Larry Luebbers is a professional baseball player, and not a very well known one. From 1991 to 1996, he spent his career in the minor leagues, drifting through the farm system of the Cincinnati Reds, receiving only a short stint in the majors for the team in 1993. Since then, he's been bounced between the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, and back to the Reds again, always on the fringe of the majors, but never quite able to stick there for good. His last appearance in the majors was at the end of the 2000 season for the largely inept Reds, and he spent the 2001 season in the minor leagues and rehabbing injuries.
Ordinarily, he wouldn't be someone that we would give a second thought about. He's a fringe player on the major league level of a professional sport loaded with people supposedly more interesting than him or more talented than him. Why should I, a person essentially unconnected and unrelated to him, care about his career?
On a warm summer night in 1992, a chance meeting with him at a minor league baseball game changed my perspective on baseball, and on professional sports in general. That evening, I realized for the first time what professional sports was really all about. It's about dreams, and giving everything you have to chase a dream of doing something you love for a living. It is that knowledge, and knowing it is true for virtually every professional athlete that I see, that makes me respect, if not necessarily enjoy the performance of, everyone involved in professional sports.
In 1992, I was a huge baseball fan; I still am, but at that time I was really discovering the beauty of the sport. My parents, seeing this interest, fueled it in a lot of ways. I collected baseball cards. I subscribed to The Sporting News and Baseball Weekly to keep up on the stats. Even though I wasn't particularly athletic, I purchased a baseball glove and did the best I could at learning to play the game.
But the big treat was my first trip to a professional baseball game that summer: I got to see a Midwest League matchup between the Burlington Astros and the Cedar Rapids Reds in Burlington, IA. I managed to find the roster of both teams, and then compared them to a small collection of minor league baseball cards that I owned at the time, and found one match: yes, Larry Luebbers played for the Cedar Rapids Reds. I packed the card away to take on my trip.
When we arrived at the park about twenty minutes before gametime, I wandered over to the fence near the bench of the Cedar Rapids Reds. I glanced around and noticed that Larry, who was starting pitcher that night, was warming up. I excitedly attracted the attention of someone in the dugout, who came over to me and good-naturedly asked me how I was doing. I showed him my card, and a look of surprise filled the guy's face; a look I didn't really expect. He asked to borrow the card for a moment, and I allowed him to, because I thought he might take it over to Larry to get an autograph. Sure enough, he strolled over to Larry and showed him the card, pointing over in my direction.
Larry strolled over, card in hand, and proceeded to chat with me for several minutes. He signed the card and began to do some stretches right there next to where I was standing behind a wire fence. As a young boy getting to meet the person pictured on the baseball card, I was really excited about the encounter, but as he stood up to go finish warming up for the game, he looked over at me, smiled, and said, "You don't know how much I needed that. Thanks, son."
I've replayed that scene in my head countless times since then. At the time, I didn't know what he meant at all, but almost ten years have filled in the gaps for me, and that moment will forever be in my mind and my heart.
To make the big leagues, players often have to go through years of playing baseball for far less than minimum wage, living on the road on a tiny food budget, away from their friends and family. The only thing they have going for them is the opportunity to play the game they love at the end of each day, in front of a small crowd in a small town somewhere. It's not a happy life at all, but thousands of players go through it each year. Why? They're all chasing a dream.
Minor league sports are amazing because you're watching people who are making huge sacrifices to chase their dream. Major league sports are often amazing because you're seeing people who have worked for years and years and are finally getting the chance to live their dream. It is the greed of a very vocal minority that sometimes gives professional sports a bad name.
Whenever I need to remember that it's OK to just follow my dreams and just follow where they lead me, I look up Larry Luebbers and see what he's doing. And I think of a warm summer night in 1992 that forever changed how I saw professional sport and the challenges and beauty of the sacrifices of chasing your dreams.
One of these days, I'll write Larry a letter and tell him this. Until then, I'll just be a fan of baseball and all those people making sacrifices to chase their dreams.