A thoroughly hypothetical work, with apologies to Mr. Zito for the undoubted inaccuracies. I freely admit to being one of the many doubters mentioned a couple times in this piece, and to that, I can only say “Way to shut me the hell up.”
So you’re a big-league baseball player – already an achievement, at any level. You’re one of the elite, one of the best few hundred people on the planet at doing what you do. And then to be a starting pitcher? That’s practically mythological. The few, the proud, standing on center stage, every move dissected. In the parlance of baseball, you win and lose the game.
And as it turns out, even among the best of the best, you are on another level. You’re part of one of the game’s great rotations, contending year in and year out, and in one glorious year, you are awarded the title of Best Pitcher In Your League. Hundreds of people pitched thousands of baseball games that year. According to the professionals of the sport, you were better than any of them; maybe just as good as one other guy. What a rush that must be for you. What a mountain you’ve climbed. And of course, that comes with other rewards.
Like money. Five years after that spectacular season, you walk away from the team where you’ve spent your professional career, because the much-vaunted organization across the pay is offering you, well, huge piles of money. More money than the vast majority of the human race will ever see in their lifetimes, and they’re giving it to you to do what you love. How lucky must you consider yourself? How good can things get?
How good can they stay?
Because after you’ve climbed that mountain, after you’ve seen the summit, at some point you become aware just how very much space there is below it. And you can’t sit at the peak forever. There are a hundred different reasons – your aging body, your changed location, the pressure of your contract, the inevitable regression of your results to what your peripherals say they should be…whatever the reasons, things don’t start out well in your new home. And they don’t get much better.
Sure, you have your moments. You’re one of the best baseball players in the world, after all, and there are times when the old magic is there, when the ball dances out of your fingers like a yo-yo on a string and men who mash home runs for a living flail and boggle like little leaguers. But you’re not being paid for a moments; or at least, you’re being paid for more of them.
That’s the conundrum, isn’t it? Nobody gets this far in baseball (or in anything) without loving it, and like any love, it hurts when it fails. What must go through your mind over those years, after every fat pitch, every bases-loaded walk, every quick hook? Does the money and the laundry list of achievements comfort you? Or does it sting even more, knowing what’s expected and demanded of you and not being able to measure up?
It must sting, the year that your team does the unbelievable, assembles the band of “castoffs and misfits” that will soon pass into history and legend as they win it all, and you’re on the bench for that whole magical playoff run. The $126 million cheerleader, the overpriced failure, the weak link in a tremendous rotation, the man who took the ball and couldn’t get it done. It doesn’t matter that you’re still a thousand times the athlete of anyone calling into talk shows or typing up vituperative blog entries; you’ve set your own standard with that climb to the top of the mountain, and now the peak is so far away.
But you press on. Maybe it’s for the money. Maybe it’s for the union. Maybe it’s for the fame. And maybe – more than the others – it’s because you love doing this, and you don’t want to stop until you absolutely must. And so it is, in the course of events, that you are taking the mound for that same team that has seen so much frustration and failure, on what could be the last day of another magical run. The great rotation has fallen apart – one man gone (and replaced by a fellow whose story is even more absurd than yours), another’s genius inexplicably vanished, and two tired and battered after years of carrying this team on their backs. Tonight, only you remain.
How much do you think about what’s going on around you? Do you wonder what the fans are saying? Do you wonder what the staff is discussing behind closed doors? Do you turn on your TV and watch talking heads dissect and demean everything you’ve achieved in your life? Or are you simply shutting it all out, taking the game for what it is – just another day at the office?
It’s just a game, some people say, and they’re not wrong. But to you, it’s your livelihood, and more. It’s the world you live in, a world with its own rules and its own citizens. The pressure, the tension, the enormous weight of expectation and failure; it’s all a creation of this strange artificial environment, but now that it’s been created, it’s as real as anything. And it’s all on you, that Friday night at the end of a long and tangled road.
I like to think that you felt it, maybe just a little; felt that the fans were rallying behind you. For as many different reasons as your magic slipped away, they were hoping for it to come back. They might not have expected greatness, but they wanted it; oh, how they wanted it. But all that hoping and praying and imagining, well, I doubt any of it could compare to what you must have wanted for yourself, when you picked up the ball for the first time tonight, looked up at that far-away mountain, and started to show the world what it was like to breathe the air at the top of the world.