I don’t consider my career as a thieving entity. But, there’s a lot of sacrifice in such a long journey in sports, and I’m just another example of what pursuing the game all-out can do to a person. There are major sacrifices made by myself and all high-level athletes to get toward, or at least on the right path, to the top.
The kids I train want to be where I’ve been, and see me as a role model for having scratched and clawed for what I’ve attained. While that’s a very positive beacon shined upon me, there’s another side to the story, as there always is. Sacrifice, hardship, and crushing defeats. Not everyone is cut out for a life being the underdog over, and over, and over. It hurts. It sucks. It’s hard to see the light at the end of that proverbial tunnel.
The Social Toll
College is a great time and place in which to grow up. High schoolers are children, unbeknownst to them, and they become more adultlike in those next 4 years than probably at any other time. Chasing girls, going to parties, learning how to socialize, care for oneself without Mommy, Daddy and the gang at home is all part of the process. I missed out on a lot of that while chasing my dreams.
I don’t regret not drinking or partying so much, but looking back, I wish I had made more time for my teammates as friends, not just as teammates. They knew everyone on all the other sports teams; I knew no one. They formed bonds that last to this day, even from great distances; I didn’t. I was at home being a shut-in, doing pitching drills and getting up early to train. I’m proud I did these things, but if I had to do it all over again, I’d have made more of a balance of my life. I’d have made more time for friends and being social. I’d have gone to parties, even if I didnt want to drink.
I was at a wedding a few months ago wherein one of my teammates was the groom. I was excited to reconnect and share stories from our college days. Thing was, I didn’t have that much to rekindle – I was more or less an acquaintance at the wedding in the same way that I was a part-time friend back in college. I ended up realizing that I didn’t form the deep friendships that some of my other teammates had, and most of that was because I was so focused on my full-time baseball goals. I urge the college kids I train now to stay in the loop and get their work done, but make time for friends, girls, parties and being a normal college kid. I wasn’t a normal college kid – I was a full-time ballplayer maxing out my overtime every single week. Baseball gets less fun when you make it into a job.
The Mental Toll
I’m lucky to say most of the worst moments in my life have come at the hands of my career and my defeats. This is lucky because I haven’t had to deal with much death, addiction and many of the heavy issues we humans are forced through. These career moments weren’t particular games, but culminations of long periods of intense training that at the time yielded nothing but disappointment. My first was Sophomore year in college. I was the #9 pitcher as a freshman, I think out of 10 or 11 pitchers. I wasn’t good. I spent the first 18 months of my college life working to the bone to get better. By time the spring of my Sophomore year rolled around, I was the #5 – on the cusp of being a starter. I got my first chance by being the piggyback in a game started by our #1 pitcher, now AAA starter for the Orioles. How’d I do? How’d all of the last 18 months of dedication pay off? I walked I think the first 3 batters I faced, gave up a bunch of hits and got yanked. The busride home from the College of William and Mary was awful. The only person who still believed in me was my strength coach, Fred Cantor, and he gave me just enough encouragement to get me to keep going. The next day, I got even better news – I had mono, and I missed almost the entire rest of that season. Hoorah.
The next year, I came back as the #2 or 3, I think. It’s foggy, since it didn’t last long. I got 6 appearances, 5 starts and one relief outing. I got a loss in EVERY game. 0-6. Then, my elbow started hurting and I was diagnosed with a partial UCL tear. I missed the rest of the year.
The next season I came back great and was our #1 starter. I topped in the low-90s in the fall and had MLB teams interested. They came back and watched in the spring. I remember one really cold day in March, I had a Milwaukee scout in the stands. I knew him from years prior, and he had watched my pregame bullpen before sitting in the stands to write a report on me. I gave up Back-To-Back-To-Back home runs that game. He left; I never saw him again. Chuck Rose was his name.
My elbow problems started up right around that same time, and I blew out my elbow in the conference tournament later that season. There were 15-20 scouts in the stands, mostly because I was pitching against the #1 of Stony Brook, a guy named Tom Koehler who ended up getting drafted by Miami. He was really good and has had a nice minor league career with them. I had to point to my elbow and walk off that mound in front of all those scouts. I was throwing well, too.
