A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of empathy in our society. Empathy is a character trait that often takes time to develop. It requires patience and reflection, but it is a worthwhile endeavor. It is, at its core, an opportunity to establish common ground, to understand and serve others, and to make our world a kinder, gentler place.
While it’s easy to have empathy for friends and family, it’s sometimes more difficult to have empathy for people we don’t know – such as strangers on the Internet or in faraway lands – or people we see often but might not know as well.
Yes, whether you love or hate your job – or fall somewhere in between – there’s a good chance that you spend a lot of time with your co-workers. That’s certainly the case in baseball. When fans arrive for a game, the players have already been at the ball park for hours – and they remain at the ball park long after the final out.
As a result, players spend a lot of time together, as do co-workers in most professions. But there’s one thing, above all else, that can be challenging for people who work together – and it has nothing to do with annoying habits or clashing personalities. In fact, it has everything to do with one word.
Competition is the name of the game in business. One business competes with another, yes, but competition exists within a business as well. Perhaps two co-workers are up for the same promotion or bonus. In baseball, you’re competing against the other team, but sometimes you’re competing against your teammates—for things like playing time or a roster spot. After all, there is only so much playing time and so many roster spots available. Not everyone gets to start – or play. And in the corporate world, there are only so many positions in each department at each company. There are only so many promotions and bonuses to go around.
The challenge, then, is to have empathy for – and show kindness to – those with whom we are competing, in spite of the competitive envirionment. Can that be difficult? Yes. Is it possible? Also yes.
How do I know? Because Tom Paciorek taught me that.
Tom was drafted by the Dodgers in 1968 and spent the first several years of his career in Los Angeles. In 1975, he was traded to Atlanta as part of the deal for Dusty Baker. In 1976, his first season with the Braves – and also my first season with the Braves – he hit .290 in 324 at-bats.
Tom was a good athlete and a good hitter. Great sense of humor, too. Tommy Lasorda used to call him Wimpy – a reference to the Popeye character – because he was once the only guy at dinner to order a hamburger instead of a steak. Tom took it in stride.
Unfortunately, he arrived in Atlanta at a not-great time. The Braves were in the midst of a rebuild and were embracing the youth movement. By 1978, there were so many young, hungry players – myself included – trying to make the roster and carve out a starting role in the major leagues.
So here’s Tom, a veteran in his early 30s, trying to fend off rookies for playing time. You would think he wouldn’t have liked us. You would think he would have done anything he could to make sure he got playing time instead of us.
Nope. It was just the opposite.
In the batting cage before games, Tom would talk hitting to us: theories on hitting, hitting in the big leagues, technique, making adjustments, the thought process before each at-bat, etc., etc., etc. You name it, Tom talked about it. He was basically a coach on the field, and he was always willing to share information with us.
And remember: this was before the digital craze. Nowadays, if a player strikes out, he can go in the dugout or clubhouse and watch his at-bat on an iPad to see what went wrong. That wasn’t the case in the late-1970s. In those days, there was tremendous value to a veteran letting you inside his head and sharing the tricks of the trade. There’s still value in that, even though some teams try to replace it with metrics (another topic for another day!)
But Tom didn’t just help us in words; he helped us in actions. In those days, teams didn’t have as many coaches as they do now. They also didn’t have as many batting cages. During spring training, there was usually a batting cage on the minor league field next to the ball park, and in the third or fourth inning, guys who weren’t in the starting lineup would go to the cage and hit. Managers wanted to make sure we got some swings in, especially if we were going to play later in the game.
Because the coaches were usually at the game, well, coaching, Tom would head over to the cage with us and do something I had never seen before and haven’t seen since: he would throw BP to us.
Again, this was a veteran. Throwing BP to rookies. Who were trying to take his job.
We could have taken turns running the pitching machine, sure, but baseball players typically don’t like pitching machines. You want to see pitches from an actual live arm. So Tom provided it. He would get on the mound, let it rip, and coach us on the fly.
This was a remarkable example of empathy, care, and concern for fellow competitors. Even in a hyper-competitive environment, Tom just wanted to help others. It was a great lesson for me to learn as a young player, and to this day, I will never forget what Tom did.
Sure enough, Tom got released after spring training. The Braves re-signed him a week later but cut him again after just nine at-bats.
Tom’s career, though, didn’t end there. He signed with the Mariners and hit .299 in 251 at-bats. A couple of years later, in 1981, Tom finally got a chance to play full-time – and he made the most of it. He finished second in the American League in batting average (.326), fourth in slugging percentage (.509), made the All-Star team, and finished 10th in MVP voting. Tom went on to play for the White Sox, Mets, and Rangers – and his stint with Chicago (1982-85) certainly helped him after his playing days, as he was color commentator for the White Sox from 1988 to 1999, most of that alongside play-by-play voice Ken Harrelson.
Now, the cynic might say that Tom was a sucker, that by helping others instead of himself he didn’t achieve all that he could have as a player.
I couldn’t disagree more.
To me, Tom chose to be selfless when it would have been so easy to be selfish. Instead of sabotaging the competition or rooting against us, he served others and helped us get where we wanted to go. He opted for kindness. He opted for compassion. He opted for empathy. It made us better, and I think it made him better, too.
The lesson is clear: Climbing a mountain isn’t easy, but if you help others to the top, you’ll still get to enjoy the peak in all its glory. The sooner you adopt that mindset, the better off you’ll be – and the better off your co-workers will be. Tom taught me that, and I’ll never forget it.
Thanks, Wimpy. The next burger is on me.
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