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“Spirit of Athletics” assembly celebrates UCC’s year in sports

Upper Canada College highlighted the school year’s sporting achievements and top players and coaches at its May 25 “Spirit of Athletics” assembly, which featured award presentations, slide shows, videos and a speech by Old Boy and Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game co-author Peter J. Schwartz ’02. (See links and full text of address at end of the article.)

Schwartz, a journalist and associate professor at New York University, spoke about his past and the book while sharing a message regarding the importance of carving your own path and focusing on your own passions, and seeing where they lead you.

“We can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply,” said Schwartz.

“By embracing the joys of the ‘green fields of the mind,’ we can enlarge our capacity to embrace the ineffable more generally. Baseball can teach us that living simultaneously the life of faith and the life of the mind is possible, even fun.

The award winners were:

Watch a video of the year in review, a video tribute to graduating student-athletes and a video tribute to coaches.

Peter Schwartz ’02: Remarks at the Spirit of Athletics Assembly, May 25, 2015

Thank you, Mr. MacKay.

What he didn’t tell you is that recently I was part of the MIT Sports Analytics Conference in Massachusetts; though I question whether they would have invited me had they known how just proud I am to be a product of math studies.

To take you back a little bit further, the first time that I sat in these pews, in 1996, alongside my fellow wide-eyed classmates from the Prep – as we checked out the Upper School for the day – I watched a student come to this lectern and go on a rant.

It ended in gasps, only after Mr. Badali mercifully intervened to remove him from the stage.

I hope I don’t share a similar fate today.

Now, I can’t promise that my brief time up here will be as memorable, but I hope at least a few of you will heed my message: it’s one about the importance of carving your own path, focusing on your own passions and seeing where they lead you. If that sounds like a cliché, it’s with good reason: it’s a cliché because it’s true.

I know, because it was true for me. In my case, the past is more than prologue, so I’d like to give you a sense of the Toronto in which I grew up, different from your Toronto in one key way: the Blue Jays were the toast of the town.

They would set and reset attendance records each year at the brand new SkyDome, then-dubbed in baseball circles, the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”  This was before the Maple Leafs had found some measure of salvation. And nobody had ever heard the word “Raptors,” at least until Steven Spielberg brought them to the silver screen a few years later.

Wayne Gretzky and a group from Hollywood had just bought the Argonauts, but I remember being much more interested in their other purchase at the time, a genuine, mint-condition Honus Wagner rookie baseball card. In my formative years, there were other sports, sure, but above all, there was baseball.

Carrying this fervor with me through my years here, by the time I was in the Leaving Class, my Extended Essay, naturally, examined how Jackie Robinson desegregated professional baseball; specifically, how his time on the minor league Montreal Royals in 1946 helped lead to a fateful day in Brooklyn the following spring that would change sports forever.

And so it was, only months removed from my own UCC graduation day, during my first week as a freshman at NYU, I met a man on the street, surveying the construction of a new building.

“What do you think?” I asked.  “It’s a monstrosity, if I was president at the time, I never would have approved it,” he answered in a deep, Brooklyn-tinged baritone.

Recognizing this was, indeed, the incoming president of the university – and having read that his boyhood hero was the very same Jackie Robinson – I launched into a discussion of my UCC Extended Essay.

Out of that conversation grew a seminar that the two of us developed, which examines baseball and spirituality – and a connection between the two that might seem unremarkable on the surface, but one that could be transformed through careful inspection and introspection.

I was its first enrolled student, later a teaching assistant, and now, some 13 years later, we instruct the course together.  We took the stories, themes, and anecdotes from that class and turned it into the book that Mr. Mackay mentioned, Baseball as a Road to God.  

The subject of today’s gathering, the Spirit of Athletics, is what we celebrate: Each chapter is an inning and each inning has a religious theme – faith and doubt; blessings and curses; saints and sinners, to name a few.

Baseball simply is used as an illustrative example of how within secular life one can encounter some surprising similarities with concepts that we usually associate with the sacred. Some people are transported by art, or poetry, or music, or nature; for others, these impulses can be evoked by a Sandy Koufax breaking ball.

And therein lies the point; within the spirit of athletics, we have a vehicle as powerful as any that can speak to our depths, promote social change – as did Jackie Robinson – and, more than anything, provide a thrill: think of Sidney Crosby’s golden goal or Joe Carter’s walk-off home run.

