Defining Success—Play Ball!

Defining Success—Play Ball!

In 2003, my wife, Erika, and I took a road trip from our home in Indiana two and a half hours north to Lansing, Michigan, for a baseball game. Although we had spent a lot of summer days together in ballparks, this trip was a little different. 

The Chicago Cubs, the team that has brought me joy and heartache (mostly heartache) for my entire life, had just drafted a hot prospect whom many felt would become the next superstar that would light up Major League Baseball. His name was Félix Pie. He was an eighteen-year-old outfielder born to Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic. As one of the first stops on his professional baseball journey, he had been assigned to play for one of the Cubs minor league teams, the Lansing Lugnuts. This trip was our first chance to see Pie in action. 

We got to the stadium early so we could watch the team take batting practice. This pregame time in the stadium offers a great chance to catch foul balls (which I did!), since it’s less crowded and there are fewer small children to run over when chasing down these souvenirs (which, apparently, is frowned upon). 

After batting practice, I noticed a crowd of fans gathering over by the Lugnuts’ dugout, most of whom were wearing Cubs gear. Clearly, we were not the only ones who had driven some miles to see this young man play. Before long, Pie walked up to the crowd and started signing autographs. I looked at Erika and she rolled her eyes a bit and gave me a “shoo” gesture with her hand, as if to say, “Go ahead.” 

I used to collect autographs from ballplayers as a kid when my family would go to minor league games, but it wasn’t a hobby I had kept up with. This time, however, I was presented with a golden opportunity to have an interaction with the next Cubs superhero. So, why not? Plus, there were other adults in the autograph line so I didn’t feel too awkward. 



Pie was quiet but polite as he signed his name for fans on scorecards, caps, and on my foul ball. When I got back to our seats, Erika smiled and said, “Well, when’s the last time you waited in line to get an autograph from a teenager?” 

Long story short—and this is an unsurprising twist if you know anything about the Cubs—Pie did not live up to the hype. He gradually worked his way through the minors and made it to the big league club in 2007, but after struggling through an injury and lackluster performance on the field, he never became a mainstay in the starting lineup. A year and a half after his Cubs debut, he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles. 

The Cubs have a long history of making a big splash with highly-ranked draft picks destined to be the savior that would lead the team to World Series titles, most of whom have ended up with short, unremarkable careers in the majors. Ask any Cub fan who is Gen X or older about Ty Griffin, Cory Patterson, and Earl Cunningham and they’ll recognize the pattern: The fanbase gets excited, the player underproduces, the fans get let down, some other player gets drafted, and the fans (with short memories) get excited all over again, expecting this new phenom to be the one who will lead us to glory. It’s one of the most endearing and infuriating things about Cubs fans. 

I hadn’t thought about Félix Pie all that much since then until a few years ago, when I decided to do a Google search and see what became of him. After a couple of seasons in Baltimore, he spent the next few years bouncing between the major and minor leagues on teams with the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, and Pittsburgh Pirates. He then went on to play several seasons internationally with the Korean Baseball Organization, the Chinese Professional Baseball League, and the Mexican Baseball League. At last check, he was back in the United States playing on a team in Kentucky as part of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. 

According to the Princeton Review, the average career length for a major league baseball player is 2.7 years. At the time of this writing, Félix Pie is 39 years old and has had a 20-year career playing professional baseball, which has taken him across the country and across the world. For every kid who grew up playing Little League and dreaming of major league stardom, we’d have been ecstatic if someone with a crystal ball had told us, “You’ll never be a major league superstar, but you’ll end up spending two decades getting paid to play the game you love.” By nearly every measure, Pie has had a successful life in baseball. The only reason anyone would consider him a failure is because a handful of scouts saw him as a teenager and thought they could determine how his life would play out. It seems someone failed in this scenario, but I don’t think it was Pie. 



I still have that autographed baseball. It lives in my voice studio. Instead of keeping it as a memento of someone who took the sports world by storm, I keep it as a reminder of how someone can find success in their field even when that success doesn’t look like they thought it would when they were starting out. 

Most of the musical theatre majors I work with come to college at the same age as that young outfielder I drove two and a half hours to see play. Some of them may come into the program thinking they will set the musical theatre world on fire, while others may have just been glad to be accepted and given a chance. Regardless, most probably have a specific idea of what they believe success after graduation will look like. Over the course of their four years of study, that idea may change or it may stay the same. Regardless, I believe they all start to recognize that there is no one way to measure success. Sometimes not ending up where you thought (or hoped) you would be turns out to be the best thing that can happen. 

At this time of year, as the semester is coming to a close, I feel a bit like I imagine Pie’s minor league coaches felt as he progressed through the ranks of professional baseball. I’ve watched my students build their abilities, develop their character, and learn tenacity, all of which are valuable attributes (in the performance industry and in life). Even so, there’s no way I can predict what success will mean for each of them as they move on. 

Cubs fans are known for being “die-hard.” We display ridiculous amounts of loyalty and are eternally optimistic about our team (another endearing and infuriating aspect of this fan base). As the seniors in my voice studio graduate, my role necessarily shifts from coach to fan. Still, I continue to enthusiastically cheer them on, remaining faithful through the slumps, and celebrating all of their victories along the way—knowing that success, however they define it, may be one swing away. 

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /