Fall 2017 Commencement

Graduates Urged to ‘Swing for the Fences’

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Graduates Urged to ‘Swing for the Fences’

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Retired baseball star Alex Rodriguez gives "Major League" advice to UM’s fall graduating class.

Dejected and heartbroken after his demotion to the Minor Leagues, Alex Rodriguez wanted nothing more than to quit baseball, go home to Miami, and enroll in college. But a strong-willed mother, who raised her family by working as a secretary during the day and a waitress at night, wasn’t having any of that. She told her then-19-year-old son that she was changing the locks to their Miami residence and that he’d better toughen up.

So the tall, baby-faced kid from Miami, who won a state baseball championship as a star shortstop at Westminster Christian School and was drafted by the Seattle Mariners with the first overall pick in the 1993 Major League Baseball Draft, did just that, rising at 5 a.m. every day to train and get in the best shape of his life.

On Thursday, standing on a Watsco Center stage on the University of Miami campus, where he came within hours of enrolling on an athletic scholarship, Rodriguez delivered his mother’s message of “toughening up” to nearly 600 students who accepted newly minted degrees at UM’s fall 2017 undergraduate commencement.

It was the first of two graduation exercises on Thursday. UM alumnus Rony Abovitz, founder, president, and CEO of Magic Leap Inc., shared his advice with more than 400 students at the 2 p.m. graduate-degree ceremony in the form of a letter.

It was an idea, Abovitz said, borrowed from his friend Graeme Devine, a computer game designer extraordinaire and the chief creative officer at Magic Leap who writes letters to the future. In his own “Dear Future” correspondence with graduates, Abovitz, whose company is on the verge of introducing a revolutionary new computing platform, described a world changed by shrinking egos and growing compassion and understanding.

He described Earth’s switch to solar and wind power in the year 2035—an accomplishment made possible by humanity’s decision to end all wars, invest trillions of dollars into sustainable energy research, and develop a clean and safe fusion engine—designed at his beloved University of Miami.

“The whole Earth now has all the energy and food it will ever need. It was always right here, right in front of us,” read Abovitz, who earned his B.S. in mechanical engineering at UM in 1994 and his M.S. in biomedical engineering in 1996.

During the morning exercise, Rodriguez, or A-Rod as he is known by many, bestowed a wealth of advice on students. “Listen to your mothers. They are always right,” said the UM trustee and 14-time MLB All-Star, whose 22-year career, after a little motherly advice, worked out pretty good: 696 homeruns, over 3,000 hits, three American League Most Valuable Player Awards, and a World Series ring with the New York Yankees.

While Rodriguez’s MLB statistics are otherworldly, he revealed to graduates that he’s fifth all-time in a category most Big Leaguers wouldn’t brag about: strikeouts. “That means I have a Ph.D. in failing,” he said, “but I also have a masters in getting back up.”

He told graduates that it is acceptable to lean on others for support and guidance, noting the “incredible mentors” he has had, some of them from the University community, including trustees and philanthropists Stuart Miller and Paul DiMare, and former UM President Donna E. Shalala. “Identify your own great mentors, and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Rodriguez said, urging students to hone their craft daily and to “read, read, read everything…You should never stop being a student.”

He recalled how, as a little boy, he would sneak into UM’s Mark Light Stadium, scaling the outfield fences because he couldn’t afford a ticket to watch the Hurricanes play baseball. Today, that iconic ballpark bears his name—Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field—and is once again one of college baseball’s premier venues, thanks in large part to the $3.9 million gift he made to the University in 2002 to renovate the facility and fund a scholarship in perpetuity for a member of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

The Emmy Award-winning sports commentator, who went directly to the Major Leagues out of high school, told graduates that he was a bit envious of them. “You have the experience of going to college as a young adult and earning a college degree,” he said, noting that only 5 percent of Major League Baseball players have college diplomas. “You’ve earned your careers before your careers have even started.”

But he cautioned students that success does not come “without putting in the work.”

During his illustrious baseball career, Rodriguez simultaneously laid the foundation for his successful investment firm, A-Rod Corp. It began with the purchase of a single duplex in 2003, and today employs more than 500 people.

As he encouraged graduates to pursue their passions, he reminded them that there are “three things people can’t take away from you: education, integrity, and your impeccable word. Those will follow you wherever you go.”

Said Rodriguez, “Swing for the fences.”

It was advice that Demetrius Jackson, a redshirt junior defensive end on the Hurricanes football team who accepted his degree in political science on Thursday, will probably always remember. “Today is the end of one journey and the beginning of another,” said Jackson, who grew up in Miami’s Overtown community.

“The violence and poverty in Overtown sometimes overshadow much of the good that’s there,” said Jackson, who has a year of eligibility left on the football team and plans to pursue a master’s degree. “But we do have college graduates coming out of Overtown who do extraordinary things. Growing up was a challenge, but I made it through. This degree is for my Mom, my little brother, and my community.”

And, as Abovitz told the graduate students, Jackson no doubt has an extraordinary future ahead of him—one that the Magic Leap founder foretold would one day include the 932nd episode of Star Wars, the 800th reboot of Spiderman, the realization that we cannot ignore the poor and unfortunate, and a modification to the Declaration of Independence to include gender rights and equality for all.

In his letter, Abovitz also recounted the colonization of Mars, the terraforming of asteroids and planets, the rapid printing of “anything,” the use of artificial intelligence to amplify and help people, not to replace them, and a planetary spaceport that became a springboard to new adventures on Jupiter and Saturn.

“We really never solved everything,” Abovitz said. “We actually just learned how to be human beings. Our egos contracted. They became smaller. We became more creative. We loved more, we had more joy, we stopped trying to conquer and rule and dominate. We learned how to love and respect and create and just be part of something much bigger, something infinite that we just need to accept and be with.”