I sit in our first-base dugout preparing to play another no-name team in a no-name league wearing another no-name jersey in a stadium fittingly known as The Clink. The mid-west heat rises with the mid-day sun and our clubhouse manager limps out to the mound to throw batting practice in denim jeans, a full-sleeved western button-down shirt, dinner plate-sized belt buckle, black cowboy boots, and a black cowboy hat—a getup I have yet to see him skip (or wash) all summer long.
The Texas limp is from a near-death experience ending with a gunshot.
The belt buckle is from a similar story.
It’s Indy ball at its finest. A place where a prospect might break from their free agent status one or twice a year, but like the team residing in Chicago’s shadow, almost all of us will remain in The Clink for the rest of our professional lives.
I slide my bats into the rack, place my helmet in its cubbie, and when I turn to jog out of the dugout to team stretch, a man is standing next to the stairs. He gazes out onto the field as if he’s already watching a game being played. He’s a round, heavy-set, man with stubble on his chin that looks to be an attempt at a goatee, and with each step I take towards him—I can smell alcohol.
He sees me walking over and snaps out of his trance. He introduces himself by a name I heard years ago. I do a double take. It’s a name Joe Buck called many of times in October. A name I wish I had.
I shake his hand. “Nice to meet you,” thinking it couldn’t have been him and just some drunk who found the ungated, unlocked, unsupervised Player’s Only entrance.
He almost looks like him. I thought it was like the doppelgänger stunt a man in New York pulled pretending to be Jaba Chamberlain back when Jaba Chamberlain meant something to pinstripes. The man drank for free, got a few phone numbers, and I heard he even got a complimentary dinner out of it—that is, until he told a bartender he was Jaba, and that night the actual Jaba toed the rubber in a city a thousand miles away.
This guy was close, but it wasn’t him.
I remember watching this guy in the World Series. The sweet left-handed swing, the clutch hits in Game 6, the red goatee we got to see win the World Series twice. He was everything I wanted to be.
I still remember seeing him in the World Series dugout, praying to God one day that would be me.
That’s not the man standing next to our steps. I grab my glove and jog to right field.
By the time the game was over, and after a few drunken attempts at a failed fan-interview between innings and a man with the makings of a goatee in our bullpen saying how lucky we are to have a jersey, we found out that was him.
It was the name Joe Buck called.
He carried his own baseball cards, showing anyone who’d give him enough time to pull his hand out of his pocket.
I was heart-broken.
That night I laid awake and cried thinking about him.
He used to be a hero. A baseball legend. A person who achieved the boyhood dream only few could and two World Series rings to prove it. Now he is carrying around baseball cards, as a fan of the person he once was.
But perhaps, my gut was right. That wasn’t him.
That was all that was left of a person after the game took everything that made him—him. Now, he’s left with a skill of swinging a wooden club at a leather-bound ball that he’s no longer qualified to do. The one thing he could give to the world—the one thing he was the best in the world at—is no longer useful.
And in his mind, neither is he.
I still remember seeing him in the Slammer’s dugout, praying to God one day that wouldn’t be me.
We stood on my deck, the midnight sky dark as it was silent, and talked about the game as if it was a lost friend from our pasts.
He was a ballplayer, too. He’s now just Chris.
He asked me what I thought about my life after baseball. I said if I ever complain about reaching a childhood dream, he had permission to punch me in the face. We laughed, but his smile ran away a bit too quickly.
I don’t know how to explain it, he told me, but this is what came out of me one night.
He sent me a photo. It was a doodle with a fork in the road of what looks to be a scenic landscape. To the right was a path that led beyond the horizon to a place we’ve never been or seen before.
To the left was a tombstone and the epitaph read: Baseball 1991-2015—his birth year and the last year he played the game.
Under it laid his life.
I put away the phone and looked into the sky in silence.
I remembered Chris is a fine artist in his spare time who specializes in hyper-realism. At first glance, I always thought his pen and ink drawings were merely photographs he printed out in black and white. He was the most talented I’ve ever seen.
It’s all I keep seeing, he said.
The trees in his doodle were drawn with swirlies.
The trucks were scribbles.
He walked inside and turned on the television. I kept looking at the sky. There wasn’t a star to be found. That night I thought a lot about the man I met in the Slammer’s dugout and the man I met in the mirror the first day after my career ended.
I didn’t see much difference.
We were both six feet under; we just didn’t realize it.
I never really spoke much about my playing career ending. I wrote about it once. I still don’t talk about it much. I haven’t written anything about it since—because I can’t. I don’t have the story yet. I am still peeling back the story of who I could be without the game, layer by layer.
Like connecting the dots to a nightmare you can only remember at its most frightening, I’m still tracing my own journey without baseball, piece by piece—nightmare by nightmare.
But I was one of the fortunate ones. I didn’t make a dime playing game. I was still young when it forgot about me. Out of pure necessity, I had to start over. I got the chance to find a new purpose—walk a new path.
I still keep that doodle on my phone.
It took a while, but perhaps by connecting the dots of a story I never wanted to be in, I’ve realized his drawing was the best example of realism that I’ve ever seen. It’s a choice between a tombstone or a different path; both options are not pretty.
To begin anew means something first must end, and we have a choice: bury the person or bury the player.
The former means the person we met in the Slammer’s dugout is the person we’ll inevitably become a few years later. The latter means we bury our playing careers and everything it told us we were; then we move forward with nothing to offer the world other than ourselves—a person whom we may have never met before.
Both are frightening. They’re not easy. But we must be willing to look at our lives and make that choice. Then maybe we can live again.
We see success all the time. Every year college players end their baseball careers and begin their new jobs. My former teammates, minor league finalists, and Major League failures are now accelerating in the real estate market, finance industry, insurance market, became fathers and husbands, or even parlayed their skill set and became an outstanding coach, and frankly, it’s refreshing. The player is buried. The person lives.
Yet, when I look at my life and try to make sense of it all: my career, my job, my passion, my new life, I still find myself wondering what path I’ve taken.
On the outside, it looks clear. But perhaps the most frightening of it all is that on the inside, I hardly have a clue.