It is an irrefutable fact that at some point in every athlete’s life, he or she will be forced to admit that his or her playing days are over. While some athletes may choose walk away at their physical peak, most are driven out of their respected sports either by illness, injury, or age.
Lou Gehrig announced his retirement when the effects of ALS made it impossible to continue playing baseball, the game he loved and excelled at. I vividly remember watching O.J. Simpson hobble pitifully on the San Francisco 49ers sideline after his knees could no longer withstand the trauma visited upon an NFL running back. Even Gordie Howe, “Mr. Hockey” himself, had to hang up his skates for good at age 52.
These and many other legends of sport, when faced with the inevitable end of their careers, opt to formally announce to the world their decision to retire. It is with that in mind, that effective immediately, I am sad to say that I am officially retiring from all ball and stick sports.
My career in organized baseball and softball began nearly four decades ago in LaPlata, Missouri, as a member of the C&R Market “Bombers” little league baseball team. As a seven year-old ballplayer, I was known for being three things: a poor fielder, a terrible hitter, and the only kid on the team to wet his pants during a game while standing on second base. (The inexplicable thing about that incident was not that I had urinated in my uniform, but that I had somehow gotten a hit and advanced to second base.)
In high school, I earned my varsity letter by pinch-hitting during a district playoff game, which was the only varsity appearance in my entire career. I went 1 for 1 at the plate and stole a base. After being kicked off the team prior to the start of the next season—my senior year—by our new head coach, (a breakup caused by irreconcilable differences), my career varsity stat line was frozen at a perfect 1.000 batting average and a 1.000 steals per attempt average. An unbreakable record.
After high school, I transitioned to a career as a light-hitting, poor-fielding, slow-pitch softball player. I played for several teams over the ensuing 26 years in church leagues, beer-drinking leagues, men’s leagues, and co-ed leagues. The only over-the-fence homerun I ever hit in my life occurred in a co-ed game about twelve years ago. In excruciating pain from a collision on the basepaths while trying to beat out a slow grounder during the first game of a double header, I cranked a homer over the fence in left center in my first at bat of the second game. I limped triumphantly around the bases, barely able to hold back the tears of joy and pain. By the time my wife and I got home later that night, I could not walk without assistance. Later, while stretching out in bed, my kneecap, which apparently had been dislocated for several hours, popped back into place with a sickening “crack!”
Last Wednesday, I was asked by the skipper of a team known as the Black Widows to fill in for a player who could not make it to the game. I had been a founding member of the Widows almost two decades ago, back when we were all relatively healthy twenty-somethings beating up on teams full of bluehairs every week.
I was immediately struck by two obvious truths: The Widows were now the feeble bluehairs on the field, and any athletic ability I may have possessed at one time has completely vanished. We lost to a young, talented group of men by the ten-run rule, but we could have easily lost by forty or fifty runs. The level of skill displayed by each team was so unbalanced that during the entirety of the five-inning game, the Black Widows never attempted a single throw to first base. Think about that for a moment. It may be the only game in softball/baseball history that a team never threw the ball to first base in an attempt to record an out.
My individual effort was just as dismal. I managed to ground out feebly in both of my at-bats and make an error fielding a grounder at second base. After booting the play, the only play I was involved in whatsoever, I somehow ended up lying flat on my back in the outfield grass asking myself, “How did I get here?”
The answer that came to me on the drive home after the game was, “You are 45 years old and completely devoid of talent.” And so my friends, my fans, I have decided to step away from the game that I have loved since my boyhood. Though I did not get paid millions of dollars to play in front thousands of adoring fans, I will nevertheless lament the end of my playing days as much as any hall of famer. Thanks for the memories, baseball and softball, and for the wealth of material you have given me to sustain my second career as a writer.