By Anthony Cirillo
When you grow up as an athlete, sports are all you know. It’s what you live for, it’s what you would die for, it’s what you wake up for; it’s what shapes you. Day-in and day-out you practice and learn to strive to be the best player you can be so that when your season comes, you can maybe be named an all-star or all-conference. As an athlete, you are always looking for those accolades so that you can say you were an “all-conference” player or a multiple time “all-star.” These honors are the ultimate crown that define one’s playing career and justifies all the work they have put in.
When you are “the athlete” in the family (I am sure many of you have one or multiple) that becomes your title, just like you would call someone an Aunt or an Uncle. Growing up I was always “Anthony the baseball player.” Back then it was the norm, it was my role, it was “who I was” (or who I thought I was).
When “Anthony the baseball player” was finally able to go to college, I had the opportunity to select an incredible university, St. Joseph’s University, where I would meet some of the greatest people in my life, from coaches to teammates to fellow students. I was flying high going into St. Joe’s, fresh off a state championship victory at my high school, Christian Brothers Academy. I was oozing with confidence in my ability and work ethic and was ready to make an immediate impact on the team. St. Joe’s is a Division-1 program in Philadelphia and I quickly learned how elite the competition at a division-1 level really was.
I struggled through the first two seasons where I endured an injury and a few slumps. This was when I started to lose myself. “Anthony the baseball player” was who I was, who I’ve always been, and the only version of myself I had ever known. However, at this point in my life, “the baseball player” wasn’t much of a baseball player at all. He was just a kid with big dreams and poor stats, who was lucky enough to somehow have the confidence of his head coach to still be in the lineup every day.
Ask any athlete; when things start to go south, you start to lose yourself. It’s way more than just a game to us, it’s our lives. I wore my struggles on my sleeve, outside the field, because in my head I was “a baseball player,” and if baseball isn’t going well, what else did I have to hang my hat on? Who was I really as a person?
Then 2013 arrived, my senior season, and with it came our new hitting coach Matt Allison. When you get a new coach, it can be nerve-wracking, but Little did I know this new coach would change the trajectory of my career at St. Joe’s and turn my senior season into the pinnacle of my baseball career.
Coach Al was what I like to call a “Zen Master.” He was really in tune with the mental aspect of the game and always knew exactly what to say and when to say it.
With the guidance of Coach Al, I came out of the gates my senior year off to a hot start, batting .425 through the first few weekends as I rediscovered my confidence from the glory days of high school. I was finally myself again, playing the game I love and playing it the way I’ve played it for years.
After a solid start, we came back to Hawk Hill and on April 6th, 2013, Coach said something to me before an at-bat that changed my outlook on baseball forever. It was a subtle comment, you know one of those small tic-tac sized comments that gets easily overlooked, but it sunk in and meant more than I think he knows.
We were playing St. Bonaventure at home down one run in the bottom of the 8th inning. The bases were loaded and I was waiting on deck to get my chance to tie up the game or even possibly help us take the lead. As I am locking in on the pitcher in the on deck circle, I hear “Hey A.C.” come from the bench. It was coach Al. I walk over to him to see what he has to say, maybe the pitcher is tipping his pitches or maybe we had a good scouting report. I stood in front of him for about 15-seconds in silence, and finally asked him “Everything alright, Coach?” He stared into the outfield and said to me a phrase that would be tattooed into my mind forever. “Whatever you do in this at-bat, will never define you as a human being.” What the heck was this guy talking about? I was about to attempt to tie up the game and these are his words of encouragement? Then, without batting an eyelash, he said it again, “Whatever you do in this at-bat, will not define you as a human being, just remember that.”
I walked away extremely confused from that encounter, and started to think carefully about what he said. He was right. No matter what I did on that baseball field, it would not define me as a person. It’s just one at-bat, just one game. It is the athletes in these situations who magnify the moment to a point where it becomes more.You are the only one defining yourself by this moment. The outcome of this at-bat wasn’t going to make me a different person. In the grand scheme of things, this is just one small moment in my life.
So I stepped into the box, relaxed and confident, and took the first fastball I saw down the right field line for a 2-run go ahead double.
To an athlete, sports are life. It’s the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you think about before going to bed. They can make good days worse, and bad days better. They can beat you down or give you the highest of highs. But at the end of the day, sports are just a game. They might mold you into the person you are today, but they do not define the person that you’ve become.
So next time you step out onto the field, the court, or the track, remember that who you really are is greater than the game. Whether you strike out in the bottom of the 9th down by one, miss a buzzer beating three pointer, or trip and fall before the finish line, keep in mind that this will not define you. During these critical moments in sports, you are more than you appear to be, and no single moment on the field of play, will define who you really are as a person.
Anthony Cirillo, Insurance Broker (Brown & Brown) and varsity assistant coach at Christian Brothers Academy (Lincroft, NJ) is a former all-conference college shortstop who strives to use his personal experiences to help current athletes understand the value of sports during and after their playing careers.