In the 1970s, Richard Davidson, then a graduate student at Harvard, and now a professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, sought to learn more about emotion. Specifically, he wanted to know why some people who face setbacks are defeated, while others persevere. He wanted to learn about the concept of emotional resilience.
To determine the makeup of the mind, Davidson showed his subjects disturbing video clips designed to elicit a strong negative emotional response. Using brain sensors, Davidson and his team were able to track the activity in the subjects’ prefrontal cortex (“PFC”). For those of you who are not brain surgeons, the left side of the PFC controls positive emotions, and the right side controls negative ones. In his study, Davidson learned that when shown the images, there was increased activity on both sides of the subjects’ PFC. However, for those subjects who had greater emotional resiliency, the left side of the PFC (the positive emotion side) showed greater activity afterwards. In fact, a person with high resiliency often had as much as 30 times the activity on the positive side of the PFC. Faced with upsetting information, it took the other group quite some time to reactivate their positive emotions.
The next step was to determine how or why some people were more emotionally hardy than others. I won’t bore you with additional scientific studies, other than to report that while this trait is genetic, the researchers were able to discern that humans could learn to become more resilient; that this was an emotional muscle that could be exercised and made stronger over time.
So what does any of that have to do with baseball? I am glad you asked.
My favorite story of 2017 started – in a bad way for Red Sox fans – last December, when the BoSox traded third base prospect Travis Shaw to the Milwaukee Brewers. On paper, the deal made perfect sense: the Red Sox were in the midst of 5-year/$95 million contract with Pablo Sandoval, and had adequate third base backups in the majors (Brock Holt) and the minors (Rafael Devers). In return for Shaw, the Sox got the highly touted reliever, Tyler Thornburg, to bolster their bullpen. Dombrowski won the trade.
But Sandoval got injured (yet again) in May, and was released by mid-June. Thornburg has yet to throw a pitch for the Red Sox. In contrast, by the end of May, that traded third baseman was hitting .296, with 9 homeruns, and an .871 OPS for the Brewers. What I meant was that Dombrowski raided the farm and had egg on his face to show for it.
But this story started to become my favorite on June 6th. That is when Travis and Lindy Shaw welcomed a baby girl to their family. Unfortunately, baby Ryann was born with a severe heart condition called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. The Shaws knew their baby suffered from this long before she was born, and they knew Ryann would need multiple heart surgeries upon her birth. They didn’t expect for her to have two in her first four days.
When David Stearns and Dave Dombrowski made their swap after Thanksgiving, the players didn’t have a choice in the matter – it was just a prospect moved for a veteran. But fate is a fickle lady. Lindy was already pregnant when Travis joined the Brewers; he theoretically could have landed in any of twenty-four other cities. That he landed in Milwaukee – home to Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, which is ranked the #4 best children’s hospital in the U.S. by Parents Magazine and #5 for Pediatric Heart Surgery and Cardiology according to US News & World Report – was pure serendipity.
Travis took paternity leave the day Ryann was born, and Family Medical Leave the weekend of Ryann’s first two surgeries. He then rejoined the team, keeping one leg in the NICU, and one leg in the Brewers’ dugout. He took another day off in August when Ryann had her third scheduled surgery. In between and after, Travis spent his mornings and afternoons at the hospital, and then hustled across town in time for batting practice. He played in nearly every game.
As stated above, Shaw was off to a great start before his baby was born. But everything changed that first week in June. A professional athlete, who requires nothing less than total dedication and unfettered focus to maintain his competitive edge, had a daughter fighting for her life and a wife living on a cot in a cold hospital far from home. As Dr. Davidson explored, some people do not have the emotional resilience to handle such adversity. Others do.
After Ryann was born (including a small end-of-season slump), Shaw hit .262, with 21 homeruns and 61 RBI. It is truly incredible that Travis Shaw was able to sustain a 126 OPS+ when his mind and his family were constantly elsewhere. It is safe to say that the left side of Shaw’s PFC was buzzing with activity this past summer.
Through his selfless play, his out-sized production, and his buoyant spirit, Shaw quickly became a fan-favorite at Miller Park. But more than that, Shaw became an inspiration to his teammates, his opponents, and the multitude of parents who are forced to deal with catastrophic circumstances, and yet must wake up each day and put one foot in front of the other. Shaw excelled on the field on a new team, in a new league, in a new city, all while dealing with an unimaginable situation.
The somewhat bastardized interpretation of 1 Corinthians is that “God won’t give you any more than you can handle.” Dr. Davidson set out to determine how people handle that which God has given them. Some people, like Travis Shaw, handle it with grace, skill, and aplomb. People like Travis Shaw are models for the rest of us who are simply trying to get by.
As of this writing, Ryann is still in the hospital, but doing well. Her parents hope to take her to their off-season home in Florida in the coming weeks. In the meantime, they stay at Children’s Hospital and watch their baby grow, her heart beat, and her eyes twinkle.
And we, as fans, get to root for something more than baseball.
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