Only To You

June 6, 2019

I’ve had it. I’ll confess, but only to you, that I don’t even want to play major league baseball anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed my career, though not so much lately. When I’ve gotten hurt, like every player, I just played through it, and if the pain got bad, I sat out a game or two, until the last three years, when injuries suddenly took weeks instead of days to heal, and months instead of weeks.

It’s not just not one month on the Injured List, either—it is one long, miserable month of pushing precisely calibrated weights,  stretching for hours with two trainers overseeing every muscle I twitch, getting ultrasounds, sitting through MRIs and CAT scans and X-Rays and bone scans that add up to big words for "Maybe Yes, maybe No,"  while my teammates squint at me sideways, wondering if I’m jaking it.

Maybe I am jaking it. I used to laugh when the trainers told me lay off for a week, but I haven’t laughed in a long time. I remember saying, and meaning, that the only thing I care about is winning. It was true. I was making good money, but much more than money, I wanted a big, gaudy championship ring, and when I got one, I wanted another. But I have only so many ring fingers.  For a long time after that second championship, I still wanted to play baseball, still wanted to excel, still much preferred winning games to losing them, sure, but the ring was no longer a gravy-dripping steak dangled above a starving dog’s jaws. How could it be? I used to tell myself, before every single game, "This year might be your last chance to play in the World Series, so give it everything you’ve got." Around the time I stopped repeating that phrase under my breath as I ran out onto the field, I started listening to the trainers and the doctors  prescribing rest and caution.  Did I stop telling myself to play for the ring before or after I started listening to medical advice? Which was the cause and which was the effect? Hard to say. Does it really matter?

I still care about my teammates’ respect.  I used to care much more, but then my teammates became my ex-teammates, and then I signed with a new team in the other league. My brand-new teammates never saw me playing hurt, never saw me hustling my ass off when I had a strained glute, never saw me hit an extra-inning home run off a bastard pitch in the post-season-- can you blame them for thinking less of me? No one disrespected me, but no one described me as his inspiration any more either. "Yeah, he’s our team leader," they’d lie to reporters, but if no one was following my lead, what did those words matter? I wore the captain’s "C" on my sleeve, but that was just a strip of red cloth. I didn’t want to lead. I wanted to be left alone, to figure out my own needs, and to play the game however I chose to.

On my first team, I’d been a leader in the sense that I got away with talking back to the manager. I did that whenever he deserved some harsh feedback from his players. I knew I wasn’t getting benched over a few nasty words, so I’d speak up for teammates who didn’t have that luxury. "Get off Eduardo’s case," I’d tell my manager, "and I’ll take care of him," and the manager would back off Eddie for a while. I used to get away with stuff like that, but now I’m the Captain for the opposite reason, because management knows I'll take their side in any conflicts with players.

If a rookie throws to the wrong base, or doesn’t run out a popup, I can tell him that it looks horseshit, and he’ll still take that from me, but it no longer means as much as it used to when I was the one crashing into fences all the time or challenging other outfielders’ arms. The long and short of it is that I‘m burned out. If my current manager asks me to talk to some kid, I’ll do it, but both me and the kid just want that conversation to be over with before I open my mouth. I’ll find some quiet spot, like a diathermy table, and I’ll sit down next to him and go, "When you held up, going first-to-third?" and he’ll already be acknowledging my point:

"Yeah, you’re right," he’ll say, "I shouldna stopped running."

"That’s what I’m saying," I say.

"I know."

"You can see the coach as soon as you make the turn," I go on, though I don’t need to, "and if he wants you to stop—"

"I know, I know," he says.

"All right then."

I’ve done my duty, but I’d had that exact conversation years before, many times, with a completely different tone. Used to be, when it ended, I would be so worked up, I’d need an hour to myself just to talk to anybody else. I would have put my face a little closer to the young guy’s face, and told him, "Then you DO it right from now on," instead of that weak-assed "All right then." I don’t know where that kind of rage-fueled fire went, but it’s gone. Even if these kids would take a rip from me any more, what does it matter if I no longer have a rip to give?

