By Tim Hayes

While sitting in the stands at PNC Park during a Pirate game some time ago, I mentioned to my son that, when you’re at a sporting event like we were, the players on the field looked bigger than us ticket-buying grunts in the stands.  He agreed, even though we both knew intellectually that my hypothesis had no grounds in reality.

In a similar way, fans have a way of setting expectations pretty high when it comes to professional athletes – especially the superstars who pull down those incredible salaries.  But just as similarly, those expectations have no grounds in reality.

Case in point – the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team made it to the National Hockey League playoffs this year, but find themselves having to claw and scratch for victories against what would appear to be a lesser first-round opponent.  As this essay is being written, neither of the Penguins two superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has scored a goal in nearly 10 playoff periods, dating back to last year.

And, golly, have people around here noticed that little factoid.

The team pays these young fellows many, many, many millions of dollars each year to ply their ice-bound trade – and particularly during the playoffs.  And they seemingly just aren’t showing up.  What’s the problem?  Don’t they care?  Has the lure of guaranteed riches made them soft?  Is it just too darn cold out on that ice?  Why aren’t they donning their capes and making super?

My theory about these young fellows?  It’s exactly that.  They’re young fellows.  They’re trying their best.  It’s just not clicking yet.  They’re human.  They’re the same size as the rest of us ticket-buying schlubs in the stands.

A couple of years ago, I met a client for lunch in the tony part of town where Crosby lives.  The table sat near the front door of the restaurant-café, which made it quite easy to see “Sid the Kid” amble in to pick up a take-out order.  If you didn’t recognize his face, you would have thought it was just a regular twenty-something grabbing some lunch.

There was nothing apparent or obvious to lead you to believe that this young guy was a multi-millionaire, or that he excelled at an incredibly physically demanding sport at a world-class level, or that he had already won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal.

No, Sidney Crosby looked like any other guy in pretty good physical shape, who got hungry around noontime and walked down the street to buy a sandwich.  He stood no bigger than anyone else around that lunch counter.

People don’t function the same way as automobiles or computers or copy machines.  They have bad days.  They hit slumps.  They wake up and just don’t “feel it” for whatever reason.  And it doesn’t matter that, in prior engagements, they apparently could set the world on fire at the drop of a hat.  Or that their paychecks soar to the stratosphere.

I’ve known a CEO or two, also seemingly world-beaters bringing down insane salaries, who faltered and stumbled and screwed things up.  Sometimes to the point where the board of directors has shown them the door.  It happens.

People are still people.  They’re still human.  There’s no on-off button, no dimmer switch to crank up the motivation or the talent or the desire.  Sure, us ticket-buying, mutual fund-investing yokels want to get our money’s worth.  But the players out on the grass, or the hardwood, or the ice, or even the executive suite, really aren’t any bigger than the rest of us.

We’re all just trying our best.  That’s the story I’m choosing to cling to, anyway.  It might be something worth remembering every now and then.

Copyright 2014 Transverse Park Productions and Tim Hayes Consulting