Right to Play

2 May

It is early spring, 1979. I’m just a kid. But I am lucky enough to take a family vacation to visit my great aunt in Florida.

There is little I care about more than baseball. So there is no better place to be than Florida during Spring Training.

(This is years before Major League Baseball would murder my favorite team, re-animate it into a lousy zombie-team on the Potomac [but, hey, I’m not bitter], and put to an end my lingering affection for the game.)

Unfortunately, my great aunt doesn’t live close enough to the Montreal Expos’ spring training complex. But she is only a short hop away from the New York Yankees’. Now, I’m as enthusiastic a Yankee-hater as the next kid – the only time I ever cheer for them is when they play the Toronto Blue Jays.

But this is the late ’70s – we’re talking about the great Yankee teams of Bucky Dent, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Lou Pinella, Graig Nettles, and of course, the doomed Thurman Munson.

Most of all, we are talking about the Yankees of Mr. October, Reggie Jackson – only two seasons removed from one of the greatest feats in World Series history.

So I am more than happy to visit the Yanks’ spring home in Ft. Lauderdale. And when Whitey Ford – the great Yankee pitcher of the 1950s and ’60s, who is at this time a pitching instructor for the team – tosses my little sister a baseball, we know what we have to do:

Get Reggie Jackson to sign it.

It is no easy feat. We get Tommy John’s autograph. Willie Randolph’s, too. And a bunch of other players whose names I still can’t make out on the ball all these years later (in hindsight, some of them are probably bat boys). But Reggie J. is the last player to leave the field that day.

So we wait at the exit of the players’ locker room. And wait. Wait so long that the only people left there are my cousin, my sister and I. Three wide-eyed, innocent, baseball-crazy kids.

After what seems like hours… maybe days… out walks a shirtless Reggie Jackson. Without even looking directly at us, he mumbles “no autographs today”. And walks off.

And a small piece of my baseball-saturated heart dies a little that moment (of course, it will be years before Major League baseball murders my favorite team and …oh, yeah, I went through that already).

Looking back, maybe my whole Reggie Jackson experience is an important lesson for a kid to learn about professional athletes. They’re not always the nicest folks. Many of them are big, fat, overpaid, ego-bloated jerks.

But I’ll concede there are some – maybe more than a few – exceptions to the rule. A good place to find those exceptions is here: in the membership of the Right To Play organization.

The brainchild of Johann Olav Koss – Norwegian speedskating hero of the 1994 Winter Olympics (and current resident of Canada) – Right To Play is an “athlete-driven international humanitarian organization” that sends some of the biggest names in international sport (only one baseball player, though) to some of the neediest international places in order to promote peace and development.

How do they do this? Here’s a podcast of an interview I produced with Koss that gives the scoop on this unique initiative.


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