When my big-league baseball dreams didn’t pan out, I felt lost. It took a few more at bats for me to find my true calling.
For as long as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to play baseball for the majors. Because when you are young and a baseball fanatic, that’s what you do.
You dream big.
By the fourth grade, I had become a diehard New York Mets fan. Of course, it helped that the Mets were on top of the world then, winning the 1986 World Series in spectacular fashion. And it helped that I was young and malleable and full of impossible dreams. I wanted to be Dwight Gooden, the flame-throwing right hander who had a curveball delivered from God himself. “Doc” Gooden’s 1985 season was a story of utter domination from the mound, one of the most perfect seasons in baseball history. That was until his career went down in flames, beginning in the late 80s, fueled by cocaine and booze.
Dwight Gooden’s flame-out broke my heart, and the Mets have broken it every season for the last 34 years.
But no amount of heartbreak could make me stop loving the Mets — or the game itself.
A Curve Ball
As a kid, I was a pretty good baseball player. One of my favorite days as an athlete was when I threw a no-hitter as a freshman against our arch rival high school team. By then, there were some really strong signs that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. And that getting drafted by the Mets was more pipe dream than reality.
The defining moment when the switch flipped is burned into my memory. It was near the end of the 1990 spring season, and we were playing our cross-county rival, Fox Lane High School. They had a beautiful field save for the flock of geese that menaced the outfield.
We were up by a run or two, and Fox Lane was down to their final at-bat, with two men on base. I was literally in the zone. Earlier in the game, Fox Lane hitters had roped a few line drives into the gap between the left and center fielders, and I wasn’t going to let it happen again. After each pitch, I inched my way toward the center fielder, anticipating a line drive that I would chase down and save the game. Sure enough, the dude smoked a line drive right into the gap. I had a great jump on the ball and timed my dive perfectly.
Anyone who ever played a sport has lived or imagined this moment, when it’s your turn to be the hero. I had rehearsed it dozens of times in my head, and it always ended with me soaring for the game-saving catch.
Instead, I plowed a divot into the turf with my face and ate goose shit, as the ball tipped off the end of my glove.
We did not win the game.
I was burning with humiliation. My mouth tasted like goose ass. And I would surely never be drafted by the Mets.
I shifted focus to trying for a career as the New York Mets general manager. That was a job that did not require me to be a superstar athlete. I was a total stat freak and early adopter of fantasy baseball, which was in its infancy. This seemed like a perfect fit.
One small problem was that in my teenage years, I didn’t do much except screw up in school. I am not all that proud to admit this, but there it is. By senior year, when all my friends were waving around acceptance letters to universities all over the Northeast, I applied to just one local school.
Within a year I was lost. I had no idea what to do next.
Swing and a Miss
I dropped out and found work at a local sports photography company, which happened to be the only licensed company in the country that could produce 8×10 glossies of sports figures — the kind of photographs that you get autographed. The sports memorabilia business was booming, I was a sports nut, and it seemed like a reasonable place to get warmed up while I figured things out.
Now I was onto something. My passion for sports made it easy for me to stare at sports photos all day, and talking sports for hours on end was part of my job. That I actually got paid for.
Learning the photography part was easy. I took classes in photography and soon learned to edit photos. I even became a decent amateur photographer.
I was promoted to assistant photo editor, going through rolls of film, picking out the best shots to stock in the warehouse, and coordinating with photographers to get the images we wanted. I worked with the major sports leagues and took trips to New Jersey, where NBA Photos was based.
I went to Spring Training in Florida in 1996, where I helped our photographers take studio photos of all of the baseball teams. I got to meet dozens of big-leaguers, including my baseball idol at the time, Cy Young winner Greg Maddux.
I was in heaven.
But I knew I needed to get a college degree.
I continued taking classes at a local community college. And with my newfound passion and motivation, I actually gave a shit about my schoolwork and was a straight-A student.
Then I found out there was such a thing as an undergraduate degree in Sports Management, where I could learn the business of sports. I applied and was accepted to the best program in the country, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Really, it was a business degree with a side of sports. I learned about accounting, finance and marketing, and to my surprise, I loved these classes. I also loved studying legal issues in sports, sports marketing, and any other sports-related business thing that I could nerd out to.
I wasn’t lost anymore.
I graduated cum laude, did an internship with the New York Giants for the 1999 – 2000 season, and got a job working for Major League Baseball Photos, where I edited photos. Among other things, I helped pick out photos for the World Series and All-Star Game programs. I even got my name in the programs.
In October 2000, I was working for Major League Baseball Photos, helping the league photographers documenting the World Series. It wasn’t just any World Series though; it was the Subway Series, in which my beloved New York Mets were playing the New York Yankees.
