What are You Playing For? Pitching for a Greater Purpose

04/21/2015 04:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015
Harry How via Getty Images

It was at the trade deadline on July 31, 2006, when I wanted to quit baseball. I hated the game. I went from struggling on a losing team with the Kansas City Royals to being traded to the Colorado Rockies. When I got there, I was staying in a hotel because I had just been traded and didn't yet have a place to live.

I remember walking out of my hotel one morning to a local Starbucks and there was a 16-year-old girl on the corner of the street. She had a split lip, a black eye, torn clothes and she just looked scared to death sitting there with a cup of noodles with no water in it, just eating the dry noodles.

I reached out to touch her and she kind of jumped away from me. I said, "I don't want anything from you and I don't want to hurt you." She'd obviously had a really rough night. I told her, "I just wanted to know if you want something to eat." She said, "Yes please, I would really appreciate that." So I walked into Starbucks and got a juice drink for nutrients and another item with a ton of sugar.

I gave her the food, and she looked at me and said, "Thank you."

Then there was a weird connection that was made. I could almost see into her soul. She was not just thanking me for the food. She was saying, "Thank you for realizing that I exist. Everyone walks around me and pretends I'm not there."

The truth is, people looked at me as this athlete who had everything in the world, but at that moment, I was lost. I was scared. I was frustrated with my life and thought I had no purpose. There I was, looking at this girl who looked lost and scared, like she had no purpose. It was almost like our worlds met. Even though to everyone else, on the surface, we were completely different -- a millionaire MLB pitcher and a homeless teenager -- we were in the same boat mentally and spiritually.

That connection and the joy I felt from helping that young lady changed my outlook forever.

Shortly after, I was sitting in the outfield at Coors Field and I was praying. I was thanking God for the opportunity to meet that young lady. I felt such joy from such a simple act of compassion. That was the day I said, "This is why I play the game. This is why." I understood that there are people off the baseball field and outside this fantasy world of big lights, money and fame. Outside, there are people who are hurting and dying, and they have no ability to dream big. This gives me purpose -- a reason to enjoy doing what I do.

At some point, every athlete is confronted with wondering who they are and what their purpose is. No matter who they are, they've all been in bed at night wondering, "Why am I doing this? Who am I?"

Even when we succeed, we lay in bed wondering, "Well, can I do that again tomorrow? Can I continue my success, or will I fall off? What happens then?" I don't care who blasts me over that comment. It's true, whether you're the best athlete in the world with more accolades than you can count or a bench player that only gets on the field sparingly.

I have the same questions and fears, but I also know that no matter what happens on the field, I still have the ability to make a huge impact on the lives of people off the field and across the globe. Whether I'm doing well on the field or not, I've been given the resources to help other people. Having a purpose for being a professional athlete will actually help you immensely on the field because you're free from self-absorption. You have a purpose far bigger than yourself, and for me, that purpose is making sure other people have a chance to be successful.

Unfortunately, I didn't have that view my whole life. I was in the camp with most people who were making fun of homeless or poor people, telling them to get a job, ignorant to their background and how they got to that point. I didn't have a lot of compassion for them. It's a sense of selfishness and self-absorption that's common in our society today. This applies to the vast majority of privileged people, whether they're athletes or not. We are naturally selfish people. On a broader scale, a sense of helplessness plays a major factor into why we fail to care for our fellow man and woman as much as we should.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, human trafficking is a $32 billion industry. The average person says, "Well, how am I going to stop a $32 billion business? I can't do that." They feel there's no way to help, so they give up or don't try at all. It's too overwhelming. What most people don't realize is that it's not about saying you're going to stop a $32 billion immoral industry, it's about saying, "I'm going to try to do my best to understand that there are bad things going on in the world and I want to help where I can."

Many people often say, "Well, I can't help others. I have my own bills to take care of." That's true, and I completely understand the importance of getting things in your own home in order first. However, understand where you come from and remember how you found success. Realize the people that poured resources into you to allow you to become successful. Think back to the employer that gave you the opportunity to interview for your job and the institutions and teachers that gave you the necessary knowledge to get to where you are today. Now think of people in and outside of our country that never had those opportunities.

One of the most memorable experiences I've had thus far is witnessing the pure joy that comes from simple resources we take for granted. One of the focuses of my charity, Generation Alive, is to provide clean water in third-world countries where it's a scarce resource. I've seen wells pop. I was at my house and I was watching it on a live feed on my computer. I saw 1,500 kids run across a field and dance under fresh water, and I remember, I literally just started crying. I'm like, "What? I get that in my toilet bowl!" It's the greatest thing I've ever seen.

I don't get that joy from having a great outing or winning a World Series. Getting the win in Game 7 of the World series last year -- with a huge help from my teammates, of course -- was an amazing feeling. Despite the adrenaline from that moment, though, the sun still came up the next day and people still went about their lives. Even the parade lasted only one day. When you went to the city the next day, people were back at work doing their deals -- they'd moved on.

The lives of those 1,500 kids who didn't have access to clean water are changed forever, though. Their outlook on life is changed. Playing baseball has given me the resources to make that kind of impact.

To me, this is why I play the game. To be able to do stuff like that.

Virtually everyone -- whether you're a multimillionaire athlete or an elementary school student -- can change the lives of others. It costs about 25 cents to feed someone. I tell that to children at schools, and these kids say, "Well, I can do that!" It's true, you can. That is empowering the kids to create ideas, raise money and to understand what compassion is. I've seen elementary kids raise money for 30,000 meals. I've seen college students raise money for 600,000 meals in one day.

For athletes, it's really about connecting on a relational level. It's one thing to just write a check to an organization you've only heard a little about, but when you know the stories about communities in need and how your money is helping, it makes a huge impact on your view of what it means to help.

If someone comes up to me and asks me for money, and I don't know them, I'm not going to give it to them. I'm a relational guy. I need to know who you are. If I feel like you're just out for my money, then I don't want anything to do with you. If I care about you as a human being, I try to learn about you and I know who are you, then I'm all for helping you as best I can. When it comes to the ballplayers that I've asked to become a part of this, I know that kind of compassion lives in their hearts. Those who have passions outside of their sport are the ones who thrive and don't burn out.

We all have a responsibility to our teams to focus and do the best we can on the field. However, if that's all you have in life, then it can be detrimental to your career and personal well-being.

If I don't use the talent God gave me to accomplish what I can on the mound -- whether it be a regular season game or Game 7 of the World Series -- for some greater good, then what's the point? To have a ring in my jewelry box at home? I don't live or die by wearing that ring. It was a fun accomplishment, but there's no impact after it's done. Once it's over, it really is over.

What remains are the opportunities given to me to be able to do something off the field. Why not utilize those opportunities and make an impact?

# # #

Jeremy is a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, co-founder of Generation Alive, and author of To Stir a Movement, Life, Justice and Major League Baseball. Follow Jeremy on twitter @JeremyAffeldt.

First seen in