Tommy John, one of baseball’s most durable pitchers, played twenty-six seasons in the majors. Twenty-six seasons! He started his career pitching to Mickey Mantle when Kennedy was president and finished his final season pitching to Mark McGuire with President H.W. Bush in the White House.
When asked how he accomplished such superhuman longevity, he answered with questions. He continually asked himself this set of questions to focus his mind on how he could improve where others weren’t:
Is there a chance?
Do I have a shot?
Is there something I can control?
Is there something I can do about it?
His commitment was to finding a yes, wherever he could. No matter how slight the chance, if it was aligned with where he wanted to go and there was that chance, he was going to take it and make good use of it – determined to give every ounce of effort and energy he had to make it happen.
In the middle of the 1974 season, he blew out his arm, permanently damaging the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. At that time in baseball and sports medicine, when a pitcher blew out his arm that was it. It was called a “dead arm” injury. Game over.
But Tommy wouldn’t accept that at face value. Was there anything that could give him a shot to get back on the mound? It turns out, doctors suggested an experimental surgery in which they would try to replace the ligament in his pitching elbow with a tendon in his other arm. The estimated chances of this procedure working were one in one hundred. Otherwise, no chance.
He took it, focused on what he could control with rehab and training and won 164 more games over the next thirteen seasons. That procedure is now famously known as Tommy John surgery.
Less than ten years later, his young son fell horrifyingly from a third-story window and nearly died. With doctors convinced the boy would not survive, Tommy mustered the same spirit and effort and reminded his family that whether it took one or ten years, they wouldn’t give up until there was absolutely nothing left that they could do.
His son made a full recovery.
In 1988, at the age of 45, he was cut by the Yankees at the end of the season. He was told he should no longer be playing baseball at his age.
Tommy wanted to keep playing, he would not accept his circumstances and repeatedly called the coach and demanded one shot.
The Yankees finally conceded: “Fine, yes, you’ll get one look.”
John was the first to report to camp, trained many hours a day, brought every lesson he’d learned playing the sport for over a quarter century, and made the team – as the oldest player in the game.
He started the season opener – and won, giving up only two runs over seven innings on the road in Minnesota.
Whatever Tommy John could change, whatever he could control, he gave 100 percent of the effort he could muster.
And that was the difference between “impossible” and just unlikely at the moment.
Recovering addicts learn to harness the same power with the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
What is it that we can change and control no matter the circumstances?
The weather, the economy, circumstances, other people’s emotions, pipeline, trends, creative destruction, COVID, contested elections, lockdowns, dealflow – this is our playing field.
And on this field, we have the opportunity to get knocked down and complain – or get up, focus on what we can control, pivot, improve, fight and make the most of whatever chance is in front of us.