Personal Legend

You ever have a friend recommend a TV show to you? Something you just have to watch because they’re hooked on it? The thing is, they usually hype it up so much that you almost always end up disappointed.

I’m like that with books.

Anyone who knows me knows I love to read, so they’re quick with a recommendation. Oh my God, you gotta read this, or Chris, I just finished this book, and you’d love it!

If five or six people keep mentioning a particular book, I’ll probably give it a shot. But if it’s just one or two people suggesting it, I won’t pick it up. Maybe it’s my nature. Maybe I’m just picky.

When a close friend of mine came to me in 2012 and suggested I read The Alchemist, I was skeptical, because that’s how I am. But not only do that friend and I have a very similar taste in books, he was also that magic fifth or sixth person to suggest it. I wasn’t reading anything at the time, so I went for it.

That’s when everything started to open up for me.

My grandparents adopted me when I was less than a year old. My biological mother was young when she had me and she wasn’t ready to raise a child, and my biological father wasn’t in the picture. If it weren’t for my grandparents — whom I call my parents — my story could have been written much differently. It could have been like the stories you hear all too often: Young boy grows up in a single-parent home without a father figure, looks for male guidance outside the home, gets into trouble, and on and on.

You know how it goes. We’ve all heard those stories.

But my parents saved me. They worked tirelessly to keep me in sports and to make sure I always had clothes on my back and food on the table. And the fact that they were an older couple who unexpectedly took in a child displays a level of selflessness that I didn’t understand until I got older. When I started to reflect on all my parents did for me, I started to think, Man, I’m so lucky. I’m so blessed. There has to be a way for me to pay it forward.

Around the time I was trying to learn different ways to pay forward what my parents blessed me with, I was also learning to play baseball at the professional level. During my first couple of years in the minor leagues, I started doing a few things off the field, like visiting children’s hospitals and working with the Miracle League. In 2009, when I was 20 years old playing Low-A ball for the Peoria Chiefs, I got the Community Service Award for all the things I was doing off the field. I wasn’t trying to win any award — I was just doing it because I thought it was a fun way for me to make a positive impact, and I was having a blast.

In June of 2012, after almost six years of working my way up through the minors, the Rays called me up for a couple of spot starts while someone went to the disabled list. I started two games before being sent back down, and even though I took the loss in each game, I showed enough to get a September call-up a couple of months later. That was the start of my big-league career, and it changed my life forever.

Around the same time, something else happened off the field that changed me forever.

In between the end of the minor league season and that September call-up, I was staying at a hotel in St. Petersburg, just working, going to practice and going to games. That’s when my good friend suggested I read The Alchemist.

Like I said, I usually don’t take book recommendations, but I trusted this friend, and others had suggested the same book. Plus, I had some time on my hands, so I figured, Why not?

I got into it right away. I crushed that book in like a week.

Without getting into “book report” mode, I’ll give you the short of it: The Alchemist is about having a Personal Legend, which is basically your legacy — something with a meaning that goes beyond surface level in your life — and the journey to discover it and live it. The book challenged me to search for the Personal Legend within myself and to find out what my true purpose is.

I thought about my parents. I thought about how blessed I’d been and how easily it could have been a different story, and I knew right away that my Personal Legend and my purpose was to pay it forward and to positively impact as many lives as possible.

And now that I was in the major leagues, I had an even bigger platform from which to do it.

Today, I’m all over the place. Whether it’s at the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters or wherever, it blows me away to see the kind of impact I can have. And it’s not always a huge impact. It’s definitely not as big of an impact as my parents had on me, but that’s impossible to replicate. The way I see it, if can give a simple smile, a high five, a few encouraging words or a hug to make a kid’s day better, that’s a win. It’s just about touching as many kids’ lives as possible. It’s about changing the world, one life at a time.

Sometimes, just being there is enough. Like when I go read to kids — well, I don’t read to them, I have them read to me. We read together. I want them to be active. I want them to showcase their reading skills and make sure that I applaud them. Think about how cool that is to them: A major league athlete is applauding them for reading a Dr. Seuss book. So now, reading is a cool thing for them.

When I go to the Children’s Hospital, I feel like I get more out of it than the kids do. They’re the ones with the real stories. They’re so uplifting and inspiring.

When I visit a five-year-old child with cancer, I’m sure they appreciate that I take the time to stop by, and it’s good for them to know that people care about them and support them in their fight. But to see how they’re living and the obstacles they have to face every day, and that they can smile through it all, makes it pretty easy for me to put the minuscule problems I face into perspective and get through whatever I have going on. Every time I go, it’s a reality check. It’s easy to forget how grateful we should be for the blessings we have.

I just hope I’m able to impact them the way they impact me. I like to think I do.

The unfortunate truth is that I can’t touch every kid’s life. I realize that more than ever when I visit the juvenile detention center in St. Petersburg and talk to kids. Some of them are in there because they got caught doing something stupid. Others are there because their parents are drug dealers who used them as runners. Every story is different, and I can’t relate to every situation, but I let them know that I’ve made mistakes, too. I’ve made some bad decisions, and I was fortunate enough not to get caught. So I tell them that just because they’ve made mistakes, it doesn’t mean they any different than anyone else and that one mistake doesn’t have to define them or limit them.

After I visit, the detention center requires the kids to write me “Thank You” letters. I get some great feedback, which lets me know I’m having an impact. But some of the kids say, straight up: “Your life is a joke compared to mine. You can’t sit up there and tell me that I can become successful, because you don’t know where I’m coming from.” Even though I think it speaks to the courage of that kid to write me and put his real thoughts on paper, he’s right in that I can’t really relate because I was blessed to have my parents to keep me on the right path. But he’s wrong in thinking he can’t still overcome his situation and find success.

It just goes to show that you can’t touch everyone — but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop trying. For every kid I can’t reach, there’s plenty more I can.

I’ve been able to do so much with kids in my hometown of Clayton, North Carolina as well as in the Tampa Bay area, but let’s not forget the role baseball can play in young kids’ lives. Through my foundation, the Archway Foundation, I’ve been able to have an impact on youth baseball by providing grants to some kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to play baseball, but the foundation is mostly centered around developing young men, not just baseball players. We hold kids accountable on the field, but also for things like summer reading, eating properly, exercising outside of baseball — the things that will help them develop as both baseball players and as human beings. We had so much early success with the program that I wanted to broaden its reach, so I started doing some research.

That’s when I discovered Major League Baseball’s RBI program.

RBI stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, and its philosophy mirrors that of my foundation. They provide grants for kids in inner cities to play youth baseball, and their goal isn’t just to develop baseball players, but to also develop young men. So it was the perfect way for me to take what I was already doing and impact kids all across the country.

If I’m on the road with the Rays and we have some extra time, I’m checking to see if there’s an RBI program in that city. If there is, I’m there, helping out, trying to reach as many kids as I can.

It’s really the most amazing thing.

No matter how much I do or how many kids’ lives I touch, I’ll never be able to replicate what my parents gave to me — at least not until I have children of my own, at which point I can only hope to be that kind of parent. As you can tell from some of the letters I get from those kids in juvie back in St. Petersburg, I can’t change every kid’s life. But there’s always another kid out there to whom I can pay it forward. Sometimes it’s in the classroom, sometimes it’s at juvie and sometimes it’s on the baseball field. It doesn’t matter where it happens, as long as it makes a difference.

That’ll be my legacy.

That’s my Personal Legend.