I even got to take photographs from the blimp riding over Shea Stadium for Game 4.
Literally, it could not get much better than this. Except for the fact that, of course, the Mets broke my heart … again.
Oh, and those photographs that I was supposed to be taking from the blimp? Turns out I didn’t load the 35mm film into the camera properly. I got four rolls of blank film. The only picture I was able to nab was with a pocket-size point-and-shoot camera that I brought along with me. The long exposure and low budget camera produced the image below: a giant halo of light surrounded by squiggly streaks.
If that photo was not a sign that I needed to refocus my life, I am not sure what was.
Then it all came crashing down.
First, I was rejected for a job offer with an organization that was literally at the top of my list, the Major League Baseball Players Association. I had been rejected from a few other jobs too, which knocked me off my pedestal.
In hindsight, I probably thought I was a bit more awesome than I really was. [Yes, there is a theme developing here.]
The sports world was so competitive. I wasn’t the only idiot with a passion for sports who would sell his soul to work in the industry.
I had come to realize that everyone I’d worked for in these sports organizations had been there for years. Like, dozens of years. So my hustle and ambition didn’t really get me anywhere in organizations that didn’t really turn over or grow significantly.
My passion for the game didn’t set me apart, either. Everybody there loved baseball; people were grateful just to be near the game. Which meant every job had a ton of applicants, even though salaries were artificially low.
I was discouraged. Another dead end.
So in March 2001, I took a job working with my father’s private investigation firm while I figured out my next step.
I was 25.
I thought about getting my MBA.
I pitched my old employer to sell photos through the Internet, using all that newfound knowledge from my Sports Management degree. They liked the idea, but they told me, “We could just do that ourselves.”
And they ultimately did. So much for that brilliant idea.
I even floated the idea of becoming some sort of a Renaissance Man after reading Richard Feynman’s book, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, about his life as a professor, musician, scientist, and Nobel prize winner. But that faded away quickly.
Full Count, No Pressure
Then 9/11 happened. My father’s business took a huge hit, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills from one client.
We had layoffs and pay cuts. I couldn’t leave. I hung around and dug hard, helped get the business back on its feet, back to where it had been and well beyond.
And the rest, they say, is history. I grew into the business and found what I love.
Nineteen years later, I wake up every day at 6 a.m., get into my office around 7 a.m., and love what I do.
I don’t pray for Fridays.
People talk all the time about finding their passion in life.
Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do.
But passion isn’t enough. And I think there’s a difference between being passionate about something and finding a calling, something you’re passionate enough about to make it your life’s work.
I am enormously passionate about lots of things.
I like sports. And food. And beer. Not always in that order.
I tried the sports angle but gave that up long ago.
I’ve thought about starting a restaurant. But restaurant life seems miserable to me. It’s got one of the highest failure rates of any type of business. And the only restaurant that I’d consider running would be open only on Sundays, and would serve whatever the hell I wanted, family style.
I am pretty sure that would go out of business quickly.
If I started making beer, I would probably drink all the profits.
I am also passionate about personal finance. I love that it’s such a taboo topic. People are willing to talk about just about anything except money. But soooo many people are bad with their money, and I would love to help them.
I love woodworking. I’ve literally never used a circular saw, but if I could drop everything and become a cabinetmaker, I would sign up right now. That would fulfill my childhood dream of being on “This Old House.”
I like writing too, which is kind of ironic, since it was my least favorite thing to do until I was much older.
I am also tremendously passionate about doing good in the world, doing things that challenge me and push my boundaries, and having the freedom and flexibility to make choices that are good for me.
Being a private investigator checks a lot of those boxes.
But the one thing I’m most passionate about, above all else, is my family. I’m passionate about any kind of work that gives me the income and flexibility to provide for my family and have time left over to spend with them.
Because that’s what it’s all about for me.
I could probably have found a way to make baseball my life. Instead, I found purpose on a different field of play and built another kind of life, one filled with many passions — including a generous side of baseball.
I could probably have found a way to make baseball my life. Instead, I found purpose on a different field of play.
I’ve coached my son’s baseball team every year since he was 5. I can count the number of games that I have missed on one hand. I even coached my son and daughter for two years when I lived in Spain, teaching some local kids about baseball and creating a whole other world of fans.
I’ve even turned my poor son and daughter into suffering Mets fans. But while they may hate me for the rest of my life as all of their friends bask in the 27 New York Yankees championships, at least we will share the suffering and heartbreak as a family unit.
Because suffering together is what family is all about.
I call that batting a thousand.
About the Author:
Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator, Certified Fraud Examiner, and founder of Diligentia Group. To read more Willingham wisdom, check out his blog and his previous stories for PursuitMag.