For Class Day, Epstein has a message of unity from baseball’s promised land

Baseball’s greatest curse-buster returned to Yale to give the Class of 2017 some advice about making the most out of life’s rain delays.

Theo Epstein ’95, president of baseball operations for the world champion Chicago Cubs and former general manager for the Boston Red Sox, told soon-to-be graduates of Yale College at the May 21 Class Day ceremony to choose connectedness over isolation — and to always keep their heads up.

“Some players, and some of us, go through our careers with our heads down, focused on our craft and our tasks, keeping to ourselves, worrying about our numbers or our grades, pursuing the next objective goal,” Epstein said. “Other players, and others among us, go through our careers with our heads up, as real parts of a team, alert and aware of others, embracing difference, employing empathy, genuinely connecting, putting collective interests ahead of our own. It is a choice.”

Class Day chairs Joana Andoh and Larry Milstein introduced Epstein to an Old Campus crowd of more than 10,000 Yale College seniors, family members, and friends. The seniors wore an array of festive headgear: top hats, cheeseheads, propeller beanies, pith helmets, and pointy wizard hats. There were hats festooned with feathers, teddy bears, giraffes, foam battleships, emojis, and melted ice cream. (Watch “The silly hats of Class Day 2017” video, below.)

A few students even wore their favorite baseball caps, which suited the mood of the day.

At Yale, Epstein was a sports reporter and sports editor at the Yale Daily News. Later he would become the youngest general manager in Major League Baseball, guiding the Red Sox to their first championship in 86 years. Last year, Epstein led the Cubs to their first championship in 108 years.

“He’s a Yale man.”

Epstein took a moment to salute the Yale baseball team for capturing this year’s Ivy League crown and earning its first NCAA tournament berth since 1994. He also noted the sweep of events the Class of 2017 has been part of on campus.

“Your class has been witness to and a participant in a period of historic change at Yale: the inauguration of a new president, the creation of two new residential colleges, the renaming of a third, and most savory of all, the introduction of Hanoi Fried Cape Shark,” he said.

Baseball’s Theo Epstein ’95 told the seniors that while some people go through life with their heads down, keeping to themselves, others keep their heads up “as real parts of a team, alert and aware of others, embracing difference, employing empathy, genuinely connecting, putting collective interests ahead of our own. It is a choice.” (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Epstein noted that his Yale degree has followed him throughout his years in professional sports. When he got the Red Sox GM job, for instance, Red Sox executive Larry Lucchino explained to President George W. Bush why it was okay to have such a young person at the helm of his club:

“No, no, no, Mr. President, you don’t understand, he’s a Yale Man.”

Epstein acknowledged that America’s national pastime is often a matter of entertainment, a happy distraction for the people who do the hard work of keeping society whole. But there are times, Epstein said, when “baseball resonates deeply and meaningfully with many, many people, and times when a game that is built around overcoming failure can teach us all a few important lessons.”

One of those moments,Epstein said, came in the Cubs’ dramatic, extra-innings victory in Cleveland at Game Seven of the 2016 World Series — which included a rain delay for the ages.

Epstein watched the game in the stands with his family. His older son, Jack, periodically updated him with the Cubs’ win probability. Things looked promising until Cleveland tied the game in the late innings with an improbable home run. Then came the rain.

Epstein made his way into the clubhouse to get a weather update, when he saw his players crowded into a small weight room. One after another, the players encouraged each other and summoned their collective will to win, which they did in short order once play resumed.

“During rain delays players typically come in off the field and head to their own lockers, sit there by themselves, change their wet jerseys, check their phones, think about what has gone right and wrong during the game, and become engrossed in their own little worlds,” Epstein said. “That would have been disastrous for our team during Game Seven — 25 players sitting alone at their lockers, lamenting the bad breaks, assigning blame, wallowing, wondering. Instead, they had the instinct to come together. Actually, it was not an instinct; it was a choice.”

Seniors show off their fancy headgear as they pose for a group photo before the Class Day ceremony. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Epstein said that when he thinks back on the victory, he thinks of that rain delay. He said that one day he will tell his two sons “that we all have our rain delay moments. There will be times when everything you have been wanting, everything you have worked for, everything you have earned, everything you feel you deserve is snatched away in what seems like a personal and unfair blow. This, I will tell them, is called life. But when these moments happen, and they will, will you be alone at your locker with your head down, lamenting, divvying up blame; or will you be shoulder to shoulder with your teammates, connected, with your heads up, giving and receiving support?”

Epstein took note of the fact that many of the Cubs players are 20-somethings — part of the same generation as the Class of 2017.

“As someone who has already been uplifted by members of your generation, I am thankful and in awe of what you all can accomplish when given the space to be free, to let your personalities out, and to figure it out,” he said. “I am truly inspired by the traits that distinguish your generation: your diversity, your boldness, your optimism, your tolerance, your treatment of others based on substance rather than on the labels that used to divide us.”

(Read Epstein’s speech in its entirety.)

(Watch a video of his speech.)

Pomp, circumstance, and tribute to a dean

Like baseball, Class Day is filled with traditions. One highlight is the awarding of Yale College academic and athletic prizes, as well as awards to students who have achieved distinction for other endeavors. See the list of this year’s winners.

Isaiah Genece ’17 began the ceremony with an opening ode titled “Telling Time,” reflecting on the push-pull of emotions facing the students: “You don’t want to lose your friends; you don’t want to lose your school; but you want to look your family in the eye and say, ‘I did this for you.’”

Glan-Paul Bergeon ’17 led the class in a musical number asking Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway to stay. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Class secretary Tommy Rosenkranz and class treasurer Mimi Pham gave the ceremony’s official welcome. Yamini Naidu ’17 offered the class reflection, titled “One Unified Beat.”

There was a surprise tribute to Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who will be leaving Yale later this year to become provost at Northwestern University. Gian-Paul Bergeron ’17 led the class in a call-and-response, playfully asking Holloway to stay.

Charlie Bardey ’17 and Jordan Coley ’17 delivered the class reflection, “Under Your Seats,” a comic take on everything from career choices to Handsome Dan.

Daad Sharfi ’17 presented the Ivy Ode, titled “Our Story.” A video, “Our Bright College Years (Abridged),” depicted a day in the life of Yale College seniors. The video was directed by Kendall Teare ’17, Russell Cohen ’17, Connor Szostak ’17, Jacqueline Ferro ’17, and Jared Fellows ’17.

The biggest tradition of all came last. Students from the Class of 2017 sang “Bright College Years” and waved white handkerchiefs, just as they had as freshmen.

The 2017 Senior Class Day ceremony was held on May 21 on Old Campus. Theo Epstein ’95, who led both the Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs to historic World Series wins, was the featured speaker. As per tradition, the day included a look back at the graduates' four years at Yale, the wearing of funny hats, and singing the alma mater, "Bright College Years," while waving a white handkerchief.
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