Good horses

I heard a story on the radio the other day that reminded me of another story I’d heard years ago. Seemed to me that since the story was repeated, my attention was being called to it. Sure enough, a little more thought and there it was, the third related story, the personal, more important one these other two brought to mind.

The first two stories had to do with things I know nothing about: horse racing and baseball.

First story: Calvin Borel, a jockey in the Kentucky Derby, was assigned a horse named “Mine that Bird,” a 50-1 shot to win. He won. Afterwards, the jockey was asked how he managed to win when the odds were 50-1 against. The jockey said: “I rode it like a good horse.”

Second story on the radio a couple weeks ago: It was the anniversary of pitcher Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956, the only such game ever pitched in the World Series. I never thought much about it, but I guess I would have figured that any time a pitcher plays the whole game and the other team doesn’t score any runs, that’s perfect. But in baseball parlance, “perfect” means no one even gets to first base. I would have figured that had to do with adolescent dating experiences, but I digress. So, a perfect game in baseball is very rare. Just considering that there has only been one in World Series history speaks to that rareness.

In the second story, the teller of the baseball tale said that Larsen had just pitched a terrible game in the playoffs, I guess, and had been pulled after two innings. So, he was astounded when he got to the locker room a day or so later to find the ball in his spikes. (I guess that’s how the manager indicates who’s going to pitch in any given game.) He took to the field and made history.

I use the horse race story in psycho-educational groups and when I ask what it means, people are always reluctant to answer. Their history is about negativity and poor educational experiences, but eventually, with a little coaxing, I’ll get answers like: “The jockey was stuck and figured he’d do the best he could.” Or: “Sometimes the horse might be better than you think.” Or: “He thought he had a shot; he had a positive attitude.” I praise them for their insights . (They’re smarter than you’d think. Smarter, even, than they themselves know. They’re like the 50-1-shot horse.)

I haven’t used the baseball story in the same way yet, but see the similarities? The baseball manager had the same attitude about Larsen as the jockey did about the horse.

The connection: I’m seeing this happen in “real life” as we do workbees at House of Hope, the new transitional home for women coming out of jail. Much of the work is being done by volunteers and many of them are coming from the jail or probation department. The workbees qualify for the community service hours they all need. They’re a pretty rough and tumble group and all seem just a little apprehensive when they show up. They have no idea what we might be doing. They may not have much experience at whatever the job is that day. But they give it a shot.

Enter our equivalent of the jockey and the baseball manager. John Vietmeier is the volunteer “clerk of the works” and he’s coordinating the work of all the professionals and the volunteers. And here’s where the stories all come together. John is constantly coaching the volunteers and constantly complimenting them on their work. Is it perfect, like winning the Kentucky Derby or throwing a perfect game in baseball? No, but it’s pretty darned good and it isn’t long before the volunteers are beaming with pride, taking more pride in their work, asking more questions, offering more ideas, and finding they have talents, like problem-solving, that they never knew that they had. They love the experience and some have continued to volunteer after their community service hours are completed.

So, how did the horse, the pitcher, and the volunteers succeed? Well, they were all placed in atmospheres where they were given support, affirmation, and respect. And guess what, they all start to succeed, and thrive, and perform. Quite an amazing transformation. Sometimes all people (and horses) need is a chance.

Gary Lester directs Leadership Warren and is a counselor with Family Services of Warren County. Make a resolution to improve yourself by enrolling in its new Stress Management or Anger Management classes. Call 723-1330 for more information.