A Tale of Two Balls

Ball #1: Jabulani

A bunch of the world’s soccer goalkeepers are having fits about the new Adidas Jabulani ball. As the World Cup approaches, the goalies are near-unanimous in their complaints: Too light, too curvy, too sleek, too slippery, too unpredictable.

Here are some quotes about the Jabulani from the goalkeepers of several teams playing in the Cup this summer:

Hugo Lloris of France: “A disaster.”

Iker Casillas of Spain: “Like a beach ball.”

Gianluigi Buffon of Italy: “Shameful.”

David James of England: “Dreadful.”

Fernando Muslera of Uruguay: “The worst I’ve ever played with.”

Ball #2: The Worst Call in Baseball History

And on Wednesday, the Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game (only 20 of these games have been pitched in the history of Major League Baseball) when first base umpire Jim Joyce completely blew it and incorrectly called a runner safe with two outs in the ninth.

Galarraga’s response at being cheated out of a history-making achievement? “[Joyce] probably felt more bad than me. Nobody’s perfect.”


While the goalkeepers are already making excuses for the goals they haven’t yet allowed, Galarraga responded with more grace and integrity than I can imagine.

Arguing with Reality

Here’s my confession: While I would love to say I would have reacted like Galarraga, I act like a whiny goalkeeper much more often.

It’s so easy, after all, to blame the world for what it’s withholding from me.

Even when it’s a patent absurdity, such as a soccer ball that will challenge all teams equally.

But as Mick Jagger and Buddha so wisely remind us, You can’t always get what you want.

And as one of my teachers, Byron Katie puts it, “arguing with reality” is a sure cause of misery.

After all, the Jabulani ball is equally bad for everyone. Kind of like the other excuses I like to trot out when the world doesn’t deliver exactly what I want: the market, the economy, the labor market, the demands on my time.

Unless I pay attention, I can become a veritable font of excuses that can keep me victimized, aggrieved, and helpless.

Accepting Reality

Contrast that attitude with Galarraga’s, whose near-instant acceptance of the irreversible bad call has made him synonymous with hugeness of spirit.

He showed us all how to make friends with reality.

And by “reality” I don’t mean anything more than what is actually going on right now. As opposed to the constant comparison with the story of how things should go.

Suppose Galarraga had done the “normal” thing and yelled and protested and complained and told the world he had been robbed.

Would that have changed anything?

Clearly not, as it didn’t work when the Tigers’ manager. 

Here’s what it would have changed: Galarraga’s experience of the event. As it unfolded, he ended the game with a big smile, a huge ovation, and what looks suspiciously to me like inner peace. A tantrum would have erased all that good stuff.

Plus, as my friend Brian pointed out, his story has become a resonant social fable far beyond baseball. Millions of people with no interest in baseball admire and will remember him.

How many of you can name the men who pitched the first two perfect games this season? If you’re not a baseball fan, I bet you can’t. (FYI: I can’t. Despite being a baseball nerd in my teams, I quit cold turkey after the 1978 season, reasoning that for a Yankee fan, life could simply not get any better.)

The Power of the Invisible Sun

Just to add a bit of irony to the goalkeepers’ moaning, the World Cup is being played for the first time in South Africa, a land with great energy and great challenges. I spent two months in South Africa this past year, and I’ve seen enough of childhood poverty to last me a lifetime.

While the high-tech Jabulani balls are slipping through fingers in goalkeepers’ recurring nightmares, many South African kids dream of owning a soccer ball that consists of something more rugged and aerodynamic than rubbish and garbage bags held together with string.

Photographer and philanthropist Bobby Sager, who took the above photo, teamed up with former Police frontman Sting and inventor Tim Jahnigen to create an indestructible soccer ball.

Instead of a bladder that can be punctured, the new ball can be stabbed with a knife, run over with a car, and rolled over broken glass without any problem.

The bright yellow balls, inscribed with the words “Hope is a Game Changer,” are being handed out by the thousands all over the world.

Why? Sting answers, “This is instant joy. Kids need fun, too. Imagine living in a refugee camp. I mean, what is there to look forward to? Very little. This is concrete. Very, very substantial.”

(To support this effort, go to The Power of the Invisible Sun.)

My fantasy is that one day a child who grew up in a South African informal settlement will grow up to be goalkeeper for the South African national team. I bet you he – or she – will be very happy with whatever ball is used.

And that, like Armando Galarraga, he or she will realize that the greatest victory is not the final score, but the way we conduct ourselves no matter what life throws at us.

So from my own humble place of learning, my gratitude goes out to my teachers: Armando, Bobby, Sting, Tim, and Byron.

May I be inspired to accept reality with grace and confront it with courage.

And so may we all.

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  1. #1 • Pam Abrey said on June 7 2010:

    Just to give you an update on Hope is a Game Changer (Bobby and Sting's football project). Tomorrow they will commence delivery of 10 000 of the balls to kids throughout six countries in Africa, just three days before the World Cup starts in South Africa. The balls will be distributed by their partner organisation, Grassroot Soccer, which teaches kids about HIV Aids prevention, life skills and community involvement through soccer coaching with soccer role models. Fittingly the launch will be the graduation ceremony for 110 young girls from the Grassroot Soccer programme – a group who are really at-risk living in the townships in Cape Town.  Bobby and Sting and Grassroot Soccer have done an amazing thing for youngsters who are really in need of protection over this World Cup as the South African government decised to close all the schools during this period.

  2. #2 • Darren said on June 11 2010:

    This story immediately brings to mind some of the principles that Al Ries and Jack Trout examine in their book positioning albeit unintentionally. Armando will always be remembered right along with the number 1  guy and most people won't  as Howie says remember the number 2 or 3.