The Forgotten

The New York Times

August 12, 2009

By Doug Glanville

On paper, I was ready for my ride into the sunset. I had a nice Ivy League engineering degree, a ...

There are no institutional services to help baseball players move on to that next life. (A few, like the retired pitcher Jim Poole, have tried valiantly to create some.) You get the pat on the back, the thanks for the memories and the “you are going to be fine because you have money” platitudes while the door closes behind you. I don’t expect tears of sympathy — there are many causes more worthy of attention than the plight of millionaire athletes. (Then again, the majority of professional baseball players never leave the minor league ranks and never make even close to six figures a year.)

After I read the profound observations of Eddie George in a CNN article about the tragic fall of his former N.F.L. teammate, the quarterback Steve McNair, the universal pain of transitioning athletes crystallized for me. I had been talking to my own former teammates about life after the game and its challenges. Every one of them had struggled in one way or another. No matter how your career ends, once it does, it feels like the rocket you rode to the top has been abruptly stopped by an errant asteroid. Many of my former teammates and opponents were shaken to their core by McNair’s death; it hit home for every one of them. There’s nothing to fill that void of competing every single day at the highest level.

According to George, McNair was lost, floating around trying to define himself without the pads, seeking solace in relationships outside his marriage. George remarked, “What people fail to realize is that when you make a transition away from the game — emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually — you go through something. You change, and you’re constantly searching for something.” Who will understand that a transitioning athlete needs help? There are few soft landings when you’ve been flying high.

Failed marriages are a huge part of the sports culture. I have heard some astonishing statistics. In 2007, an organization called the Professional Sports Wives Association reported that “a staggering 80 percent of pro athletes are divorced and are a quarter of a million dollars in debt after they retire.” I certainly know many teammates, coaches and opponents who have gotten divorced at some point. And divorce frequently occurs right after a player retires.

You return home, and there isn’t a ticker tape parade for the homecoming king since in some ways you’re a stranger to your own family — you need to learn how to be consistently present. And how do you accomplish that while dealing with the trauma of missing the only way you’ve ever made a living, or the depression of feeling forgotten?

Shortly before I left the game, in 2005, I invested in a real estate development company. (Ask any ballplayer in transition; odds are they have at least “dabbled in real estate.” It is the fashionable investment of choice. It is also tangible and real, as you’re able to slap your name on a development sign and have the world know you’ve accomplished something.) My methodical nature told me I should get my M.B.A. and then work for a production builder, learning the business and working my way up the ladder, while plotting my own projects on the side (I was interested in the development side of building baseball stadiums). Instead, I jumped in feet first, providing both my capital and my time to someone who was almost a total stranger.

Now, I had been pitched before by a million other people, from video gaming companies to health clubs to non-profits. But this person caught me at a time when I needed something. My father had passed away, my career was declining and I realized that I had to find a way to redirect all my competitive energy.

The venture collapsed amid inept systems and the more general collapse of the markets. My options were limited. To preserve my investment (and those of others), I became a bailout package: I formed my own company along with a childhood friend, and took over the projects without having any idea how to run that kind of business. It didn’t help that my career had ended dubiously with a release from the Yankees in spring training. In some ways, that propelled me further into my blind home building foray; it would have been hard for me to stomach ending my career with a rejection and then follow that by having a business implode six months later. So, newly married, I had to make this work somehow, even though the red flags were everywhere.

I ended up learning more about corporate law than I ever wanted to know, while navigating a complete morass of misinformation and broken business plans. Not very easy when your name is a familiar one and it isn’t difficult to imagine the headline of your own financial demise. I misinterpreted the emotions that arose from responding to constant crisis as the thrill of competition. My partner and I had to complete a fleet of single-family homes while learning the building codes, finding subcontractors, calming investors and dealing with the burden of escalating carrying costs — all on the fly. Worse yet, we were just picking up the pieces of someone else’s inability to deliver.

If you were fortunate enough to have had a nice run in the big leagues, you probably made a lot of money and often heard that you were “set for life.” And, if you took the time to learn the nuances of the stock market, surrounded yourself with a trusted team of investment brokers, accountants and financial planners, and avoided taking ridiculous risks with your money, you would probably be in great shape for decades to come. But who teaches classes on these topics without their own agenda front and center? And which players are actually listening? I had a father who challenged me to write the price of Oppenheimer’s stock daily in a notebook well before I was in junior high school, so by the time I was drafted, I knew about mutual funds, bonds, even options. It was a good base, but I would say that experience is rare (and it didn’t protect me from my transitioning nightmare).

Managing finances is just part of the problem. An even bigger issue is what to do with your time. The pleasure of a hammock at age 35 only lasts so long for someone who likes to be engaged. Like most players, I had been on the go for decades. I only had one gear, and when I retired I discovered that it had nothing to do with the beach and a glass of iced tea.
On top of that, most players are not set up for “real life” at all. Having been nearly invisible for a decade between every March and October, you have no idea how to be an ever-present father or a spouse, no idea how to create a resume or handle a job interview, no idea what is required to run a business or even what to do in the summer — a season with a suddenly inordinate amount of time. Plus, because you can no longer perform athletically, you’re probably fighting a strange emptiness that you can’t talk to just anyone about; with a million dollars at your disposal, complaining could be seen as insensitive.

Because you probably played for several teams, there’s no single organization around that knows you that well. Your agent says hello — once in a while. The union is busy dealing with current issues, institutions surrounding retired players are more focused on promotions or destitute players — great causes, but they wholly miss the sweet spot of the typical baseball player after his career is over. Meanwhile, the game goes on, with younger, more marketable faces filling your slot. The mix-and-stir friends have disappeared and no one can tell you what to do to help you get back into society. As Steve McNair’s story showed, that isolation can even turn fatal.

I hope more is done by the organizations that surround a player during his career — the league, the players association, the alumni association — to help athletes transition into a new life. As I‘ve spoken with former teammates and opponents, many have described themselves as feeling disowned and ignored, scrambling to find some direction and support. Their disillusionment is powerful enough to make it hard to get off that couch and take on the new day.

Where did all my friends go?

I was able to get back on my feet and find a new life in writing — a real passion — through trial and error and with the support of my family. My degree also gave me some options that most players do not have. And after years of navigating the real estate market, there is even light at the end of the tunnel for my homebuilding business. My partner and I survived and built a few solid homes (Craftsman style is my favorite) after taking our lumps, which is a source of pride for me.

But the more typical story is one of ongoing distress, and that seems so unnecessary given the resources a player can amass during a successful career.
It would seem that it is in everyone’s best interest to do a better job of supporting these players after their careers. They still have a place in the memories of a generation of fans and can be powerful mentoring influences. In many ways, it is an untapped resource, one that could be wonderful for a community. But first the players need to find a new home within themselves, and that will take a little help.

New York Times 08/12/2009


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