Keeping It Real

The New York Times

September 13, 20009

By Doug Glanville

I played many years in Philadelphia, so I am paying close attention to the return of Michael Vick……

Locker room talk suggests that “keeping it real” is a noble effort. It is thought to show that sudden success is not going to change your stripes: you are that same coal miner’s son from West Virginia, and your $1 million signing bonus has had no impact on the company you keep. You still like to fish at the crack of dawn with a transistor radio blaring. You still like extra-hot sauce on your chicken-fried steak.

But is it real?

I have found that “realness” is relative. Something is real only when you feel it in your bones and, for the most part, only you really know its level of purity. Contrived realness isn’t real at all, and that soon becomes apparent.

For a baseball player, it is a long road to prominence. Even the best of the best stay mired in the minor leagues for at least a couple of years. To most of my friends and family, I got drafted by the Cubs and then disappeared into a minor league vortex. I made only $850 a month that first year, and despite the fact that there are probably 10 times as many minor leaguers getting paid to play as there are major leaguers, most people hear the word “pro” and think only of the majors. But I had a signed contract with the Cubs. And even though I was in Geneva, N.Y., and not Chicago, I was, legitimately, a pro.

But I was also a bonus baby. A first-round draft pick with a six-figure payoff for signing.

Today, six figures is out the window and seven figures is your new ID. But one issue doesn’t change: what happens to those relationships with friends and family from your past — your contemporaries who haven’t left the neighborhood or who are just getting going at their accounting firm or beginning their mechanic apprenticeship — while you’re pulling into the team parking lot at Yankee Stadium in your new Ferrari at the age of 25? Can we still be friends?

By the time I got my first pro contract I had already forged some of my closest and (still) longest-lasting friendships. In fact, two college friends had promised to be at my first major league game, no matter what, and when the time came and I called them at the crack of dawn hours before heading to the airport, they made arrangements to see me at Wrigley that same day. One came all the way from D.C.

Over time, I felt that my experience navigating social settings and relationships was strengthened by having taken the extra years to attend college, something that is shared by only a portion of major league players. If you’re drafted out of high school and then shot through the minor league system, you might not have had the chance to socialize beyond high school before becoming another Manny Ramirez. I played against Manny when he was 19, in the Carolina League (made famous by the movie “Bull Durham”), and he was already on his meteoric rise — a lot of responsibility for a young man.

College or not, it can feel safer to rely completely on old friendships, or blindly trust your handlers, than to invest in the possibility of new encounters. Everyone still has to work through the unprecedented amount of new friends that pop up on the scene once you’re established.

Most of my teammates who made money in a relatively short period of time struggled with this balancing act. There’s a lot of work involved in “making it.” As a result, you might not see those old friends often, changing your dynamic forever. On the other hand, once you’re a highly paid athlete you don’t want people to think you’ve let the money go to your head and become a snob.

Scott Rolen, my Philly teammate for many years, was the pride of Jasper, Indiana, and kept the friendships he had when he was growing up (he married his hometown sweetheart). I remember all the hurt teammates who didn’t get invited to his wedding, or even know about it until it happened. But he kept his circle tight as part of his survival; just because you were teammates didn’t mean you got a free pass inside.

Scott’s approach is something all players do at one time or another. Even friendships between teammates of many years can still be placed in that “new friend” category, not on par with the original core group that you know and trust. Sure, you spend an inordinate amount of time together during the season, but when that off-season bell rings, as the Cubs’ minor league head trainer Dick Cummings would say, “Now you can choose your own friends.”

I think of my old baseball teammates, people I spent every waking moment with for years, and realize that I barely speak to the vast majority of them now. Jimmy Rollins and I were close enough that he was invited to be in my wedding party just four years ago; when I saw him at a Cubs game in July, it was the first time I had spoken to him the entire 2009 season. We can pick up where we left off. But it seems like eventually there may be nothing to pick up with many of your teammates. Even someone invited to be in my wedding. It is just what happens.
It’s natural to want the world to know you haven’t changed, but the fact is that to endure and produce at a high level, you have to change, or at least adapt. Making that change a positive one may depend on whether you learn to handle your new surroundings and circumstances maturely. Maybe you tipped a few cows after a couple of brews in between junior year and senior year of high school, evading the authorities for a few days. But try the equivalent of that as, say, the starting shortstop of the first-place Dodgers, and that video you made is going to be looped through cyberspace. Same act, different reaction.

An example (albeit an extreme one) of the danger in “keeping it real” is the Michael Vick disaster — that’s what can happen when you stay stuck and don’t re-evaluate your relationships (including the one with yourself) over time. In effect, you are making the same decisions you would have made as a teenager, because you’re surrounded by the people who were there for you then. But it’s also true that some of those friends don’t necessarily want you to grow — not for any malicious reasons but because they’re afraid they’d lose you, and you are afraid of the same thing.

As my mom told me once, when she was quietly recommending that I move on from a relationship that was dead in the water, “You want the person to add to your life. In my relationship with your father, it was an exponential increase. So why would you accept subtraction?” Spoken like a true math teacher.

Keeping it real can be a good thing. It allows us to stay grounded, it reminds us of where we came from, who we are, it keeps us centered. Jobs come and go, money and fame can disappear, so changing everything to try to fit into something that’s fleeting will create problems for you. But when you keep it real just because it’s the easiest route, whether out of insecurity, peer pressure or maybe denial, you end up missing an opportunity to enrich your life with new experiences.

It doesn’t even have to be all or nothing: you can be grounded and fly. And part of that balance comes from understanding that doing the same things as a 28-year-old star first baseman that you did when you were 17 and reckless doesn’t mean you’re “grounded” — it means you’ve crashed, and don’t know it.

New York Times 09/13/2009


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