My son has always loved sports statistics. In fact, I’m only barely exaggerating when I tell you that I’m pretty confident that, before he could even count to 10, Greg could tell you the batting averages of each of the players in the Braves’ starting line-up (or at least he knew where to find them)! His fascination only intensified as he grew older and began playing sports himself. During his youth league baseball days, Greg insisted on keeping detailed stats not only of his own performance (e.g., pitching, hitting, fielding, etc.), but of the performances of each of his teammates. And to this day, he routinely scrutinizes the statistics of those who play golf on the PGA Tour. I’m not sure why he developed such an interest in stats, except that he (and, to a lesser extent, his sister) have always preferred to “measure” themselves (and others) by “objective” standards. Simply put, they were never much for activities and outcomes that were too heavily dependent on another’s subjective evaluation of performance (i.e., when the “fairness” of result could be called into question).
Of course, statistics are interesting things. Some say “they don’t lie”, while others believe “they only tell part of the story”. The older I get, the more I tend to fall into the latter category! As I reflected on all of this today on my morning walk, I was reminded of an interesting encounter in 1995. We were eating dinner with several of Greg’s little league buddies and their families at a neighborhood Italian restaurant where Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio often dined. In fact, he was there that night. I knew “Joltin’ Joe” wasn’t keen on being disturbed, particularly during dinner, but I very much wanted the boys to have an opportunity to meet the legend. So, I waited patiently until Joe had paid his bill and followed him and his companion out the door – boys in tow (still in their uniforms). “Excuse me, Mr. DiMaggio,” I said. “I have a few young men who would very much like to meet you.” Surprisingly, given what I had heard about the man, he was extremely gracious and warmly shook each boy’s hand.
“Looks like you all are ballplayers,” he remarked. They nodded shyly. And then he turned to Greg and asked “how the season was going.” “Not very good,” Greg replied, “we’re 2 – 10!” “But,” he quickly added, rather matter-of-factly, “I’m having a pretty good year. I’m batting .700.” Joe took a step back to emphasize his astonishment. “.700?!?” he quipped. “I wish I could have hit half that well!” And with that and a smile, the Yankee Clipper was off. It was a very memorable moment for the boys – the chance to meet one of the true baseball greats of all time – and, obviously, for me as well. In fact, I thought the exchange between Greg and DiMaggio was sufficiently priceless to use it as a cornerstone for my “year-end” letter that year. But, it wasn’t until today that I realized there was a far more profound (and serious) truth to be found in that seemingly innocent exchange – one that occurred to me for the first time some 18 years later. I can be a little slow on the uptake sometimes.
DiMaggio was right of course. In his 13 years in the majors, he hit above .350 “just” three times, before retiring with a lifetime average of .325 – 41st best among all who have ever played the game. Simply put, DiMaggio got a hit only 3 out of every 10 plate appearances. That’s not to say that every time he went to bat he didn’t expect to get a hit – I’m certain he did. It also doesn’t mean he didn’t work hard during the regular and off seasons to try and constantly improve, so as to enhance his chances of getting a hit. To the contrary, he likely worked harder than most. Moreover, it doesn’t mean he gave less than the best effort that day’s life circumstances would allow when he stepped to the plate – most major leaguers and all Hall of Famers usually do. What it does mean is that despite his expectations, preparation and effort, DiMaggio fell short of his intended objective (i.e., a hit) 7 out of 10 times! Why? Because, truth be told: It’s hard to hit a baseball.
DiMaggio is hardly unique in that respect. In fact, if you were to spend a few minutes examining the Hall of Fame careers of a number of popular players in various sports, as I did when I returned from my walk, you might be surprised to learn how relatively infrequently they were “perfect” at their craft in their stellar professional careers. Terry Sawchuck, for example, holds the National Hockey League record for most shut-outs by a goalie: 103. Sounds like a lot, but when you consider that a goalie’s job is to keep pucks out of the net and that Sawchuck played 1,077 games in his career, that statistic, though best among all NHL Hall of Famers, means he fully succeeded (i.e., was “perfect”) at his craft less than 10% of the time!
Similarly, Nolan Ryan is considered one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. As a pitcher, it was Ryan’s job to get hitters out – either by striking them out or forcing them to hit into an out. And yet, in his 807-game professional career, Ryan only threw 7 no-hitters – a league best admittedly, but it meant he succeeded at his job “perfectly” less than 1% of the time! While I could go on endlessly, one final example will suffice. Most basketball fans will agree that Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Indeed, he was paid handsomely to make shots. And yet, in what indisputably was a Hall of Fame career, Michael Jordan made less than ½ of all the shots he attempted from the field (a “measley” 49.7%).
I wonder how many of us would raise our hands if we were asked whether we would be satisfied with the “success rates” enjoyed by these and other Hall of Famers. It’s a bit of a rhetorical question, of course, but one that’s worth a moment’s reflection, as are several of the questions that logically flow from it:
Why do we hold ourselves (and those around us) to a far more exacting standards in playing the “Game of Life”? Why do we continue to insist on perfection (or at least our or others’ perception of what perfection is) in all aspects of our lives – the way we look, the words we speak, the work we are asked to do (whether it’s in the classroom, the boardroom or somewhere in between), in our interpersonal relationships, in the way we practice our faith, etc.? Why in “the arenas” of our lives, which include far more variables and uncertainties than the playing fields on which all of the Hall of Famers mentioned above competed, do we expect ourselves to be better than the best that have ever played their games? Why must we “bat” .700 (or better!!!) all the time to be satisfied with ourselves? Why can’t we find contentment living with a “success rate” that would more than qualify us for induction into any reasonable “Life Hall of Fame”?
The answer is: we can – indeed, we must, because the alternative is downright unhealthy, if not self-destructive.