During the winter last year I took a public speaking class.
It was scary as hell.
For our first speech we had to give a ‘Heart Speech.’ Basically go up in front of the class and speak our mind.
A man, around 6’0”, 185 pounds was the last to go. He wore a Lamb of God shirt and denim jeans.
His first words: “I am going to play Major League Baseball.”
His name: JR Graham.
I was enamored. Not that I had a potential MLB player in my class, which I did, but that I got to witness something rare: someone so self-motivated, determined and confident.
Someone like me.
It seems that everyone is driven by something external: money, fame, approval of others.
That’s not the case with Graham. He plays baseball because he loves the game.
“There is nothing else I would rather do,” he told me recently, “than play baseball every day.”
His passion for the game radiates from him. He screams loudly every time he closes out a game, jumping up and down jubilantly as he heads back to the dugout.
For the most part, the games he pitched in were rather meaningless.
The Santa Clara baseball team went 17-34 this year. Stephen Schott Stadium, a state-of-the-art facility located minutes away from the Santa Clara campus, drew fewer than 500 people to most games despite having a 1,500 capacity and free admission for students.
Graham can’t wait to get to The Show—playing in front of thousands of people—and competing against the best in the world, especially for the Braves, who are one of MLB’s most historically-significant teams.
Think Braves and immediately players like Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Hank Aaron come to mind.
“It is a great honor,” says Graham of being selected by the Braves in the fourth round. “I hope to continue the tradition and have my name said with all those other players.”
Recently, the Braves have developed a strong, home-grown team and become one of the National League’s premier teams. Players like pitcher Tommy Hanson, closer Craig Kimbrel, first basemen Freddie and right fielder Jason Heyward.
Graham believes he can thrive in the environment the Braves have created in Atlanta.
“I couldn’t ask for a better organization to go to,” he said. “They produce so many good players and are a great team year in and year out, but they are classy and you never hear about any problems with them.”
Class is important to Graham. He always opens doors for teachers and students as they enter the classroom. He ensures that the baseball diamond is covered and all the equipment is in place before entering the locker room after games.
He always stops by to shake my hand following the game after I am done conducting interviews.
In order to throw his first pitch at Turner Field, Graham must work on his secondary pitches. He hit 101 on the radar during a game this year and usually throws in the upper 90s, but his changeup and curving pitches need to miss bats.
“I have good stuff, but nothing excellent,” he says. “I need that excellent secondary pitch to make my fastball more effective.”
The key to his game may not be physical, however.
The key is written on his hat.
Inked across the back are two words: No Fear.
“No Fear has been with me for my whole life,” Graham told me last year. “My dad has been telling me ‘no fear’ since I was little. It’s something that has stuck with me and it always transferred over to baseball.
“You have to go up [to the mound] and No Fear. It basically explains what I try to do every time I’m on the mound. No Fear. I know the batter has a disadvantage when I’m up there because I’m just fearless.”
At the beginning of our public speaking course, Clint Pardoe, our professor, told us that most people fear public speaking more than death.
Everyone in our class showed outward signs of stress while speaking.
“It’s something that you have to get used to,” Pardoe said. “Don’t fight it.”
Graham has nothing to fear.
He was born premature.
“I think it is just ingrained in me ever since I was born,” he told me last year, “like ‘You’re not supposed to live.’ Not too many premature babies come out making it.
“They pull me out and I’m tiny—they can fit me in just in your hand—and my dad, they picked me up and gave me to my dad and I stopped breathing. They took me away and everything, they didn’t think…”
He stops and gathers his emotions.
“They got me back, I was breathing, but it was scary to my parents. I could have easily died. Easily could have had some problems: brain issues, functions. I could easily not be here playing baseball, so every day I’m out here is just a blessing.”
He had a near-death experience playing basketball where he hit his head and blacked out. He woke up with a broken collarbone.
“They were lucky that it didn’t puncture my lung,” he said, shaking his head. “Had it gone down an inch further, I could have broken my neck easily on impact.”
He’s been in a car accident.
“Rear ended a guy going 85. The airbag didn’t go off.”
He carries these experiences with him and uses them as motivation.
“It’s just a determination to prove people wrong,” he says. “I can still live. I can get through this. I’m going to overcome it.”
There are people that will write him off because he is too small, because there were 145 people drafted before him, because he played for a non-contender this season and a myriad of other reasons.
However, everyone in Atlanta should know who he is.
“I don’t want to be the norm. I want to be different. I don’t’ want to be Justin Verlander. I don’t want to be Trevor Hoffman.
“I want to be JR Graham.”
Remember the name.