“Influencers.” It’s a word I don’t recall hearing up until a couple years ago. Somehow, some way, it appears that some individuals use social media to create their own sort of celebrity, and then they become famous for being famous, and what follows is that their content can influence perfect strangers. It’s the world we live in.
I can honestly attest to the fact I have never partaken in the murky world of influencers. I get my influence from people I know, people I respect, and people I trust.
Let’s talk about influence, shall we?
I think the vast majority of us were influenced heavily by our parents, even when it was not a conscious thing for us as very tiny little creatures. The still-crawling, barely talking, versions of us. We get imprinted just like ducklings, and we tend to follow our moms everywhere.
In that regard, my parents came up aces. My dad was, of course, a mystical gigantic man in my mind. I knew all about his baseball career, although I never got to see him play, and he did as much as he could to make my two brothers and me the best we could be. He wasn’t there a lot because making your living in baseball keeps you away (I know this first hand and as his son) but his influence and his legacy guided all of us. He was my idol.
My mother gave me many other non-athletic gifts. She was kind. She was extremely caring (considering I was so sickly as a kid I needed almost constant attention.) She was brilliant. By the time I was in the upper levels of grade school, and certainly when I was in high school, she was constantly devouring literature ranging from the classics to modern psychology and inner meaning. She was, as we say, DEEP!
Am I a “momma’s boy” or was I just a jock like my dad? I think it’s about 50/50 but my dad was gone a lot because of baseball, so as I said above he was just kind of a mystical legend to me. When he was around, and he showed me the game, I was in heaven. When I spent four straight summers hanging out with him in Washington DC, Denver, and Spokane (often as a batboy but also as an “intern” with the teams, taking infield practice and BP and shagging fly balls) I could not have been happier.
My mother and I were very close. The fact I was her baby (the youngest of five kids) and I had chronic and serious asthma and allergies, my momma duck never let this duckling get too far away or too lost in the haze of illnesses.
But what about beyond that? Who else imprinted on me something so impactful it changed me for the better?
My brother Del
Del is 11 years older than me. The only real impact he made on me before he was off to college and then into baseball, followed by the business world, was as a standard big brother and as a babysitter who would force us to stay at the table until we ate every last one of those mushy canned peas.
But later… Del went on to a fabulous marketing career and I always looked up to him. He had a Johnny Carson type of style about him, and he was so successful I could only speculate on what an immense range of intelligence and focus he had to have in order to do all the things he did.
When I was feeling that I was about to be done as a baseball scout, Del was the first person I called. He set me up with numerous interviews in the sports equipment world and that turned into my first job with Converse Shoes. Without that, who knows what I would’ve ended up doing.
I then went to work for him in his Washington DC office, otherwise known as DelWilber+Associates. I was one of the associates. I was also almost fully incapable of understanding the importance and seriousness of what we were doing there, when I first arrived. At Converse we were, pretty much, ex-athletes having fun selling or giving away shoes. It was very laid back and we loved what we were doing. At DW+A, we were dealing with numerous Fortune 500 companies at the highest levels of their organizational charts, from IBM to Chrysler to Audi and many more. On the other side of the aisle we also worked with an equally impressive list of sports leagues, teams, and organizations as we developed relationships and put sponsorship programs together.
I’m not going to say I totally “got it” the first week I was there, not even the first month I was there, but over time it all sunk in and I continually found myself entrusted to have one-on-one meetings with very high level people, sometimes in foreign countries. It was a different world.
Del never once “taught me” anything there (he had given up, by then, trying to get me to eat my mushy peas.) He didn’t sit me down and say “Here’s Lesson 2 for writing a proposal…” I learned from his example and by watching my peers and colleagues do their work and get it done right. And Del led all of us.
Del and I are closer today than we’ve ever been.
As you likely know, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time or if you read my book Bats, Balls & Burnouts, Pete Delkus made a huge impact on me.
Pete and I both attended SIUE and played baseball there. We were both communications majors with specialities in the Broadcast Journalism school. But, we did it nine years apart. We met when we were both playing on the Sauget Wizards while he was still in college. He made an impact on me the day I met him.
Pete is one funny dude. He’s also brilliant, expertly well spoken, and sarcastic as hell. Basically, it was a friendship made in heaven.
Through the years, while I was his agent representing him during his fantastic career in the Minnesota Twins organization, everything that got him to where he was became so evident to me.
He knew how to compartmentalize the fun aspects of life, all while still able to focus like a laser beam on the important things. In his case, those important things mostly revolved around being the best pitcher he could be. Also the best husband he would later be, and the best father.
