvenile gestures.  But why does somebody start the rally cap? Because we all believe that there is a chance for a comeback.  We have to believe this; if we didn’t, there would be a lot of forfeits on all fields.  The secret is that while most folks just say that they believe in the magic of comebacks; few actually believe.   And the belief in the comeback starts with belief in yourself.

9. Never let yourself get called out on strikes; always go down swinging.  But, don’t swing at ball 4.

10. Don’t be afraid to try to stretch a single into a double; you might just get there; but don’t give up an out.  As a pitcher, don’t be afraid to go that extra inning; however, don’t blow out your arm.

11. Leave yesterday’s frustrations out of today’s game and don’t let today’s good game get in the way of repeating it tomorrow.

12. There will never be an even playing field; there will always be somebody better than you.  However, you can make sure that nobody is tougher or works harder than you.

13. People in the crowd will try to get in your head to distract you; it’s up to you to ignore or validate their comments.

14. Never blame your teammates in a loss; this will get you isolated in the dugout.  Always share the credit with your teammates; after all, it is a team game, and nobody can do it alone out there.

15. Help your teammates; that’s how the team gets better.  As a rookie, learn from the veterans; as a veteran help the rookies.

16. There is such a thing as a “good out”.  Sometimes a sacrifice is necessary to win the game.

17. It’s ok and sometimes necessary to fight to stand up for yourself or your teammates.  But never be a bully or play dirty.

18. The seventh inning stretch is a good break – take advantage of it.

19. Getting pulled from the mound or for a pinch hitter or runner isn’t a sign of weakness.  It’s ok to get help from your teammates

20. You will be hit by pitches from time to time.  Getting hit by a pitch hurts, but never let that make you afraid to get back in the batter’s box and take a swing.

21. If you keep your eye on the ball, you stand a much better chance of hitting it or catching it.

22. When you’re in the field, always know what you’ll do with the ball before the ball gets to you.  But, don’t try to throw the ball before you catch it.

23. Study your opponent’s game; he/she is studying yours. It’s not cheating; it’s called preparation.

24. Don’t forget to have fun; if you’re not having fun, the game isn’t worth playing.  Remember to enjoy all the little victories.  If your uniform isn’t dirty you didn’t have any fun.

25. There are two names on your jersey.  Play for the one on the front but don’t forget that the one on the back lasts forever.

When I first started working, I was in a colleague’s office on a conference call.  As my mind and gaze began to wander during the call, a quote on the office wall caught my eyes.  I am unable to recall whether it was a Bible verse or just simply a proverb of some sort.  But the quote essentially cautioned to be kind to your name as it will last for a thousand years.  Although I’m unable to recall either the source or exact words of the quote, the message has stuck with me through all walks of life since that day.

Stains come off the front of the jersey fairly easily; however, once the back name is covered in dirt, it is a very uphill battle to clean it up.  My point is that you should get the front side dirty playing hard for your team; but, in this regard never do anything that dirties the back side.  If it comes down to choosing which side of the jersey to protect, simply take off the jersey.  The truth of the matter is that the name of the front of the jersey changes many times, but the name on the back never changes; it stays on you after the jersey comes off.  It lasts for eternity.

Play the game with the goal of wanting others wanting to emulate the tradition and legacy of the name on your back.

26. A batting average is just that – an average; this means you’ll have hot streaks as well as slumps.  And don’t obsess about the wins and losses. But when your career is over, you will be judged by your numbers and record.

27. A perfect game is hard to come by; but there’s nothing wrong with a 1 hitter.

~ Stephen Ruisi

Productivity Book Chris Ruisi

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