Names are important. Have you ever noticed how, when you get someone’s name wrong, they generally correct you right away? Calling a person by name communicates their value.
Years ago, I attended a Dale Carnegie class because of my inability to remember names, probably because at that time, I didn’t see it as a way to express love to someone. In reality, there wasn’t much care on my part to remember a person’s name. They taught us to create mind pictures with names—an invaluable skill—and by the end of class, I had won the competition by remembering seventy-eight of eighty possible names of forty people.
There is nothing like being a Cubbie! I don’t have to tell you how popular the Cubs are worldwide, wearing a Cubs uniform while playing in Dodger Stadium was a dream come true. I grew up a big Cubs fan. “Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, Cubs, … “ I can’t say it enough; the name rolls off the tongue repeatedly without harm to most ears except Cardinal fans. Who can dislike a teddy bear disguised as a Cub?
Anyway, toward the end of my career, while playing with the Cubs, while wearing that precious Cub uniform inside Dodger Stadium, the discovery of the importance of names became clearer.
In 1987 I was on the downside of my career, and I found my role on the team was to sit on the bench more often than desired. As a backup catcher does before game-time, I headed to the bullpen to warm up pitchers once the game started.
I moved out of the dugout onto the field, and fans began to say, “Sandberg, Sandberg, give me your autograph!”
Irritated, I pointed to the back of my jersey and, initially with a smile, said, “It’s Sundberg … Sundberg!”
In my entire ten-minute walk, this went on repeatedly. I dutifully stopped to sign autographs, but by the time I arrived at my destination, my patience had worn thin. I put my pen away, which is the most polite way to say, “I’m through with all this disrespect, I’ve played the game too long to deserve this!”
Usually, this confusion with the last name wasn’t a problem, but Ryne Sandberg was a teammate, and we both had dark hair and bore some resemblance. (I wish he hadn’t been so much better looking! … Put the mask back on, Jim!)
The atmosphere in the bullpen that day was different. It was hard to read, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. My 16-year old son Aaron had joined me for one of many family trips over the years. Could this be an issue? I thought to myself. But the thoughts of teammates being disturbed with his presence quietly vanished by their kind interactions with him.
Something, though I could not tell what, was suspiciously hanging in the air. I normally catch on quickly, but on this day, it took me three innings before I figured it out. I was sitting there watching the game, and it hit me like a wild pitch thrown into my ribs! Could it be? I thought … NO! NO!
I got up to go to the restroom, attempting to fight off the panic. I closed the door behind me and made sure I was alone, then quickly, I turned to look in the mirror, grabbing and turning the back of my jersey to see the name. Stretching to pull my top to be visible in the mirror, 15
I read the back: SANDBERG. I was so humiliated. I stood there for a moment frustrated, furious … and then the funny hit me, and I burst into laughter!
Those who know me know I like a good joke. I thought to myself, Hold the line, SANDBERG, don’t give in and don’t let the others in the bullpen know that you know. I thought about how I would play this cool for the rest of the game. Maybe you can use this for your benefit, I thought.
I gathered myself together, then calmly walked out the door with my head slightly down, slightly glancing up with my eyes. All my teammates turned around, looking for a reaction. I didn’t give it to them. For the next two innings, I played along without so much as an idea for payback coming to mind.
Just take it, SANDBERG! I told myself, It was a great joke … you probably deserved it. A few innings later, I finally acknowledged the prank, and the entire bullpen broke out in mass laughter.
I turned to my son Aaron, who, knowing precisely what I was thinking, said, “Dad, they threatened me if I told you.”
“It’s okay, son,” I said, lightly punching his shoulder. He was aware of my playfulness as well, and deep down, I probably felt some satisfaction and payback.
Rick Sutcliff had intentionally switched out jerseys in my locker, exposing just the “NDBERG” part of the name. I had a flippant way of throwing on the jersey top, so I had not noticed the switch. Innings later, I was finally called in to play the game, but not before a quick trip to my locker for an exchange.
Names are significant… to be known for who you are … especially in front of forty thousand fans!