In Baseball, Fear Bats at the Top of the Order

The New York Times

By Doug Glanville

He will always be a rookie to me, but Jimmy Rollins, the reigning National League most valuable player, once gave me a poignant piece of wisdom that typically would flow from mentor to mentee, not the other way around. “Do it afraid,” was his advice — and it’s a lesson Major League Baseball had best learn if it is to put the age of steroids behind it.

A healthy amount of fear can lead to great results, to people pushing themselves to the brink of their capabilities. I can recall an opening day when I was a Chicago Cub getting set to face the Florida Marlins and hearing Mark Grace explain to the young players how he still got butterflies even after all his years in the majors.

Yes, baseball players are afraid. Not just on opening day and not just because of the 400-page Mitchell report and not just because of a Congressional hearing on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball — like the one that took place Tuesday — but because they always have been afraid. A player’s career is always a blink in a stare. I retired at the ripe old age of 34 following a season of sunflower seeds and only 162 at-bats. I had been a starter the year before. In this game, change happens fast.

Human nature wants to put the brakes on that rate of change. While your clock is ticking, faster, stronger and younger players are setting up their lockers next to yours. They usually have better sound bites and lower salaries, too. In 1998, I was the new kid in Philadelphia, battling Lenny Dysktra for the center field job. Five years later, I was mentoring another new kid, Marlon Byrd, so he could replace me. Faced with that rate of career atrophy, players are capable of rash, self-serving and often irresponsible decisions. Enter steroids.

There is a tipping point in a player’s career where he goes from chasing the dream to running from a nightmare. At that point, ambition is replaced with anxiety, passion is replaced with survival. It is a downhill run and it spares no one.

For me, it started with a pop in 2003, while I was running out a routine ground ball in Texas. A torn tendon, two months of rehab, a Triple-A stint and 30 days of playing with a limp left me spending more time getting ready for the game than actually playing, and that changed my priorities, forever.

It was my first trip to the disabled list. I realized I couldn’t just roll out of bed and play anymore. All of a sudden, I felt old. It was the moment when a player is faced with the choice between aging naturally or aging artificially. I chose door number one, and two years later it was Triple-A or bust. Those who chose door number two ... well, you know the rest.

To explain the ice water in his veins, Michael Jordan once declared, “fear is an illusion.” But I think fear is real and every bit as much a part of baseball as popcorn and peanuts. I remember learning on my first trip to Dodger Stadium that “no one wants to strike out here because it is a long walk to the dugout.”

The newest round of Congressional hearings danced around Miguel Tejada, the remorse of baseball leadership and a lot of could haves, should haves, and might haves. Moving forward, we must openly address not only the drug issues plaguing the sports we love, but the culture of fear that shakes our society.

We’re scared of failure, aging, vulnerability, leaving too soon, being passed up — and in the quest to conquer these fears, we are inspired by those who do whatever it takes to rise above and beat these odds. We call it “drive” or “ambition,” but when doing “whatever it takes” leads us down the wrong road, it can erode our humanity. The game ends up playing us.

So let the rookie teach us all something important. Just do it, but do it ... afraid.


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