I like underdogs. You know, people who for all the right reasons are supposed to fail, but for all the wrong reasons somehow succeeded. Whether it was David vanquishing Goliath, Rocky defeating Apollo Creed or Forrest Gump subjugating life itself, underdogs universally tug at our hearts and give hope to the common and courage to the ordinary.
I remember my first brush with the underdog concept. It was 1964 and a new cartoon had debuted. It was actually called “Underdog” and featured a humble and meek canine who could transform himself into a caped superhero. He would cry out, “Have no fear, Underdog is here!” as he saved his girlfriend, Sweet Polly Purebred, from the evil clutches of Simon Bar Sinister and his lumbering assistant Cad Lackey. Although I should have grasped the fundamental underdog idea from the plot, I originally thought an underdog was a cross between a beagle and Superman.
Eventually I figured out what a real underdog was, especially when I read Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” There I was introduced to the world of orphans and street urchins, prime among them being Oliver. His rags-to-riches story, from workhouse to country house, was truly inspiring. Plus, I learned that if you went up to the cafeteria lady in school, put a pitiful look on your face, held up your tray and said in an Cockney accent, “Please, ma’am, I want some more,” you could almost always score a second helping of mac and cheese.
So throughout my life, I rejoiced in the story of the underdog, from Seabiscuit to Susan Boyle. Recently I bumped into a story that really affected me. But I warn you, it’s not one of those dramatic they-lived-happily-ever-after stories. It’s more of an underdog snippet, a parable of sorts, that contains a built-in metaphor that strikes a collective chord in each one of us. Are you ready for this? Well, then, please let me introduce you to Jeremy Brown.
Jeremy was a baseball player. He was good enough to make it to the major leagues. But his career didn’t last long there. In fact, he only played in five games before retiring. And, quite honestly, I really don’t know what he is doing now. But that’s not important, because his real underdog story isn’t about the major leagues. This story took place when he was playing for a minor league affiliate of the Oakland A’s, the Visalia Oaks.
You see, Jeremy didn’t look like a classic baseball player. He was a bit slow and a bit rotund. About 240 pounds rotund, to be exact. But ability and appearance had little to do with what happened to him during a game in 2002.
At one of his at-bats, Jeremy hit the ball. At the smack of the bat, he took off lumbering toward first base. He saw his coach excitedly motion him to second base, something that rarely happened, but as he passed first he stumbled and fell flat on his face. He madly crawled to get back to the base, expecting to be tagged out, but he got back safely. Whew!
But that’s when the magic of the story begins. What Jeremy didn’t know was that long before he was flopping in the dirt by first base, the ball he hit had sailed 60 feet over the fence. Jeremy had hit a home run, and he didn’t even realize it.
I can’t explain why, but that scene chokes me up. To see someone go from nightmare to triumph just gets to me. But in Jeremy’s case, his tragedy was in the not knowing. And therein lies the waxing metaphor. How many of us move through our days not realizing our home runs? In the thick of life, sometimes we don’t see the success in our failures, the love in our rejections, the peace in our trials.
So look for your own Jeremy Brown moments. They are there, in all our lives. You just have to get up from the dirt to find them.
• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. If you want to see a video of Jeremy’s home run, watch the movie “Moneyball.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.