Less than two months ago, one of us texted the other out of the blue: “What if Theo was our Class Day speaker?”
We agreed that Theo Epstein ’95 would be a fantastic choice. Here was a Yale alumnus unmatched in his field, an innovator in a game marked by tradition and perhaps the single most important factor in ending a combined 194 cursed years for two cities — one of which had celebrated its World Series victory just months earlier.
At the time, we were merely talking as sports fans, excited about the role played by a fellow Yalie — and fellow former sports editor of the News — in the recent history of a game we love. For one of us, Epstein’s story inspired us to begin writing for this paper. For the other, Epstein’s accomplishments in the 2004 Red Sox World Series forever changed what it meant to be a Boston sports fan. Epstein is a role model for both of us, and having him speak at our graduation would have been the perfect way to cap our Yale experiences.
Despite our hopes, we, like many other Yale students, were not expecting to have a sports figure speak at Class Day. In a time marked by divisive political turmoil, we anticipated someone like the past three Class Day speakers, all of whom have spent the majority of their careers in government.
Needless to say, Sunday afternoon’s announcement that Epstein would in fact be our Class Day speaker surprised us. To many outside Yale, Epstein is first and foremost a baseball icon; to many on this campus, his accomplished career as a sports executive does not seem entirely relatable.
But Epstein’s story can offer more inspiration and guidance than most “traditional” Class Day speakers could, even for those with no attachment to baseball.
Since stepping on Yale’s campus in the early 1990s, Epstein has unabashedly followed his passion. As a student, he probably didn’t think of the fortune that comes with being a premier baseball executive, and it’s unlikely he planned on becoming a hero to baseball fans. He certainly wasn’t trying to change the world.
Instead, Epstein simply did what he loved. As a teenager, he told his friends that he would one day be the general manager of his hometown Boston Red Sox. For the next decade, Epstein devoted himself to getting there. At Yale, he worked as an intern for the Baltimore Orioles for three summers and majored in American Studies writing essays on baseball. After graduating, Epstein worked 70 hours a week with the San Diego Padres while simultaneously earning his law degree to gain a leg up in contract negotiations with players. Even before “Moneyball” glorified baseball management, Epstein was staying true to his dreams.
And in the end, Epstein has done what he loves better than anyone who came before him, bucking the conventional wisdom of what has always been a very traditional sport. Epstein — who became the youngest general manager in baseball history at the age of 28 — is credited as one of the early adapters of analytics in baseball, redefining the way all MLB front offices evaluate players. Using both a data-driven mind and a down-to-earth personality, Epstein delivered the unthinkable not once, but twice, when he led both the Red Sox and most recently the Cubs to World Series titles. His actions united entire cities and moved grandparents to tears of joy. In this sense, hard work toward a passion can have a serendipitous multiplier effect.
Epstein’s story is a lesson for Yalies of all interests and backgrounds, whether they’ve heard of the Bambino and the Billy Goat or not. When we examine the careers of Yale alumni, what better qualities are there than supreme dedication to one’s craft, an innovative approach to old ideas and an ability to deeply and positively impact millions?
Class Day will likely be a special day for the both of us, as it would for anyone with the chance to listen to a like-minded inspiration. But Class Day is meant to celebrate and motivate all 1,300-plus graduates and serve as one final nudge forward while we are still surrounded by our peers and loved ones. We believe Epstein can deliver — just ask anyone from Boston or Chicago.
James Badas is a senior in Grace Hopper College. Greg Cameron is a senior in Saybrook College. Both formerly served as Sports Editors for the News. Contact them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org .