Wednesday, April 23, 2014

By David Saltzer, Senior Writer

As a high school teacher, I have found that students are exposed to all sorts of numbers all the time. However, without context, most students can’t make any meaningful understandings from the numbers. Instead, they just treat them as a bunch of repeated digits.

For example, when teaching students about the national debt, I can get them to write down the number, in trillions, of the national debt. But, it’s not until I make them calculate their personal share of the national debt, and, further, calculate how long it would take them to earn that much money at minimum wage, that they understand the importance and concern of its size.

As I thought about Albert Pujols hitting his 500th homerun, I tried to contextualize that number into things that I do to understand its significance. I started with basic things, such as going to the movies. At 42 years old, I would have had to go to about 12 movies for my entire lifetime in order to get to 500. While as a teenager I went to a lot of movies, since having kids I rarely go to the movies, so I’m not sure that I’ve been to 500 movies in my lifetime.

Going to the movies though, is a pretty passive act. It doesn’t require the work and effort that it takes to constantly keep in shape like hitting a homerun requires. So, I thought next about reading books. Reading requires effort and work. To understand Pujols’ feat, I thought how hard it would be for most adults to read a 500 books during a 13-year time span —the equivalent of Pujols hitting 500 homeruns during his career. Most adults would not come close to that level of reading, just like most baseball sluggers don’t come close to hitting 500 homeruns in their careers.

Still though, going to the movies and reading books don’t quite capture the full effect of hitting 500 homeruns. Neither one was a part of my work. And, neither one required a lifetime of dedication and training to accomplish.

So, I thought about my job. I have been a teacher almost as long as Pujols has been a Major Leaguer (I came to teaching later in life and started in 2002). I take my job very seriously, continuously reading the latest research on the subjects I teach, the latest research on how to improve my teaching, and on the latest changes to education such as Common Core to be the best teacher that I can be. 

In a typical year, I typically have several hundred interactions with my students ranging from taking attendance to providing instruction. On any given day, there are numerous possibilities that can happen from all of these interactions. Occasionally, I hit a homerun with a student and have a meaningful impact on his or her life. Sometimes I help a student realize his or her potential. Sometimes I help a student through a difficult personal issue. Sometimes I just make the student smile and feel safe in my classroom. I don’t always hit a homerun with every student, but I sure try to every day. 

Similarly, Pujols dedicates himself very seriously to being a baseball player. He takes each game very seriously, continually researching the opposing pitcher, how to improve his swing, and staying in the best shape he can. Hours before the game even starts, he gets mentally and physically prepared for that night’s game. Over the course of a season, he has hundreds of plate appearances. He doesn’t always hit a homerun, but every time he steps up to the plate, he sure tries. 

Most people, though, aren’t so lucky. They don’t have the opportunity to do something as special as hitting a homerun. Think about your job. What would be a homerun? How long would it take you to achieve that 500 times in your career? How hard and how long would you have to work to achieve that goal?

What struck me most about how Pujols handled accomplishing this incredible feat is how he also handled the aftermath of the achievement. To say that Pujols is a class act is an understatement.

When asked about how he felt becoming one of just 26 Major Leaguers to ever hit 500 homeruns, Pujols thanked in order G-d, all those who coached or helped him along the way, and credited all of his hard work. Afterward, he thanked all of his teammates for their role in helping him achieve the feat. As a father, I want my sons, who are big Pujols fans, to understand the importance of that lesson in humility.

More importantly, coming into the game, more of the media focus was on the Trout/Harper matchup. Starting the series, the storyline was on the next generation—it was as if Pujols had been forgotten. However, Pujols didn’t take that as a slight—he just went out there and played his game. His 500th homerun did what it had to do—helped his team get back to .500 baseball.

A lot has been made about the lack of hype about Pujols’ 500th homerun. No doubt the steroid era played a huge role in that as there have been many recent and tainted entrants into the 500 homerun club. But that’s not Albert Pujols. He plays the game right, and in so doing, is showing a new generation how the game once was—and still should be—played.

What I like most about Albert Pujols is the way he plays the game with respect. Whether it’s not offending an icon from his former team by being called “The Man” in Spanish out of respect for Stan “The Man” Musial, to being an All-Star off the field in his support for children with Down’s Syndrome, he shows respect to all parts of the game.

As a fan of the game of baseball, I’m thrilled that Albert Pujols hit his 500th homerun. As an Angels fan, I’m thrilled it came with our team, and in a team victory. I cannot wait to see him get to 600 and beyond.

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