I’m amazed at some of the stuff that I’ve picked up over the years that I served in the Army. I’ve noticed that, for veterans, the objects they’ve accumulated take on an almost talismanic property…not that they’ve been imbued with some mystic powers, but they’ve certainly been given worth beyond their actual value simply because of the manner in which they were obtained. Talk to some retired NCO about his coin collection, and you could be sitting for hours, because each one is a story in itself. Walk into a retired Cav officer’s office and see the Stetson, Saber, and Spurs hanging on their wall, and know that there’s pride there, and honor.
Then, sometimes, the objects that veterans collect are some of the strangest and most incomprehensible, but have great meaning and strange stories behind them.
I have a shiny baseball on my desk.
This thing has gone with me on every deployment since Baghdad in ’06-’07. I was walking down the hallway yesterday, and a colleague asked me, “Is that your stress ball?” Natural question, of course, but it’s not my stress ball, although it does release stress; no, it’s my thinkin’ ball. Do you remember the scene in A Few Good Men when Tom Cruise flips out because Demi Moore puts away his bat, that he thinks better with it? This baseball is like that for me. When I’m brainstorming, speculating, pondering, this is the object I grab.
It’s value goes far beyond the fact that it helps me think, though; it’s value today reminds of failure and mistakes.
The baseball started out as a promotional ball from the Bowie Bay Sox, the AA minor-league team in the Baltimore Oriole system. The team is located in Bowie, Maryland, close to Fort Meade, where I served as a Recruiter from 2002-2005. Before you bring out the rotten tomatoes, understand that the Army sends you where it sends you and you have a job to do. Although it was a challenging job…some of which this story illustrates…it was also a key part in my own professional development, and one that I feel helped me become a better leader later in my career.
So back to the baseball…the Bowie Bay Sox, like many Minor League teams around the nation, often had military appreciation night. This one particular year, they approached the Baltimore Recruiting Battalion to see if they would like to have a new Army recruit throw out the first pitch. The Battalion selected my company, which selected me, and I selected one of my top guys to throw the ball. We really went all out for this one…I flew in on a Blackhawk, carrying the ball, and we landed in center field. I jumped out, handed my guy the ball, and he threw the first pitch. He was even allowed to keep the ball as reminder of the day.
The thing is: the guy never ended up joining the Army.
Again, before the rotten tomatoes come out, this is one of the lessons that the baseball has taught me…forgiveness and grace. The military isn’t for everyone, and it obviously wasn’t right for this young man at that point in his life. Without going into too much detail out of respect for privacy, suffice to say that there were challenges in his life that caused him to decide not to enlist. And you can bet that I was plenty mad, at the time…hence the reason I told him to give me the baseball back.
For a long time, I would tell this story and say that the baseball was a reminder of how I trust people too easily sometimes, and that’s certainly some of it. I really did believe that this young man was one of my solid guys, a future Soldier, and it turned out that my belief was displaced and I was disappointed. As the years passed, however, it came to symbolize more than just bitterness, but turned to a symbol of, although people can disappoint us, we still continue we still survive, and even thrive.
So it continued with me wherever I went, the baseball that sits on my desk. It’s been a source of disappointment in myself…there’s some scuffs on it, not from being hit out of the park, but there might have been a time or two in Iraq when my temper got the best of me and it jumped out of my hand at full speed…at least that’s how I tell the story, anyway. I’m not proud or happy about it, but veterans get angry sometimes. I never threw the ball at anyone, but it had been known to be thrown because of someone.
It also reminds me of nervousness and lack of confidence. Later in that Baghdad deployment, it was my responsibility to give a daily briefing in our daily logistic planning meeting. Every unit on our base, and representatives from our Brigade and sometimes our Regional command would attend, either in person or via teleconference. Every day, for four months, I would give a briefing on the supply distribution in Northern Baghdad. After several weeks, someone brought it to my attention: I always held the baseball when I was giving my briefing. I wasn’t up in front of people or anything, the primary focus was our briefing material, but I didn’t realize that I would stand there the whole time, tossing the baseball back and forth in my hands.
So there it sits on my desk: a worn out old baseball, shiny from countless hours of being tossed back and forth. Scuffed, as a reminder that I sometimes lost my temper and let my anger control me instead of learning to control my anger. Present, as a reminder to me that humans are humans, people make mistakes, and that’s okay.
And a reminder of some of the strangest stuff that we pick up as we travel through our lives, and place value in, and put on our desk as an object of worth.
All that from a $10.00 baseball. What’s on your desk?