Tony Gwynn or LeBron James: Who’s The Better Role Model?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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If you want to know if loyalty pays, all you have to do is look at the stark contrast between the way LeBron James and Tony Gwynn were treated this week.

First, the similarities: Akron, Ohio’s LeBron James and Southern California’s Tony Gwynn both played for local pro teams.

But while latter spent his entire career in San Diego, the former took his talents to South Beach. And it was only after winning two rings in Miami — and seeing the writing on the wall (that a third ring would be a long shot) — that LeBron decided to return home. And how did we respond to King James? By treating him like the prodigal son: “Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf,” we said.

Compare the positive attention LeBron’s announcement garnered to Gwynn’s treatment this week. Major League Baseball held its All-Star Game Tuesday night, and noticeably absent was any tribute to the Hall of Famer. “This guy was a fifteen-time All-Star,” harrumphed Tony Kornheiser on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. “His .394 batting average is the highest batting average in baseball still in the last seventy years. I believe this was a significant mistake,” Kornheiser continued.

Indeed it was.

The contrast was stark. To be sure, some of it is because LeBron is still active and Gwynn obviously is in that great batter’s box in the sky. And while Gwynn was certainly one of the greatest of his era, LeBron is the greatest.

Still, is there any doubt that — had Gwynn put up those same numbers in, say, New York, like Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter (who also played his entire career with one team, going to one fewer All-Star game than Gwynn) — he would not only have been more celebrated in life but also more revered in death? (Not that adoration was something Gwynn craved.)

Such is the life of a small-market superstar who doesn’t trade up. Growing up in Maryland and rooting for the Orioles, a team that had boasted players like Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Cal Ripken, Jr. — all of whom spent their entire careers in Charm City — I’m tempted to lionize the old-fashioned values of Gwynn. In a transient world (each year, more than 10 percent of us move), stability is hard to come by and something to cherish.

As Ashley E. McGuire noted,

Loyalty is a great virtue, and it has the reward of offering a deep sense of connectedness that is increasingly hard to find. Tony Gwynn made financial sacrifices in order to stay in one place. But he passes away as a beloved member of a community and offers us all the opportunity to ponder our own imprint on the people that surround us.

But here’s the thing: If Gwynn’s career track is admirable (and rare), LeBron’s is arguably the better example for any of us trying to get ahead in the 21st century. And that’s a point that we need to acknowledge here. Part of the reason I’m sympathetic toward LeBron’s plight is that times have changed, and he is responding to those changes. (In the ’80s and ’90s, it wasn’t unheard of for MLB stars to spend their entire careers with one team; in today’s NBA, it almost never happens — and this is a microcosm of what has occurred in a lot of industries.)

Let’s be honest, if you want to be truly great, you probably have to leave home to do it. A prophet isn’t accepted in his own home town. And just because you leave — just because you want to surround yourself with better players in your business — doesn’t mean you are discontent or even superficial.

Over at Grantland, Bill Simmons penned a popular essay about LeBron’s return to Cleveland. To be sure, he puts his decision in the best light possible, but — if Simmons is correct — it illustrates why someone might choose to leave his surroundings for noble reasons: a love for the game and a desire to better oneself:

When he signed with Miami in 2010, I wrote that LeBron copped out, that he joined forces with Wade over doing the honorable thing and trying to defeat him. But the more I watched LeBron and the more stories I read about him, the more I wondered if something more organic had driven that decision.

Was it about winning titles … or finding the right group of teammates?

What if LeBron was a genius like Bird and Magic?

What if he KNEW he was a genius?

What if he was searching for some basketball version of the Holy Grail, some higher state of being, a level of basketball that he couldn’t find in Cleveland?

We might not all be geniuses, but when it comes to making career decisions, we are compelled by the same forces as LeBron. To be successful — to discover who you are and what you’re supposed to do — you will probably need to go away.

The grander your dreams and goals, the truer this is.

If you want to be a famous actor, you probably can’t do that in Cleveland. You’d better get to New York or Los Angeles. Want to write about politics? It’s still probably wise to be in Washington, D.C. (Note: Here Derek Jeter is the exception. Having started his career in New York, he had nowhere to go but down.)

Now, sometimes you don’t need to stay in New York or L.A. or D.C. — but you may need to spend a few years in the big leagues to learn from the best in your business and get your card stamped as a professional. Then, after you slay a dragon or two, you can come home a conquering hero.

This makes sense. In his Sports Illustrated essay, LeBron — who never went to collegenoted that:

“Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing today.”

Sometimes we need to leave in order to grow. But there is also often something beckoning us homeward after we have exorcised the wanderlust. For those who do find their way back home, this is to be celebrated, not condemned. For Cleveland fans, LeBron was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

And the truth is that while I’m tempted to extol the virtues of Gwynn, I suspect that the better example — if one aims to be wildly successful in the 21st century — is, in fact, LeBron.

We no longer live in a world where we can expect a company to show us loyalty after we no longer meet their needs, so why should any of us remain blindly loyal to the company? (You and I might lament this cultural shift at the macro level, but at the micro level, wouldn’t you advise your children to be willing to go where the best opportunities are?)

But here’s the thing: I’d love to live in the same place I grew up — to be closer to my mom, for example. But it’s not really possible. Not if I want to do what I do for a living. So this is really about whether you want to be a traditionalist or an entrepreneurial free agent.

While we may dream of being like Gwynn or even Jeter, most of us will still have to live like LeBron.

Lauren Eissler contributed to this essay.