The next year, I sat through my last year of eligibility. It was terrible. I remember how my pitching coach, Tim O’Brien, had been hoping I’d be able to sneak into a game at the end of the season; it was my goal too. It didn’t happen, but Tim arranged for me to throw out a ceremonial first pitch in the last game of my college career. It was a really amazing gesture, but it was also the culmination of the failure of my college career. I was hurt almost all the time, had BAD career numbers and never won a single meaningful game. It still brings tears to my eyes when I recall that pitch.
The Professional/Familial Toll
Baseball is the only thing a lot of players have in their lives, and it’s sad to see it firsthand. Indy ball is especially filled with guys who are delaying their role in “normal” society, mostly because they don’t like the hand they’re dealt. I’ve seen a lot of Dominican players especially who have no job skills at all, forced to keep playing to hopefully play the bills or delay going back to the coal mines or washing dishes in a restaurant.
And for more of us white collar players, it’s still one in the same. For those who make it deep into pro ball, rejoining the work force at age 28 with no work experience, maybe a college degree from 6 years ago, or with classes still to pass, is a daunting task. I read the Wall Street Journal all the time and get the reports of how bad the job market is, and it’s only worse when you’re older with the same job experience as a 21 year old graduate. And, the first 10 years of life after college set the stage for earnings, a 401K and promotions that will continue to grow a salary. Giving away 5 years of that for pro baseball is certainly worth it to those who love the game, but it’s still a sacrifice when we have to come back to real life. I’m one of the absolute luckiest in this regard, but it’s a bleak reality for most.
Additionally, think about your long-term girlfriend at home. Or better yet, your wife. Is she going to stick around while you run around for 5 years, gone 6 months of the year while women call your name from the stands? Probably not…
The life of a pro ballplayer more than a strain, to say the least, on relationships, as I’ve elaborated on in this post (that I wrote after breaking up with a girl who very clearly did NOT support my dreams). You may have to make a choice unless you have a very rare type of girl.
The Physical Toll
Fast forward two years, and I got a chance to play Independent ball; it was a dream come true. I worked so hard and beat out a lot of good pitchers for a roster spot. I made my first start and threw well; I had made it. But, I had pain in my arm that wouldn’t go away. It was this severe aching in my bicep region that got so intense I could barely lift my arm between innings. I had the most painful game of long toss in my entire life before my third start, and I didn’t know how I was going to make 19 more. If I had spoken up about my injury, I’d likely have been replaced within a week; that’s how Indy ball works. I couldn’t take that chance of losing the spot I’d worked for.
Later in the season, my arm was shaking as I raised my water cup to drink in the bottom of the second inning. My catcher, sitting next to me, remarked that I shouldn’t take caffeine anymore if it was going to give me the shakes. I typically took 200mg of caffeine before my starts. I assured him that it wasn’t caffeine, but rather my arm itself. “Oh.” He said, eyes getting wide. It was that bad. It took bottle after bottle of Advil to get me through that summer. And by time August rolled around, I was really just tired of being in pain. I wanted the season to end. It felt like I had a bruise being hit with hammer, and because of it I barely threw between starts. I finished the year mentally exhausted.
And it’s not just me – there are countless players who’ve suffered worse than I who have rotator cuff, labrum and elbow problems for the rest of their lives. They can’t play catch with their kids, comb their hair, or play pick-up sports. The body breaks down in this pursuit of greatness.
Oh Wait. There’s More.
The next season was better in the first half, Jetsetting around the country with Lake County. But a trade to Fargo thereafter put me in over my head, and I gave up 5 runs in an inning I believe 4 different times. Getting shelled in front of an average home crowd of 4,000 diehard fans hurts your soul. It was embarrassing; I was the team’s crutch. The worst moment of my whole career came that year, and I’ll recap it briefly:
I had been pulled from the rotation. The team put me in the bullpen on the road against Gary, and had the great idea to put me in a tie game in the bottom of the 9th inning. My first relief appearance in 4+ years was in a tie game in the bottom of the 9th. Great. I struck out 2 of the 3 I faced and got a pat on the back and a “go back out there.” I did.
