Badge of Honor

The New York Times

January 12, 2009

By Doug Glanville


Every holiday season, after getting our fill of egg nog, my family and I enjoy a tradition of watching one of our favorite movies: “A Few Good Men,” starring Jack Nicholson, Kevin Bacon, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore. Its most famous line is Col. Jessup’s “You can’t handle the truth!” But the one that always sticks with me is Lt. Kaffee’s parting words to one of the defendants, Lance Cpl. Harold Dawson: “You don’t need a patch on your arm to have honor.”

In the world of baseball a player’s uniform carries with it a history and a commitment. Putting it on calls upon the honor of baseball’s past, as if within its fabric is the spirit of everyone who has contributed to the team’s cause. The longer you wear it, the harder it is to stop wearing it. It is as if it seeps into your soul.

One of my favorite mentors in baseball was Shawon Dunston (a Brooklyn native, by the way). A shortstop who was known in high school for his rocket arm and his .700 batting average, Shawon played at the major league level for 18 years. And he often repeated to me this one indispensable piece of advice: “Never give the uniform back. Let them rip it off of your body.” Once you give it back, he insisted, it will never be the same, and neither will you.

All of us, no matter what dream we pursue, hope for a storybook walk into the sunset, where we end our journey on our own terms. Imagine, for instance, what that might mean for a ballplayer: the magic of winning a World Series in your final season and heading home to a ticker-tape parade.

But for most players, that is not the ending at all. You either have to turn in the sacred uniform after floundering at some point — as I found out first-hand from Joe Torre and Brian Cashman after getting my Yankee spring training pink slip — or the door seems to arbitrarily slam in your face, “past due” is stamped on your career and you reluctantly walk away. Either way, it rarely feels like it’s happening on your own terms.

Even the gift of longevity in professional sports brings a burden. Each year that you survive and earn the right to wear the uniform for another season, you find it harder to define yourself without it. It begins to feel that you are wearing the uniform 24 hours a day.

Our uniform is our patch on the arm, a badge that becomes our ticket to social acceptance, fame, financial security (maybe) and admission to an elite club of “success.” But it’s also a ticket into the theater of self-doubt. A doubt that turns most players into awkward Clark Kents without their Superman costumes. Or Col. Jessup in his “civvies.”

Because with that uniform comes the responsibility of representing cities, towns, family names, team legacies and even your own childhood hopes. And all that can confuse your sense of where the uniform ends and your real self begins.

I remember walking into the locker room at my first major league spring training and seeing my jersey hanging next to that of future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. I knew something had changed. It was no longer about promoting high school or college pride; I was about to wear baseball history on my sleeve, and that was not for the faint of heart. The moment I put on that uniform, I was Doug Glanville the Ballplayer. That became the quickest and most direct way to describe who I was and who everyone would want to be if they were in my shoes.

For the most part, players embrace being “the ballplayer.” This label allows you to be what you always dreamed of being. The wait is over — you get V.I.P. treatment. You can even stop working on the side of you that isn’t a ballplayer, just as long as you are wearing that uniform — and that can be addictive. You might resist becoming wholly defined as a ballplayer by laying claim to more than that — father, artist, neighbor — but such attempts are often hollow. After a while, it is just easier to accept it. After all, it’s a wonderful dream of many people that we are living — including our own.

I began playing baseball from the moment I could hold a ball. And when I finally took off the uniform, I had played 15 years in the pros. I had essentially played baseball my entire life. I was fortunate to be able to study engineering and do other things along the way, but I wore the uniform the whole time. I’m surprised I didn’t find pinstripes on my body when I jumped in the shower after I retired.

In the end, I had to find honor outside the game — or, more specifically, outside the uniform — and I had to find it in areas where I’d had little exposure. I had to learn how to get access to opportunities without the sex appeal of being a “current player,” without great tickets to offer, without hot information about the workings of the locker room, without the ability to invite someone into the inner circle of the famous. I could no longer just flash my “badge” and watch the rest unfold automatically.

It takes a lot of introspection to avoid this Superman effect, of feeling heroic and powerful in uniform and ungainly and lost outside of it. Often it is more comfortable to just keep finding ways to wear the uniform, by playing for as long as your body, mind and soul will allow, or by remaining close to the game (and in uniform) as a coach or manager. Players all share a love for the game, so why not stay on for as long as possible?

Eventually, many players find honor outside of the uniform — even as their game-winning hits and diving catches on ESPN fade to memories. But it takes a lot of work. I had to fight for it and to trust it. I had to understand that the things that made me excel in a professional baseball uniform could help me in other environments, too. But it takes time to truly understand that while there is a history and a legacy behind every baseball uniform, each player who wears it adds something to that history — something that was there inside them long before they ever put on a uniform. And that this same “something” can be found again when the uniform is put away.

So I carry on, as many do, without the pinstripes or the M.L.B. logo on my hat. Lt. Kaffee was on point: you don’t have to wear a patch on your arm to have honor. But I don’t think he really understood how hard it could be, or how long it might take, to really feel it to your core. If ever.


Motivational Speaker

Click here to learn more about having Doug speak at your next event!




The Daddy Games

Check out Doug's blog, The Daddy Games.  Click here to read more.