I wanted to do a mailbag-style column this week—Q&A about baseball, the minor leagues, the Cardinals, etc.—but my answers are predictable.
Do you miss baseball: Yes, every day.
How was the Cardinals organization? The best.
I wish I could give more, or at least an insight you haven’t read each time a minor league finalist fails to breach the Pearly Gates, but the truth is: baseball is as personal as it is universal. Every question asked has already been answered and I cannot add anything more to the conversation.
However, there’s been one question I could never answer. One that I am still uncovering.
What is it like without baseball?
Well, have you ever tried baking a cake before?
It was going to be a four-layer Death by Chocolate; puffy and light, yet creamy and moist. It’s a delicate balance between the textures, sweets, icings, and chocolates. Most people hardly attempt at cooking one from scratch. Most people would go to the grocery store, find a chocolate cake that’s spongy and too sweet, throw a large enough scoop of vanilla ice cream on the plate to suppress the chocking chalkiness, and people will nod and scoop and eat because it’s good enough.
But that wasn’t me.
I was making this cake myself, and it was going to be the best damn cake anyone has ever tasted.
It was simple. I had the best ingredients possible—way better than the grocery store—all lined up in chronological order the counter to my left with the recipe and measuring cups to my right. All I had to do was stir the batter and add the sugar.
I grease the pan and preheat the oven. I was well on my way.
The directions explicitly say mix the butter, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl, then whisk the flour, cocoa, and baking powder in a different one. I keep everything separated. Well, try to. I play baseball. I love baseball. But I didn’t just want to play it. I wanted to be it. For as long as I was Jake, I wanted to be a baseball player. And now, I actually am one. Does that mean because I am a baseball player, I’m no longer Jake? Why was being just Jake not enough? Don’t think about it. They’re going to mix, it’s inevitable.
The butter, sugar, and salt, blend just as the directions say. Some of the butter sticks to the whisk, mixing in with the flour, cocoa, and baking powder. I hardly think about it. They’re going to mix, it’s inevitable.
Stir the batter; add the sugar.
Now, the recipe calls for beating an egg into the butter mixture. I’ve done this a million times. I could crack eggs with one hand then flip them sunny-side up with the other. I’ve laid down thousands of bunts in my career. One more is no problem.
I mix the egg then the rest of the batter. I get promoted and skip two levels — only three more to go. I will be in the big leagues by 26, simple as that.
But before I can pour the mixture into the pans and bake them, the hitting coordinator takes a look at the batter. Not sweet enough, he marks in the report. I add more flour and salt.
He tastes again. Report still says not sweet enough. The rest of the group-think agrees.
Forget pinches and teaspoons, I grab a handful and throw it in.
Now the batter tanks. Saltier than a pretzel and the once gooey mixture is now a rock. I dig through the cabinets trying to find something that could lighten the batter and get them to like me again before a first-round store-bought sponge cake becomes the organization’s choice. I add vanilla extract, more sugar, and anything I could find.
I’ve made it worse. I get demoted. I throw the mixture out and start over.
Stir the batter; add the sugar.
Nothing is separated. Sugar, salt, butter, flour. I’m a baseball player. I’m Jake. I’m not sure if I’m either.
I crack an egg into the buttery mixture of salty flour, and sugary cocoa powder. A piece of an eggshell drops into the batter. Hot blood runs through my body. I’ve never broken an egg like that. I’ve done it a million times. I’ve bunted every day for the entirety of my career, but now I can’t seem to do anything right. I break another. The bunt dribbles foul. I want to start over again, but I can’t. That was my last egg, and this is my last chance before the June draftees arrive.
I pick the shells from the mixture, and for some reason, this batter looks different. It’s missing something, but I just can’t seem to put my finger on it. I’m swinging at good pitches, seeing it fine, but I just can’t seem to square it up as I did two weeks ago. I stir even harder. Early cage work, extra batting practice, late-night hotel swings in a Motel-8 bathroom.
I find the issue. I’m missing baking powder. I look at my counter, an onslaught of flour, sugar, eggshells, and cocoa powder splattered across the backsplash. I can’t find any of the ingredients that made me the player that got me to this point. The June draftees arrive.
Where is the baking powder? How can I lose the baking powder? My career rides on this baking powder.
Please, I beg to whoever may be listening, just show me the damn baking powder. Please. Just this once.
I’ve never felt so hopeless in my life. My head lowers. My average drops. I see a white paper bag under my feet with the lid open and white powder spilled on the ground.
I throw my whisk into the sink. It’s over.
The minor league coordinator asks to see me in his office. My salary, my health insurance, my dream, is exchanged for a plane ticket home. I’m asked to pack up my locker and leave the premise within the hour.
What am I going to do next? I guess it’s simple. I’ll get a job—a real job—with a 401k and 40 hours a week building someone else’s dream so I could forget about mine. I’ll go to the store and find a chocolate cake that’s spongy and too sweet, throw a large enough scoop of vanilla ice cream on the plate to suppress the chocking chalkiness because it’s good enough. It’s expected.
The nightmares will come, as they have been, but over time, I’ll get used to them. Maybe soon I’ll be able to watch a baseball game without picking my nailbeds until they bleed. Hell, maybe one day I could love the game again.
But for now, when people come over, they’ll see the kitchen, smell the mixture of a half-baked, over-mixed dream sitting on the counter, and they’ll ask what I was making. I’ll tell them. They’ll commend me for trying. Then they’ll ask me about my new job. I’ll smile and say it’s good. Then they’ll ask where I bought the cake. I’ll tell them I got it at the grocery store. They’ll smile and say it’s good.
We’ll all just say what’s expected.
Perhaps that is what’ll keep me up now. Not the missed bunts or cracked eggs. Hell, at least I was in the thick of it. It’s knowing this store-bought chocolate cake was supposed to be something totally different than it is now. It was supposed to be something I lived for. Something I dreamt about. Something only few could achieve.
But I got it on sale.
I can’t eat cake anymore and don’t think I ever will.