While training with the Kent State University baseball team the other day, I struck up a conversation with one of the players about what it’s like to play in the professional ranks.
These kinds of conversations are interesting because the candor of the player always seems to possess this dreamy quality, like I’ve been somewhere over the rainbow where Blue Jays sing, and have come back to confirm there is a giant talking lion handing out shoe endorsements.
Unfortunately for them, my candor has this buzz kill element to it. Not because I’m trying to crush anyone’s dreams, but because the pro ranks are a reality to me, not a fantasy. It’s tough to talk dreamy about something when you’ve seen what’s behind the curtains, where they pile up all the lion poop.
It’s funny, the young guys always talk to me about dreams and I always talk to them about perspective; about the slipperiness of the game, and why you shouldn’t grip it to tightly if you really want to enjoy it.
When the conversation is over, they seem a little disappointed by my words. I think that’s because young athletic speak is so pumped full of “work harder and you can achieve anything!” As if hard work is liken to those tickets you rack up at the arcade, and if you just get enough of them—like a billion—you can cash them in for a big league career.
Of course this is a myth. There is just no way to control the game, no way to ensure everything works out perfectly, no matter how bad you want it. And yet, they fight that reality because they believe they reject it long enough, they can beat it.
I wont say that hard work isn’t valuable because it certainly is. But, so is knowing how to let go of something. Not belief, or desire, but of obsession. This is a remarkably under valued concept in sports, maybe even a little heretical. Odd because the inability to let go is possibly the hardest thing for professional players to learn, yet one of the most detrimental to a career that requires you to have a short memory.
So many young players look at baseball like a dream that they disregard a good chunk of the reality around the game that might actually help them play it better. I understand why, of course. When I was there age, I wanted pro baseball so bad I could do (and did) all manner of ridiculous things in its name. Supplement gimmicks, working out three times a day, obsession over my outings to the point I couldn’t sleep.
I pushed reason and balance out in favor of unhealthy fixation.
I remember having conversations with my college pitching coach, who had played professionally, about what it meant to be a pro; what it supposedly turned you into if you became one. How it made sense of life, gave you purpose and meaning and value. He told me the same thing I tell kids now—keep perspective and diversify.
Just like today’s youth, I didn’t like his answer. Honestly, it sounded like treason against the game. I mean, I always believed that the harder I worked at baseball, the better my chances were. That analyzing every single sign and wonder out of the game was what you were supposed to do. I beat it like a dead horse, and then beat some more.
I also believed that if kept my life simple, with baseball at its center, I would be doing right by the “baseball gods”. Push out the complications in favor of the value system of the game. Justify my life through the production of career numbers.
In short, I believed that my blinding obsession was a good thing. That it showed passion and commitment. That it was healthy to be sold out to the sport because if I made it pro, it would repay me for my sacrifices.
Oh sure, I’m happy that I made it into the professional ranks— that was what I wanted after all. I’m also tickled that I got to play in the Bigs Leagues. Don’t mistake me, it was a great accomplishment. But (and there is a but) looking back, I honestly think I could have made those things happen with a lot less drama and unhealthy fixation. In fact, I might have made them happen faster. If only I could havet rusted myself to Let. It. Go.
Obviously a player has to be committed to his craft. He will have to sacrifice and endure for it at various points throughout his career. However, baseball is also a game of handling events outside of your control. This means, whether we like it or not, all we can do or best, then resign ourselves to what comes when it’s no longer turn hold the ball. In a way, preparing for results outside our control is just as important, if not more so, than preparing for the moments inside our control.
But how can you prepare for bad results, or anything you have no control over for that matter? Living in the real world is a good start, since real life—not some baseball fantasy land— seems to dole out steady twists and turns.
When we place a huge amount of stock into something, see it as central to our life and worth, when it crumbles, so do we. Behaving obsessively over something like baseball, a game built on failure, is just asking to have our foundations shattered at least 7 out of 10 times as a hitter, and who knows how many times as a pitcher.
At some point in a players pro career, we start to use the words, “I decided not to care anymore.” Players who’ve spoken this know exactly what the phrase means. It does not mean they literally don’t care about the game they’ve toiled in their whole life. What they’re actually saying is, “I decided to stop obsessing about the outcomes. I decided to let what was going to happen, happen, and deal with it.”
After they confess this, almost 100% of them add some form of the following: “Because the way I figure it is, it’s just a game, If I get released I can always go home and do X, Y, Z. I can’t let this game control how I feel all the time. It’s not fun.
Really? It’s just a game, and*gasp* it can be unfun? Back when you were trying to get into the pro ranks, it was more than a game. It was a life validator. A reason for existence. A divine purpose. Now, it’s just a game?
It sure is. And those players who say otherwise, typically they are the ones that have no X, Y, Z, to go home to. They only have baseball.
Did you know Cat Fish Hunter used say that if worst came to worst, if got released, he’d just go home and go fly-fishing again? He loved fly-fishing. In fact, he said it was this philosophy of loving something more than baseball that helped him pitch so well throughout his career. That’s perspective.
Happiness found in places other than baseball is not cheating on baseball. In fact, it’s actually doing baseball a great service. It’s telling it (and yourself) that the game is just that: a game. Treat it like one. Prepare for it, commit to it when it’s your turn to play, and let it go when it’s over. Do not take the results out of context, or you might take your whole life out of context with it.
And diversify. Because knowing that there are other things out there besides baseball makes it much easier for you to get to the point where you can let go of baseball results and your perception that they are life giving, or ending.
Who knows, in doing this you might actually be a better player. But you will most certainly become a better person.