Head for Home

The New York Times
August 1, 2014
by Doug Glanville

It is one of the fundamental rules of baseball. To score, a runner must step on home. When a hitter leaves the batter’s box after making contact, he knows exactly where he is going. He runs with certainty, guided by the white lines and the white bases, circling in the hope that he will arrive safely at the same place from where he departed. Runners operate on instinct: They must get home. And the efficiency with which they round those bases, often with the help of others, is a matter of winning or losing.

As Derek Jeter’s career races toward home, baseball — as always — is planning for its future. The trade deadline has just passed and the anxiety that permeated every major league clubhouse has finally subsided. The relief comes because most players no longer have to wonder whether that relocation service will come knocking on their door — one that cares little about history and about what you may have built in the town where you currently play. These moves may be made to bolster one team or maybe save money for another, but either way it’s rarely with the player’s consent.

There are exceptions: players who have a true say over where they end up. In baseball, if you’ve spent 10 years in the league and 5 years with one team (or had the leverage to negotiate “no trade” language in your contract), you have the right to veto any trade and also decide which trades would be acceptable. Jimmy Rollins, who plays for one of my former teams, the Philadelphia Phillies, has such power.

Jeter has long had such power. Given that he has worn Yankees pinstripes for nearly two decades, he has been able to make his ballpark address permanent. He began as a Yankee and will retire as a Yankee. Rollins now has the opportunity to do the same with the Phillies, because even though the team has struggled this season and had to consider trading tenured players (like Rollins), he found no reason to waive his no-trade clause and close his Philadelphia chapter. (Though the situation might well arise again for him, unless and until he signs a contract that takes him to the end of his career.)

Rollins, like so many players who have been with one organization for their entire careers, respects loyalty. In Philadelphia, he has been an All-Star, a champion and the winner of a Most Valuable Player award. He is the all-time Phillies hits leader, and no doubt there will be speculation about the Hall of Fame. So there were compelling reasons to stay. Yet in the course of one’s baseball life — or maybe just life itself — priorities can change, and then loyalty seems to develop loopholes.

When an everyday player stays in one city for most of his career and then elects to go, that is seen as a form of treason. It is much easier to leave when you are riding the bench or when you have just arrived, like a free agent who has little history and is passing through to win or move on. And it’s even more nuanced than that. The Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux both spent years with the Atlanta Braves — 16 (plus three in the minors) and 11, respectively. Glavine eventually left for the Mets, Maddux for the Chicago Cubs. But here’s the difference: Maddux had begun his career with the Cubs, whereas Glavine had always been a Brave — and consequently took a lot more heat from Atlanta fans for leaving (going to a rival like New York didn’t help, either). Even after he later came back.

I spoke with Jimmy Rollins before a game last week, before he’d made his decision, and he said that it was so hard to see what the future held because to perform at this game, you have to be “in the mud,” obsessed with the task at hand. Perspective is neutralized, stunted so that you can capture only the most relevant, time-sensitive data that will determine how to approach your opponent that day. Then you look up and realize your 20-year career has been a collection of days where you couldn’t see tomorrow.

This, if you’re in Jimmy’s shoes and considering trade options, creates the feeling of an either-or situation: My decision about my baseball future says I am either a fierce loyalist or a traitor. I am either an opportunist looking to “win now” or I am complacent for remaining in a sinking boat. I am either putting family first or putting family last. Because any player who can choose whether to stay or leave wonders how he will be remembered, partly as a result of that choice. But that’s a fruitless exercise, because you can never know in advance. The harsh reality is that you may never get that clean answer to the question about your legacy, because remembrance depends on the beholder.

Jimmy does not have the luxury of standing where I stand now — 10 years post-career, with three young kids, a wife, a day job, time to have discovered what is going on outside that mud. And from this perspective, I’ve found that the day-to-day obsession with the quantitative and pattern-based analysis that a player must sift through does not, ultimately, have anything to do with what people will most remember about your time in this game. Sure, your on-base percentage, your salary, your batting average in the playoffs and the number of rings are important, but my most intimate conversations about my contribution to people’s lives were not couched in numbers.

I was happy to find out that fans remembered moments: a talk in the parking lot, signing an autograph at 3 a.m. in a hotel lobby after our plane had been delayed, how you made them feel when you made a diving play that defied expectation. No one knew my batting average against left-handed pitchers in 1998 when I hit a triple that helped win Game 3 of the 2003 National League Championship Series for the Cubs. But they remembered how they felt when I hit that triple.

A vast majority of the fan mail I received spoke of how a person felt because he or she shared my experience, much of which was direct and intimate, not distant and quantitative. It spoke to what the late Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Even from my own perspective as a fan, I remember when the catcher from my favorite team, Bob Boone, signed his photo card and sent it back to me when I was 11 years old. I remember talking to Tommy Lasorda in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel in 1982, and how he knew all about my brother’s college. I remember being a teenager and getting my driver’s license and heading to Philadelphia to see my first game at Veterans Stadium. I remember watching the White Sox great Harold Baines hit against the Yankees and feeling like no one could get him out. I don’t remember his batting average that day. But in all these cases, I still remember how I felt.

If a player has the gift of playing a long time, he will face the choice of defining what home is for him — the place that captures the heart and soul of his relationship with the game and the community in which he played. There will be no white line to follow. No base paths to frame the realm of good decisions. Even a chronograph does not help, for measuring time spent in one place does not equate to being home in a game that has no clock. And should you find a way to define it, you may not know exactly how to get there, especially when you have to first extract yourself from a daily reality that thrives on your myopia.

Jimmy Rollins chose a future that suggests that in life, home is truly where the heart is, and that even if you come up short sometimes along the way — there are times you never get out of the batter’s box — people will still remember the magic you made, and how it made them feel. And no matter where you are, the people you touched along the way will touch you, and always make you feel at home.

Republished from NYTimes.com


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