I talked with Jeff Niemann after the game yesterday, before the media scrum jumped on him to ask him what his physical malfunction was out on the field. It was a strange encounter. I knew he was ready to address the media, and when a player gets ready to talk to the media he puts his guard up because loose words and feelings don’t always translate the way they are supposed to when the media distills them into their 750 character post game reports. But I was a former player and teammate. For me, the walls dropped ever so slightly.
He looked distraught. Not broken, but weighted like a man trying to hide a deeper disappointment, the sudden knowledge he’d had a setback and the shock of all it entailed for his future. He was frustrated at knowing he’d reached the light at the end of the injury tunnel only to turn right back around and head into the darkness again. I didn’t blame him at al. Injury sucks.
There was nothing to be ashamed off concerning his outing. He’d pitched well and held his own and showed all the signs of returning to the pitcher he was before Adam Lind lined a ball of his leg. But his shoulders were heavy with visions of more hours in the training room and riding the benches. Doctor visits and MRI possibilities. The heft of general uselessness that comes with not being able to help the team in the month they could most use him.
This feeling of not being able to do the thing you’ve trained to do effects all of us, professional athlete or not, but every time I see it in the eyes of a professional athlete I also see that slight hint of fear behind it. That realization that, “I am mortal. This is game will end for me someday. Then where will my sense of self come from? Will I always feel like this when the game is over?”
I talked with JP Howell pre-game. When we played together in Durham, he was coming back from injury as well. In fact, we’d crossed paths in the Andrews Clinic at one point in 2010, me a Jay recovering from shoulder surgery, he a Ray recovering from the same though much more severe. He was relentlessly positive, such is his nature, but when I bumped into him pre-game he said that wasn’t always the case. That most of the time he was hurt he was wrestling with what it would mean for him if his career had died on the operating table and he just hadn’t accepted it yet. He said, “I was starting to think about going back to school, and what degree to get.” Even more so after his initial struggles finding his big league stride again.
Life after baseball is not something most players think of when things are going well. Usually they push it as far from their minds as possible because to survive in the Bigs one most give everything they have to it, mind, body, and soul. That is why the thought of it scares so many. It comes spilling into the psyche on the heals of physical failure. It is the creeping, looming doubt that chases all players. It blindsides us. At first we think of the money we’ve made and how it is supposed to shelter us from these feelings. But then we realize money does not replace a sense of purpose. Money does not shield us from life’s hardships. It does not defeat doubt or fear or the hallow sense of uselessness when we no longer fit in to the grand design we have for our life.
Injury can ruin players, or it can empower them. The greatest thing about a baseball is also one of its worst side effects. That is, as long as you are having success on the field, you don’t have to face yourself. Many players who’ve known nothing but success have never had to question themselves as their entire life has been built around the concept that success justifies everything. Injury destroys that thinking. I respect players who’ve come through injury because they are, in general, more balanced as people. The truth is, we are all mortal, this game will end for all of us, and there will be life after baseball. What kind of life that is is up too the depth and willingness of the man living it.