”Hey, you could have a real job,” Alan Regier suggested from his pitcher’s mound pulpit. I sat in the crowd of minor leaguers at my first spring training with the Chicago White Sox. Regier’s lesson sounded hollow when I thought back to thirty games in thirty days in the previous season. By the end of last season I had lost fifteen pounds, played through a pulled quadriceps muscle and suffered typical bumps and bruises on a daily basis. I’m not talking about thirty show and go’s, or batting practice at 5 pm game at 7 pm. I had the dubious honor of playing with true rookies. This meant report at 11:30 am, extra hitting at 12:30, weights at 1:30, orientation and stretch at 3, team defense at 3:45, batting practice at 4:30, find time for dinner at 5:30, starters stretch at 6:30 and play at 7. Rinse and repeat for sixty-eight games in seventy-five days. Most of us did this in pursuit of a once in a lifetime dream and a slim chance of success. But, make no mistake; I earned every cent of that $1,050 dollar a month salary. I sat underneath a scorching Arizona sun at 6:30 in the morning and dismissed his pedantic words of wisdom.
Ozzie Guillen popped out from behind a fence when Regier finished and offered his words of encouragement. The energy he showed was infectious. He bounced around to illustrate every concept he wanted to express. There wasn’t anything lost with Guillen. He was going to drill home the basic baseball mantra; play hard, respect the game, respect the organization and never put your pants underneath your cleats. His passion fueled a dimming flame in me to play baseball. I was reminded that it was a gift to be here and they could find a thousand guys working in cube farms that would mortgage their future for the opportunity in front of us. Even still, it felt like work.
Two weeks later I was on a plane heading back to New Jersey.
As spring training report dates roll out and the players migrate to Florida and Arizona for a month I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have been there. After I decided to end my baseball career I searched for a “real job”. It took me three years to land my second career as a teacher. The entire process was more emotionally grueling than any practice or game. And since being hired I have learned what it means to have a “job” and go to “work”.
For many of the athletes I met on my journey to professional baseball the skills came easy. At each level, from college to summer leagues and then professionally the weaker athletes washed out. At the top rung of this ladder are the athletic phenoms. I met the eighteen year old slugger who deposits balls in the upper deck during batting practice, the million dollar arm with a two cent head, the first round pick from LSU and the twenty-nine year old career minor leaguer. Even though I was a thirty-sixth round draft pick, we could all share the experience of being exceptional. We were exceptional.
In college I often wondered what it was like to be a regular student. My teammates and I never knew what it was like to have two or three classes for the day, hammer out some homework and then have complete freedom in front of us. I had to plan a gym session in-between class and prepare myself for a six hour practice later that night. I complained about it then, but I would sell my soul for another shot.
The reality that we came to was that we were different from most people. The kind of person it takes to be a collegiate or professional athlete is different from your average Joe. We practice, tweak and train. We scrutinize each part of the game ad nauseam. If you ever find yourself at a social gathering with guys who played college ball against or with each other they’ll break down a 2-1 change-up to the six hitter in the fifth inning of a three-run ball game. It seems insignificant, but to those guys it could have been the turning point in a season.
All of this cathartic drivel I’ve just given you is the sum of what I once was. I used to be exceptional, but now I’m just a regular guy. And that has been the hardest lesson for me to learn, and most importantly accept. I’m not used to accepting mediocrity. I assess, revise, train, practice and improve. For me, accepting mediocrity is the equivalent of accepting failure.
When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl the media storyline was Russell Wilson’s “Why not us?” speech. I used to believe that and in some ways I still do. But living inside the mundane teacup twirl of life is humbling. So, to my friends who are still playing, cherish every at bat and soak up every moment sitting in the dugout. Alan Regier was right; you could have a real job. Your exceptionality will run out and probably sooner than you’re ready to admit. Only the exceptions to the exceptional get to choose when it’s over. Most of us are told when the magic well has dried up.
Bronson Arroyo agreed to terms with the Arizona Diamondbacks on a two year, $23.5 million deal yesterday. The agreement includes a club option for a third year.