Matthew Cohen for Reader's DigestIt was a fastball, about belt high. I say fast meaning it was a straight pitch, not a curveball or a slider. Dads whose sons were in a league of eight-year-olds in the mid-1960s didn’t let their sons throw breaking stuff. (Love baseball? Check out these vintage baseball photos any die-hard fan would appreciate.)
I had a good look from my position at shortstop in a game that we, the Vees (don’t ask; I don’t know), were leading by a couple of runs. That lead was in jeopardy because this fastball was lined over my head, bounced, and cleared the chain-link fence, which no player in our league had ever cleared before.
This hit, a ground-rule double, scored runners from second and third and tied the game. This necessitated a meeting on the mound so our coach could tell us, the infielders, what we should do if the next ball was hit to us.
But before another pitch could be thrown, we had to find two of our outfielders. That fastball had disappeared into the trees and bushes that adorned this part of the park, where no ball had ever gone before. During our meeting on the mound, the left fielder and center fielder apparently had taken it upon themselves to climb the fence and retrieve the ball.
The rest of us Vees sprinted toward them to provide encouragement, or point to where we thought the ball had gone, or simply ask, “Why are you over there?”
As it turns out, the ball had come to rest in plain sight about ten feet past the fence. Our two missing outfielders had seen it. But they had also discovered a blackberry bramble. It was filled with a mother lode of ripe and apparently delicious blackberries. While the infielders were getting chapter and verse from the coach, our left fielder and center fielder were stretching their skinny arms through the bramble, deftly avoiding the menacing thorns, rejoicing in their discovery, and testifying to another reason this game is indeed our national pastime. (Here’s the very best—and worst!—baseball stadium food choices you can find.)
I have no memory of how that game turned out. But a game that features a blackberry delay struck a chord with my dad. From that point on, it simply became “the blackberry moment.”
My father was a major-league pitcher in the 1950s, most notably as a reliever for those great Milwaukee Braves teams. As he transitioned from the playing field to the broadcast booth, as the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, he was a regular on the banquet and luncheon circuits. If you were a member of the Kiwanis club, the Optimist International club, the Jaycees, Rotary International, or the Salvation Army, you heard Ernie Johnson Sr. deliver a speech. What it was like to play alongside the likes of Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews and Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette. What it was like to pitch to Stan Musial and Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson.
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And every once in a while, he’d throw this one in: “And then there was that morning when little Ernie, and he’s seated right down here in front, was playing a peewee game over at Murphey Candler Park …” And the story of the blackberry moment would be told by the greatest storyteller I ever knew.
That story has become, in many ways, central to my perspective on work, relaxation—shoot, life. It’s a kind of parable about not being afraid to step away from the game (translated: the job, the meeting, the conference call, the list of e-mails, the seemingly pressing matter at hand) to appreciate the unexpected, unscripted moments. (Here are some inspirational quotes from notable thinkers on everyday happiness.)
It’s always the blackberry moments that stand out when I stop to think about the wide variety of sports I’ve had the chance to be part of in the winding course of my career.
In 1998, I was doing track-and-field play-by-play at the IAAF World Cup in Athletics finals in Johannesburg, South Africa. Know what I remember most about that trip? Not the 100- and 200-meter golds won by Marion Jones, remarkable as they were. No, it was a visit to Soweto a day or two before. Soweto was a focal point in the fight against apartheid. In June 1976, students staged a protest—the Soweto Youth Uprising—that turned deadly as South African authorities opened fire.
I was in a van with a video crew following a busload of U.S. athletes to where a new sports center for kids had been built. I looked out the window at the tiny huts with tin roofs, thinking that it appeared a neighborhood had been built on a landfill.
I have photos of that day in my home office, and every time I look at those snapshots, the feeling of that day returns, and I feel lucky. I have pictures of tiny kids wearing extra-large USA Track & Field T-shirts that nearly touched the ground. There’s a picture of me reaching to shake hands with a group of kids, and they’re laughing, and so are their moms and a grandmother.
Oh, that day was marvelous. And as we drove back to our Johannesburg hotel, we saw the sun setting in our rearview mirror so brilliantly that we had to pull over so we could take pictures. It was a spectacular finish to an unforgettable day.
I had to look up the highlights of that track meet, but I will never forget those Soweto images or that sunset. That’s what blackberry moments do. I think God has placed blackberry brambles along the paths we walk every day. We just need the eyes to see them, the ears to hear them, and the hearts to detect them.
All that stands in the way is the busyness of life. We’re all so focused on sticking to the script from one day to the next, one meeting to the next, one sales call to the next, that we blow right by the unscripted moments that can profoundly impact not just our lives but also the lives of those with whom we share the planet, the workplace, or a home. If there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s not to fear the unscripted but to embrace it.