His focus and determination were talked about by the two of us from time to time, but mostly I just admired how he carried himself and how he looked at life. And, how hard he worked! Nothing was going to stop him from succeeding. His elbow finally did, but up until then he willed himself to be a big league prospect. The fact he was named Twins Minor League Player of the Year after his second season tells you all you need to know.
After baseball he became a meteorologist. He started in Orlando, moved to Cincinnati, and now he’s the number one weather expert in Dallas/Fort Worth, where the weather is a major part of life. He has too many Emmy Awards for me to even keep track of.
In Bats, Balls & Burnouts, Pete wrote one of the Forewards. I had nothing to do with the two Forewords (the other was by Del Worsham). I basically recused myself from that so the writers could feel free to express themselves. I was surprised and very touched to read them after my editor Greg Halling had compiled them for publication. Both of them were great and very heartfelt. Pete wrote extensively about what an impact I had made on him and on other people. I clearly remember thinking, “You’ve got this totally backwards Pete. It’s the other way around.”
Lance didn’t show up at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville until my junior year. He was a transfer from a different program but was instantly part of the group and well-liked by everyone. But not necessarily by me.
I was a bit of a loner, but only because I was taking my studies very seriously and wasn’t prone to partying too much. I loved being “away” at school and, unlike a lot of other guys who could get home in an hour or three for the weekend, I actually liked to be on campus in our apartment all the time. I’d go home when I needed groceries, but I liked the quiet times too. I really loved being a college student. I spent a lot of time in the library.
Lance was very outgoing. A little outrageous. And, as it turned out, a lot of fun. He’s also incredibly smart. He took school seriously and with his accounting and finance degree he has had a phenomenal career. The title CFO has been after his name on his business cards. We were polar opposites when we met (other than the whole baseball and grades stuff.)
But he drew me out. He got me out of my bubble and from him I learned to be much more social and overtly engaging rather than waiting to be invited into any conversation, and I enjoyed every minute of it. We weren’t lunatics (well, most of the time) and we kept our grades up and both graduated with ease (him a quarter or two before me.) But the socially active and outgoing part of me had a lot to do with hanging out and rooming with Lance. That’s the me people know to this day. Lance gets a lot of credit for that.
Still an all-time best friend.
So, how about influential people in other walks of life, when I was in the midst of my career and trying to rise as high as I could in whatever crazy field I was in. Here’s a few.
Todd has been intimately involved in drag racing since he was in the womb (just like me with baseball.) His father, Ken Veney was an icon in the sport. A legend.
By the time I got into the sport, Todd was established as a reporter and writer for National DRAGSTER magazine. The first time I sat down with a copy and read something he’d written, a gigantic light bulb went on over my head. It was nearly blinding.
There’s “reporting” and there’s “telling stories.” Todd’s submissions to the magazine were all compelling stories, even if what he was writing about was actually his reporting of results and performances. He was unique, and I found myself engrossed in stories about drivers and cars in the lower sportsman classes I knew very little about. The man can tell a story.
The impact? There are stories to tell no matter the subject. He was concise and not flowery. But he wove tales. When I discovered his work, I took to scanning the magazine for his byline before doing anything else.
At the beginning of my racing career, Todd Veney opened my eyes to what could be done, not just what had to be done.
This one is a no-brainer. I can’t tell you where I’d be today or what I’d be doing if not for Phil Burgess who, as you know, has been the editor of National DRAGSTER and NHRA.com forever. He, too, is a legend.
And, again, like others it was not overt or instructional. It was by osmosis, by watching how he might edit my work, and by how he complimented me not so much with literal “Hey good work” pats on the back, although he’d launch those your way if your work deserved it. It was much more by the way he’d “reward” me with greater challenges, new ventures, new columns, and (of course) the blog. Here I am, still writing it.
Looking back over those years, it’s as clear as glass to me now. Phil pushed me, and then rewarded me with bigger and better positions in the magazine or on the website. And I didn’t work for NHRA! He saw something in me, and I was willing to try just about anything for him.
Every time Phil said “I want you to try this” I dove in. And I grew as a writer and storyteller.
Any of you who know my work and my books will know the name Greg Halling. He’s been my mentor and style editor for two books now.
I can say this very simply: I would not be the writer and author I am today without Greg’s input, mentorship, and influence. Period. End of story.
Again, it was never really by correcting me or trying to overtly instruct me. It was by example. He changed the way I wrote! And all I did was follow his example and listen to his input. I was a sponge. That’s a good thing if you want to improve at anything you’re doing. Greg Halling is brilliant. I love the man.
Now, what about other authors… Who influenced me the most?
Jim Bouton was a fine big league pitcher. He was also incredibly smart, insightful, self-aware, outspoken, and daring. In 1970, he took notes throughout a full baseball season as he attempted to resurrect his career as a knuckleball pitcher with the old Seattle Pilots. His flame throwing days were over, so he reinvented himself. Then, he reinvented how sports figures are seen by the appreciative public. He wrote the classic book Ball Four.
