Third base side. Second deck. Home of the Detroit Tigers Baseball Club. Tiger Stadium.
As we entered the front gates, the noise and activity of the crowd sent chills through my body. I clutched the paper program in my hand as we started the long climb to our seats, then suddenly there it was: a spectacular green pasture of manicured grass, perfect in every way, from the bright white lines to the scoreboard. My eyes darted everywhere, as I had never experienced a professional baseball field. There were more people than I had ever seen.
On that picture-perfect Saturday in July, in 1971, with bright sunshine and a cloudless blue sky, I had entered a brand-new world. After a four-hour drive with my friend Dalton and his dad, Bart, and one of Bart’s buddies [their names have been changed to protect their privacy], I crossed the US/Canada border for the first time. Dalton was my buddy from birth and we did everything together. Dalton knew my passion for sports, all sports of every kind, but especially baseball. I was his choice to bring to the game. The stern directions from Dalton’s dad to keep my eyes straight ahead as we entered the U.S. could not take away the joy of a dream coming true.
As the silky voice of the announcer came on and asked that we rise and take off our hats for the playing of the national anthem, I saw the people around me proudly place their right hand on their heart and sing the star-spangled banner. Below us, I could see the Tigers in their bright white jerseys with navy blue piping down the front and an Old English “D” on the left chest. There were my heroes Kaline, Freehan, Cash, Horton, Stanley…and the list goes on. Almost five decades later, I can still remember the starting lineup.
It was at that moment, back when I was 10 years old, that I felt I was home. I’d spent much of my childhood feeling excluded. In our small city in Canada, I lived miles away from all the kids that I went to school with. Because of the distance, it was hard to make any friends except one. Surrounded by people who shared my passion for baseball, I felt I belonged. I decided during that moment in Detroit, Michigan that the U.S. was where I wanted to be.
Michigan and Trumbull. That’s where we were now, I kept telling myself. They were the cross streets to the sports shrine for the former automotive capital of the world: The major league baseball home to the Detroit Tigers. For a sports-crazy 10-year-old from across the northern border, this was the center of the world.
First baseball game, minus dad
If you surveyed most boys in North America, and asked, “Do you remember your first baseball game?” many would recall how truly special that moment was with their dad. My dad was a good man, but he never liked sports and, though he’d immigrated from the U.K. to Canada, wasn’t inclined to make this international trek into what he saw as a foreign and dangerous land. The thought probably would have sent him to bed. And so it was another child’s father, Bart, who was sharing this special moment with me.
Bart was not a storybook dad. Tall, thick chested, with coal-black hair that was slicked back, he always seemed to have a scowl on his face and had a set of piercing eyes that told you to never cross him.
Still, he was the dad who had brought me here, and I was grateful for that.
As the game began, he sat on the aisle with a beer in his hand, about three seats away from me. Leaning toward his buddy, he said, “Watch this” and then nodded in my direction.
“Hey McLurg,” Bart asked me, “How is Willie Horton doing this year?” The alcohol had raised his decibel level, so it was easy to hear him above the crowd.
I quickly rattled off the batting average, home runs and RBI’s of the outfielder.
“How about Norm Cash?” he asked.
I quickly delivered the first baseman’s offense numbers.
The names kept coming at a rapid pace and I returned serve each time, rifling off the statistics.
They both laughed. “How f-ing amazing is that?” Bart said. “The kid is a f-ing encyclopedia.”
It made me smile. My parents had met in Sussex, England, started their marriage and raised my sister there and then immigrated to Ontario, Canada. Proper, tea-drinking people, they had very strict expectations when it came to appropriate language. I had never heard a swear word in our house. I thought it was cool to hear Bart swearing. It seemed to fit his tough-guy persona.
But what really caught my attention was something much more powerful. He’d just called me amazing, an encyclopedia.
Encyclopedias were for smart people. Did that mean I was smart, that I could learn and be great at something?
His words left me stunned. I’d struggled with a vision problem when I was a boy, and school was a daily challenge for me. I had never looked at myself as smart or capable, until that moment. What he did at that moment was to shift my identity.
The back story
More than 40 years later, after becoming an American citizen, I reunited with Dalton after a 30-year gap. I shared with him how spectacular and life-enhancing that day was for me.
He told me how terrified he had been.
Terrified. How could that be? A day of discovery and joy for me was filled with fear and trepidation for Dalton. For Dalton, it meant that Bart would be bringing a buddy with him. And not just a baseball buddy but a drinking buddy. That would mean they’d have drinks before jumping in the car and more on the trip and then a fistful of beers during the game. Would this be the day that he would die on the ride home? he’d asked himself, as he had so many times before.
I had no idea, and I can guarantee you that my parents had no realization of the danger, though, in retrospect, I finally realized what the unknown stench I smelled on Bart’s breath had been. Dalton told me Bart had eventually divorced Dalton’s mom and split the family. Dalton had moved away, and I hadn’t seen him anymore.
After reconnecting with Dalton, I had a chance to send an email to Bart. He is now in his late eighties, and just as gruff as ever. He has no memory of that day or what he said. Even if he could remember, my guess is he had no intention to encourage me the way he did.
Closing the encouragement gap
None of this mattered at the time Bart encouraged me. Because he was the adult in that situation, he played the role of leader. That gave him power over me. And, despite his human imperfections, he had the ability to shape how I felt about myself—and he did, changing the course of my life.
Today, I am an entrepreneur and investor. Thanks to Bart, I’ve never forgotten how powerful encouragement can be. As a leader, I’ve made encouragement a daily habit. My research has underlined how powerful it is. In doing interviews with more than 10,000 people around the world, I learned that when someone receives sincere and meaningful encouragement, there is a “moment of identity shift” that occurs, sometimes within seconds, that causes the person who is encouraged to look at themselves differently. It gives them an incredible boost of confidence—a new and improved vision of themselves—and a sense of direction, motivation, joy, passion, creativity and commitment. I’d rather be surrounded by people who have been energized in that way than the many people who sadly find encouragement missing from their lives.
Many leaders tell me they are frustrated their team seems disengaged, unfulfilled, uninspired and unhappy, despite all they do to create a great place to work. The solution isn’t planning another offsite. It comes down to knowing your team and caring enough about them to encourage them. It costs nothing and takes only minutes, sometimes seconds. There is no better way to get the people around you inspired and create lifetime loyalty. And as Bart showed me, none of us has to be perfect to get started.