ANAHEIM, Calif. – Chris Archer stood recently before a room of boys and young men who had crossed the boundary of at-risk and proceeded directly to the Pinellas County Juvenile Detention Center, more than a few in silver handcuffs.
Archer, just 24, had spent some time at-risk himself, and not that long ago. It was kid stuff mostly, he recalled – some petty theft, other incidents he's not too proud of – on the streets near Raleigh, N.C. He was a bit lost, a little turned around, a biracial teen with blond-haired, blue-eyed parents who raised him since before he could remember and loved him dearly but could not be in every place at every moment.
Years later, parented well, guided well, and making a living as a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays, Archer looked out at mostly brown faces. There comes a time when one must choose a course. Or it most definitely will choose you.
A boy raised his hand.
"Who is the most important influence in your life?" he asked.
Archer thought about his parents. A mentor he thought of as "part father-figure, part brother, part baseball coach, part spirituality coach." David Price, a teammate.
But most important?
He answered, "I am."
"Sit down," he offered.
He pulled a thick paperback from his gray satchel. Its cover was curled, the binding stretched against a blue pen acting as a bookmark. Archer had underlined passages in "Reflections on the Art of Living," by Joseph Campbell, and he gestured with the book as he spoke.
"If you're not putting anything into your head," he said, "you're just going to think what everybody else around you thinks. You're just going to do what that television programming says."
So he reads and he watches. He thinks. He ponders "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," "Outwitting the Devil," and "The Alchemist," then hands them off to friends.
"My soul is old," he said.
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The Rays would play the Los Angeles Angels in a few hours, and Archer had between-starts work ahead in the bullpen. A rookie, he is 8-6 with a 3.14 ERA in 18 starts, and is scheduled to pitch again Saturday in Seattle. He's working on a changeup that could be the difference between good and great. It is what he does, not who he is.
He was born to a black father, who he met for the first time this spring, and a white mother. When Chris was 2, his mother's mother and her husband adopted him. When Archer talks about his parents, it is they: Donna and Ron Archer of Clayton, N.C.
He does not believe in the concept of luck, not like that. Too random. From his chair at his locker, he flipped a shoe into the middle of the room. Where it landed, where it stopped tumbling, that, he said, was luck. Random.
"But I will say that I was very fortunate to have the people who raised me," he said. "It's all divine. I'm not a religious person. But I am spiritual. There was a reason they came to me. Luck is something you don't understand."
You sit nearby and remind yourself this is a baseball player, a 24-year-old baseball player at that. Along with his latest reading material, he carries thank-you notes from children he invited to a Durham Bulls game. He looks for meaning in the world intended for him, and he tweets about how important it is to "destroy the societal bonds and extract the best out of your self," and then he studies the Mariners lineup.
"I'm trying to do everything I can to pay forward what was given to me," he said. "My parents, two white parents, selflessly adopted a biracial child in the south. That's just to start with. Every day my dad told me, 'You're my world.' I was not even his blood. And now baseball gives me the platform to impact thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people."
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Nobody laughs, either. In a game where a man's worth often enough is defined by his batting average or ERA or contract, it is odd to see the gravity in Archer's eyes, to hear the earnestness of his words. As his manager, Joe Maddon, said, these are the conversations being held in dorm rooms at four-year schools. They are the notions of young men and women not trampled by life beyond the quad.
"I think it's a very special thing to see," Price said. "A lot of guys could be in the position Chris Archer is in, playing ball, and that's all they'd see. They don't think about how they got here or what they can do with it.
"To think, that selflessness at that age. It's very special. Those are the guys you really cheer for."
He's been to Boys & Girls Clubs. He's been to the YMCA. He shares his story, the course he chose before it chose him, and why. He'd asked to go into a local prison, to talk to the men and women there, so that he would understand why they were there, and then work backward on what he found in the teenager who couldn't seem to get it right. He was told no, but he could visit juvenile hall.
When Archer was through, a boy approached him with a question.
"When is it too late?" he asked.
"How old are you?"
"Dude," Archer told him, "it's not even close to being over."
He told him about Nelson Mandela. And Malcolm X. On the wall hung a portrait of Frederick Douglass, who'd escaped slavery to become a statesman.
The boy nodded.
"He chose to stand out," Archer said of Douglass. "He chose to change his life right now. You can. Your choices from right now will determine who you are."
They shook hands. The boy thanked him and said that would be him. Archer said he believed that, and he'd be back to see.
"When you know your purpose – you know, not just believe – when you know that, it's easy," Archer said. "I know that I'm on this earth to inspire other people. Because other people inspired me. I'm just paying it forward, man."
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