Many athletes had worked with their ghost writers and editors to put books out. Most were pretty shallow and only recitations of sports careers.
Jim Bouton crafted Ball Four like a seasoned pro in the author game.
It’s brilliant. Hilarious. Heartbreaking. And it’s a behind-the-scenes view of baseball that had never been done. He crossed lines no one had ever crossed before. It got him blackballed from the game. But Ball Four lives on, through numerous updates and revisions.
It is classic. I’ve read it at least 30 times. This made a GIGANTIC impact on me. Dumb jocks don’t necessarily need to be dumb jocks. Sometimes they are brilliant. Rest in peace, Bulldog! I hope you knew how many people you influenced.
See Jim Bouton but even earlier and possibly more impactful. Jerry Kramer was a lineman for the powerful Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, under the direction of Vince Lombardi.
He was big and tough, and a force on the football field.
As it turned out, he could also write. Instant Replay was his story of his upbringing and his time under Lombardi with the Packers. It was groundbreaking. He had a brilliant editor working with him, the legendary Dick Schaap, but by all accounts these were his themes and his words. That became clear the first time I saw him interviewed on TV and his answers were 12 levels deeper than the softball questions.
I was young when I first read it, probably around 1968 which would’ve made me 12.
He transported me into a realm I never even dreamed about. He told the tales expertly, and made it so you could smell the sweaty shoulder pads, feel the heat of the locker room, shiver uncontrollably during the “Ice Bowl” at Lambeau Field, and rejoice when he and his teammates were champions, thanks mostly to the crazy amount of hard work they all put into it as Packers.
Jerry Kramer told me, through his book, that dumb jocks might actually be intelligent and fascinating people. He made it clear to me, even at that young age, that I would be writing a book or two someday later in life.
He wrote a book that changed me and showed me the light, decades before that light began to shine.
This one takes us up to a much more recent event. Whitley Strieber was a very successful author, and he made a mark in the world of “what paperback can I take on my next cross-country flight?” It was Communion. To this day, as far as I know, Strieber still insists every word of Communion is true. Why would that be important? Because the book is about his and his family’s contact with aliens, including “lost time” and abductions. Every one of my peers back then, in the mid-80s, read Communion.
After I read it, I noticed he had other books out in the world. I took a chance on War Day and, yet again, it was a life changing moment but I wouldn’t realize that for another 30+ years.
He and James Kunetka co-wrote War Day. It’s the tale of two New Yorkers heading out to see what’s left of America after a very brief but also devastating nuclear conflict with the Soviets.
They alternated chapters, writing about their travels around the country and the things they saw. It’s obviously fiction, but it read so true it felt like it was real and any reader was immersed in the characters’ stories (despite the fact we are still fortunate enough to have avoided World War III) and it absolutely captivated me. I stored it away in the recesses of my crowded brain for many years.
And then How Far? came to me as my next great writing challenge. The concept for it is directly attributed to Whitley Strieber. I don’t know him, and he doesn’t know me, but that’s the beauty of storytelling and publishing books. He planted a seed in the much younger version of me. That seed blossomed into my second book, How Far? in 2022.
That’s pretty impactful, if you ask me.
Talk about having an influence on me! As good as I am at stringing cogent words together, it’s almost impossible for me to put into words the impact Barbara has had on me since the day we met.
Her beauty, intelligence, curiosity, and zest for life blew me away. As we’ve spent the last 25 years together, I know I’m still the same old me but I also know I’m a much better version of me. She didn’t have to demand it, either. I just knew it. I knew it deep in my heart. It wasn’t always easy and sometimes it’s not easy to this day, but I constantly strive to do positive things and make her life better.
She is a lofty standard to try to match, and I’ve never quite gotten there, but I spend most of every single day wondering what I can do to make her happy, and make sure she knows how much I appreciate all she’s done and all the support she’s given me when I wanted to take another leap of faith. She is the most amazing person I’ve ever known.
Without her, and my constant desire to be a better husband and human, I have no clue where I would be today.
I just know I wouldn’t be here. And that would be a shame.
There are many more. From baseball to soccer to the world of fast cars and public relations. My peers. My colleagues. My friends.
I like to think that I’m a reflection and a compilation of all of them.
So, all of those “influencers” on social media can do whatever they want. They can sell themselves and their “influencer brand” until the cows come home. I have chosen to be influenced by real people.
It’s better that way.
See you again soon. Try to influence someone you know, to share goals and know you can keep being and getting better.
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Photos arranged below.
Be a good influence!