During my last contract negotiations, I thought hard about retiring. I’d signed two ‘fuck-you money’ contracts by then, at age 26 and then again at age 30, so I had more money than I’d ever need, or my kids, or their kids, will ever need.  I thought "Why not just walk away?" My first manager in the minor leagues called me while the contract talks were lingering in the news—we always speak from time to time, and I always appreciated him looking out for me. "As soon as you retire," he warned me, "you'll miss your teammates most of all."  I thanked him for his advice—he meant well, and always treated me right--but when I pushed the phone’s "OFF" button, I laughed at the idea. Miss my teammates? I would miss the wins, I would miss hearing cheers when I made a fine backhand play, I might miss the attention from reporters, or the buzz I heard when I walked through an airport or a restaurant, but I would never miss a single teammate, not for a minute, and I knew that for a fact.

It was the money, in the end. I didn’t need it, but it just seemed stupid, contrary to all reason, to walk away from it.  Money is score-keeping, and I’ve always been greedy to score every run I had a chance to score. Teams offered me thirty times what I’d made in my first few years, when my salary was pegged to the major league minimum. I was playing close to my best in those early years, and my first team cleared a fortune off the difference between what I was getting paid and what I was really worth, so now it seemed self-defeating not to take that difference back at the end of my career. It would be like I was telling MLB itself, "You screwed me out of money at one end, but I won’t screw you out of some at the other end." That just seemed wrong, letting MLB get over on me like that.

If no one wanted to pay me more than I was worth, maybe I could walk away. But they want to.  They have to. They’re eager to bid against each other. My agent kept reporting bids from six clubs that just rose to stupider and stupider numbers. Curiosity alone would make me wonder how high they’d go,  where my value stood at this late stage in my career, and I was more than curious for curiosity's sake alone. By the time the numbers reached the final, "Stupidest" stage, with three clubs left in the bidding, I’d changed my mind completely about retirement. I have enough strength and maybe enough health to play a few more years, and there would be plenty of time later on to leave the next contract, if there was one, laying on the table unsigned. I will never play as hard, or as hurt, or as intensely as I used to play, but my past teams had already squeezed all my juice out of me. Now there was only pulp left. The new teams knew what they’d be getting for their money: a 36-year-old guy whose skills were winding down. I cheated no one by signing one last contract.

My agent insisted on a five-year deal, but no one expected five years of peak-level performance, no one in his right mind, anyway.  All anyone expected was that I’d play well for a year or two, and then I’d collect my salary for another year or two while sitting on the bench or the IL or rehabbing in the minor leagues. They might even decide to buy out the contract’s last season, maybe two seasons, and I was fine with that—since this contract was front-loaded, I wouldn’t be losing very much money and the club would be shaving a million, maybe two, off its cap. This way, I’d be underpaid my first three years, fairly paid for my middle decade, and overpaid my last three years—everything would work out even, Steven, in the end.

Projecting five years into the future, I couldn’t imagine not being eager to leave the game at that distant point. When I did my running, that was all I thought about, projecting two or three years into the future, how I’d feel physically at that point, how I’d feel I’d done right by myself financially, how glad I’d feel about retirement a few years further down the line. For the last mile of a three-mile run, it was distracting to imagine the value of the next bid, add some endorsement capital,  investment income, and deduct mentally my agent’s commission, my PR team’s cut,  my other expenses and costs--sometimes if I had a little extra left in my legs, and if my back didn’t hurt too bad, I’d think about the new investments I could make with that money, properties I could afford, hobbies I’d never had the time to try. This kind of thinking occupied my mind as I ran along the beach, and it helped me stay in shape while that final contract was working itself out.

Sometimes I’d strategize about how I could disguise my lack of passion for the game. It was important to appear enthusiastic when I’d have cameras and microphones on me, so I invented a regimen to prepare for live interviews.  I prepped myself in the mirror by practicing keeping my eyes wide open, and grinning like an imbecile, especially after wins, and I rehearsed a few lines about "loving the game" and "wanting to compete," so it wouldn’t be obvious how much I just wanted to go home, sit on my balcony, and pour myself a bourbon on the rocks. I’ve always been a loner, more than most, but in my early years, I forced myself to be a good teammate. Now, it was sufficient just to look like a good teammate for a few more years.