I gave up a seeing-eye single, and a run-and-hit to have the winning run on second with one out. I was, on a mound visit, instructed to pitch around the next guy and make sure if he swung, it was something out of the zone. Probably a changeup. I agreed. The next pitch out of my hand? Changeup belt high. Double. Ballgame.
Back in the clubhouse, it was silent. We had just lost our 6th or 7th in a row. The coaches walked through to their office and slammed the door. This was what was heard:
You said to send him back out. You said he was lights out. Well you know what? HE STINKS! HE flat-out F***ing STINKS!”
No names were used. No names were necessary. There was only one name that contextually could have fit that conversation. Dan Blewett.
But I made it through, and I made a change. I started meditation. I had a great year in 2012. I was leading the league in a few categories and had the right stuff to get signed and get my chance. There was a scout in the stands when I had to leave the last game I pitched.
But that day wasn’t the day. I still didn’t believe anything major was wrong. No, that blow came the next week while I was shagging balls in the outfield in Rockford. My trainer called me over to talk to the Orthopedic who had read my MRI. I sat down in a crappy cinder-block dugout and politely thanked him for telling me that my career was likely over. I walked back to the outfield, where my teammates wanted to know what the news was.
I could barely answer them. While I was calm and “like a man” on the phone, my stomach started heaving when the words came up to explain to my teammates that I needed surgery, again. I decided I wasn’t going to have a meltdown on the field, so I walked out the gate in right-center and left. I sat next to what looked like a Christmas tree in an adjacent field, and called my best friend, followed by my Mom. They couldn’t really understand me on that phone call.
I went for a 45 minute jog to nowhere and decided on that run that I wasn’t finished. I sat in the clubhouse most of the game with my head in my hands before dressing and going out to the dugout. I couldn’t be wasting a uniform in the state my career was in.
And so, here I am. Did that sound to you like a fun career? That’s a recap of my life in baseball. It’s been much less a bunch of “ups and downs;” it’s been almost all downs. I’ve mostly been rolling with punches and not landing many. But, I look back on it fondly, somehow; I really do. However, if what you’re reading doesn’t sound appeal as your future life, then maybe reconsider your line of work.
The Point Of All This
Understand – I love my life, am thankful for who I am and how I was raised, and the entirety of my journey. I don’t regret any of it, though I advise others to do a few things differently. There’s no bitterness in me – not one bit.
But, the point of this is for others to ask themselves: “Where’s the line?” “How much can I handle, or do I volunteer myself to handle?” I’ve signed up for all of the pain I endured. Most of my career has been miserable, but it’s given me optimism to awaken everyday because I do so with the assumption that my worst days are behind me. Thing is, I’ve always met even worse days ahead. But, I blindly tell myself that I should keep going.
And I want the young athletes who read my musings to understand that the road isn’t easy, isn’t always fun, and doesn’t always have a silver lining. It’s about choices, and I want them to know what they’re getting into. Mostly, I want them to not make baseball or their other sport of choice a job too soon. I didn’t get paid until I was 24, but baseball was my full-time job, 24/7 since 18. I have hard workers who want to be full time at age 13, 15 or 17. It’s too much. Enjoy youth, enjoy hobbies and other things. I haven’t skiied, snowboarded, I don’t rock climb, bike, play any other sports, or really do much of anything that could potentially injure me. I have to hold back until I’m done playing. Again – choices. Make the best decision you can for your life, all things considered. Even if you choose to go after the sport 100%, please decide to have a life outside of baseball. It’s necessary for sanity and wholeness of spirit.
Also know that every story is different, though many of the elements are consistent. It’s never easy participating in the “grind” that is elite-level baseball. From D-1 and up, it’s a very hard road no matter who you are.
My failures should have broken me years ago, but for some odd reason I’m still here. I really had nothing else in my life but baseball and my family. Trust me – it’s way nicer to go home to friends, hobbies and diversions when that ERA is a little bit too high, and that 12-month training cycle didn’t pan out.