I’ve taken my passion for sports into journalism, covering its financial aspects for over a decade in the United States, at news organizations with global audiences – and used that as a springboard to create a sports-focused investment fund.

I was able to draw a direct line from my interests here to my course of study at university – double majoring in journalism and sports business – to my eventual, professional life.

And so, this is the candid advice I am able to offer to you today: Follow your passion, whatever it is; just because a road is less traveled doesn’t mean it’s closed. If you don’t see the opportunity in front of you, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Seek mentorship, speak up, and take chances – you’ll be rewarded for it every day. That’s been my journey since leaving these halls.

And for me at least, it invariably goes back to sports – and to that spirit of athletics.  After the nine innings of our book, we summarize in a postgame show. It concludes:

This book in the end is simply a vehicle to tell some stories that reveal a love of baseball and (in some of them) display the joy of a spiritual life. And maybe it shows that it is possible, even for a committed intellectual, to embrace both. It is, in theologian Paul Tillich’s words, “to convince some readers of the hidden power of faith within themselves and of the infinite significance of that to which faith is related.”

Okay. Baseball, for most of us anyway, is not the road to God – indeed, it is not even a road to God. But, if given sensitive attention, it can awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world of hard facts and hard science. We can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply. By embracing the joys of the “green fields of the mind,” we can enlarge our capacity to embrace the ineffable more generally. Baseball can teach us that living simultaneously the life of faith and the life of the mind is possible, even fun.

And each winter, as we long for the possibilities of spring with its awakening, and as we ponder the depths of mystical moments past in baseball and in life, we proclaim our creed:

Wait’ll next year.

Some of you might have heard of that phrase, “Wait’ll next year,” which was the famous rallying cry of Jackie Robinson’s team, the old Brooklyn Dodgers, who often lost in heartbreak.

I would like to close with a reading, one that encapsulates all that I’ve been talking about today – the unifying power of sports to stitch together concentric circles of relationship, from an entire city at a champions’ parade, to a ballpark on gameday, to father and son in the yard, having a catch.

It involves a family of fans of the Dodgers’ then arch-rivals, the New York Giants, during what’s often called the game’s Golden Age.

This passage was written by Burt Neuborne, a professor of mine at NYU School of Law, reflecting on his childhood. Burt grew up to be a legendary litigator, arguing dozens of cases before the United States Supreme Court and led the effort that repatriated $7 billion to Holocaust victims from the German and Swiss Governments.

But, once upon a time, he was just a kid who formed a common bond with his dad through the unique capacities of sports, helping to shape his life.  He writes:

[My father’s] name was Sam. A gentle, unassuming man who stood all of five-five, my father was one of a dozen U.S. Navy frogmen [today they’re known as SEALS] dropped into the English Channel several hours before the Normandy Invasion in 1944, with instructions to attach explosives to a wall of underwater steel spikes designed to tear the bottoms out of Allied landing craft. Once the explosives were in place, Pop and his buddies swam to the beach and crouched in the surf until the invasion boats neared the French coast. Then they blew a hole in the steel wall, opening a bloody path to the liberation of Europe. After D-Day, Pop was assigned to “Patton’s Navy,” a small combat unit supporting amphibious crossings of French rivers during the Third Army’s push toward Paris.

From our kitchen in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, my mother and I anxiously plotted Pop’s progress across Europe. My job was to keep him up-to-date on his beloved New York Giants. Each letter from me contained baseball box scores laboriously clipped from the Brooklyn [Daily] Eagle. Pop’s heavily censored replies promised a glorious future when we would see a baseball game together at the Polo Grounds.

When he finally came home in the summer of 1946, I oiled my baseball glove and waited for the great day. July passed into August – but no baseball.  School began after Labor Day – but [still] no baseball. Finally, in mid-September, I broke down at dinner. “What have I done,” I wailed, “that we can’t go to a Giants game.” My father, who had forgotten his wartime promise, was stricken. He hugged me. “I love you,” he whispered. “But we can’t go to a Giants game yet… They still don’t let black people play, and we just don’t support things like that.”

Instead, we took the ferry across the Hudson River to see the world champion Newark Eagles play a Negro League game at Ruppert Stadium. I don’t remember much about the game, other than the beautifully dressed, multiracial crowd, the noise, the sunlight, and the joy of being my father’s son.

All this, anchored by the transformative spirit of athletics.

Thank you all – and my congratulations to this year’s Leaving Class.

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