For some, I suppose it’s a big part of who they are, to be a member of the team. Some players think of themselves, not just of their own name, but their name followed immediately by the designation of their team. I used to think like that, but as retirement drew closer, I understood how devastating it would feel to think of my name being joined to my team name, or even to MLB, when that was no longer accurate, how sad, how pathetic, how needy that would feel, so I started to think of me alone. No team, no uniform, no cap, no league, no position, no role. Just me, apart and separate. It was impossible to do at first. But after I did it, it became impossible to think of myself in any other way. Now, I’m just here, fulfilling the terms of my legal contract, doing what I have to do to earn my salary as best I can, doing what I’m asked. I used to feel insulted when a manager asked me to play out of position temporarily for the good of the team, or to pinch-hit on a day when I was feeling healthy, but no more. Now, I just do what I’m told and keep my mouth zipped tight.

Used to be, I cared a lot how I was written up—when a story described me as "moody" or "taciturn" or just plain "difficult," I’d get all pissed off, but now I honestly don’t care. Who knows, they may be right—I know I’m not the easiest person to get along with, I’m not the chattiest interview going, I don’t look to stir up controversy, and it’s the reporters’ business to write up lively stories. They can write whatever they like about me these days, even untrue stuff, and it just rolls off my back. That’s how I know I’ve signed my last contract—this entire process is just me adjusting to life after baseball.

They say I didn’t hustle down the line the other night, that I allowed myself to get doubled up while I argued fair-or-foul with the home plate ump, and you know what? They’re right. I didn’t feel like busting my ass on a ball I thought was going foul and I would have gotten doubled up on anyway.  The practical effect is the same thing—I hit an easy doubleplay groundball—and I explained after the game that I always run out every play except that one I still think was a foul ball. It didn’t make sense, not even to me, and my manager was pissed, more for telling reporters such self-serving nonsense than for not running out the ball, so I’ll have to pay the price of his anger. Like I give a shit. It’s just not worth pulling a hamstring running out every groundball every game, though the ironic part is that I tweaked a quad in the outfield the next night, and wound up on the IL anyway.

Meantime, I’m just counting the days I have left in MLB, trying to enjoy what I can of them, making the slow transition from being a vital part of every game to being an ex-player, and getting paid very well for making that transition. I’m still here, physically, but between you and me, I know my playing days are in the past. I’ve had all I need, and all I can take, of it. I’m done.

 
 

COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Appreciate your kind comments, all of you. This guy is, of course, professing publicly that he's gung-ho on MLB, enthusiastic as he's ever been--it's just to himself (and his confessor) that he acknowledges how he really feels inside.

I suspect that sometimes (sometimes) we get played by someone like him whose love for the game has faded but who also knows how to present himself so we never know what he's really thinking. He hasn't retired, after all--he's collecting his salary and PLANS to quit when teams no longer want to pay him.
4:36 AM Jun 9th
 
steve161
This is a superbly written work of fiction. I doubt you'd find a single member of the five-time champion Yankees or the three-time champion Giants who feels this way. Maybe this is why so few successful athletes are cerebral typesl.
10:23 PM Jun 7th
 
mauimike
I used to do work for a man who played in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers during their glory years of the 1960's. He wasn't a star, he played on special teams and backed up Ray Nitschke. He said, "Nobody retires. You stop playing when they don't want you anymore."
5:47 PM Jun 7th
 
evanecurb
I agree with Marc S. The same holds true for actors. Exceptions exist, but they are exceptions: Barry Sanders, Jake Plummer, Bernie Casey. Those are all NFL guys; not sure how many there have been in baseball or basketball.
4:29 PM Jun 7th
 
Marc Schneider
Except that it seems that most athletes hang on as long as they can, even when they don't need the money. Especially the stars. I think they don't get tired of it; or conversely, they are terrified of not having it anymore. There's really nothing to replace playing sports even if you get worn down. Once you retire, you are still relatively young and then what. So, while it's good writing, it doesn't seem to square with the way athletes actually think. Tom Brady wants to play football until 45 or 50 for god's sakes. It's probably different for non-stars for whom the game is more of a struggle, but I don't see many players saying, the hell with it, I've had enough.
9:18 AM Jun 7th
 
villageelliott
I was sixty four when I finally realized to be careful what I wished for.
12:20 PM Jun 6th
 
Gfletch
"He had everything he wanted till it all turned out to be a job..."

That's a fine piece of writing, Steven. I'm 64 and I've realized that Neil Young had it right and it happens in all walks of life, too.
10:44 AM Jun 6th
 
 
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