The Long Walk Home


November 9, 2012

by Doug Glanville

The ticker tape has been swept up and the champagne has long since been poured, but the San Francisco Giants still reign as the new baseball champions. World Series wins last a lifetime. In a sport obsessed with history, no one forgets. As a fan, I still remember my favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies, winning their 1980 title, even though 32 years have passed.

I did not get such a taste as a player, but I imagine that feeling stays with you forever. I also know that these players are competitors and that, very soon, they have to start thinking about next year.

Some of this has to do with the rules that govern the game. There are filing deadlines for free agency, for example, and organizations have to make decisions on whom to bring back relatively quickly — even if they are still feeling the rapture of victory.
The season may officially be over, but the game still has a freshness to it. Soon we’ll know who is the M.V.P., the Cy Young winner, the Rookie of the Year. Until these awards are handed out and debated, we are still in season.

Before their bags are truly unpacked, players begin to execute long-awaited vacation plans, maybe watch a couple of N.F.L. games, attend a daughter’s recital, or rush to start a workout program tailored to rehabilitate that surgically repaired shoulder.

Players also understand that it’s all part of a long walk home. It is not as simple as, “Honey, I’m home.” They have baggage beyond suitcases, and they carry the uncertainty of life without the game. At the door, they find the coat rack and hang the Superman cape of major league euphoria on a hook. Later they’ll hear the baby monitor blaring in the middle of the night, maybe, or the echo of a turning lock in a cavernous bachelor pad. Of course, many are welcomed home, but home is not a guaranteed source of comfort, given the high divorce rate in professional sports. In some reports, the number exceeds three out of four marriages.

And it’s not just about active players. The Yankee manager, Joe Girardi, is home for the first time without being able to make plans to visit his father, who died last month. This was my reality in 2002, when I completed a “championship season” (only without the championship) with the Phillies, and my welcome home was making funeral arrangements for my father.

In the den of the hypercompetitive, there is no rest. There are rosters full of hares, racing the same race, trying to win, knowing that, on paper, there are few people in the world who can run as fast as they can. But overconfidence is a recipe for being surpassed — just like as tortoise will do — when you kick back and stare at that World Series ring too long.

Players are programmed to never be complacent, especially those who keep going, even after surgeries and M.V.P. trophies, World Series wins and 3,000 hits. Derek Jeter, with five World Series rings, keeps coming back, knowing that even a ring cannot match the feeling of getting in that batter’s box again. Because behind the résumé bullet points, players still simply love the game.

And those who have not experienced the rare feat of “winning it all” try to figure out what went wrong, try to re-group and re-load. The game is built for improvement, from its relentless metric systems to its daily feedback for your efforts. So you automatically think about what you need to do to get better for the coming season. Take less money but go to team that can win? Go someplace where you can play more? If you’re returning to the same team, make sure you’re ready to beat out that young up-and-coming player. Now is the time to deal with this, because during the season there’s little chance for reflection until it’s over — adjustments are made at a frenetic pace.

But despite that pace, in a way, the baseball season puts a player into a kind of stasis. Living in the blur of its kinetic energy, you get the idea that everything else is standing still, when it isn’t. You can only hope that the eggnog ice cream is still in the same place in the freezer, and that your daughter still loves Dora the Explorer. So as players head home for the winter, they wonder. Wonder — during the flight home, along the drive across country, in the bump-free stretch on that silent train ride — if home life has moved along, changed so that you don’t fit anymore. That could be because of the geographic uncertainty of the profession, or the difficulty during the season of working on the fragile institution of marriage, or just the inherent possibility that your frequent absence has become the new normal.

In the end, when the game is on, players don’t have time to think about what may be changing at home. Professional athletic focus is too selfish, and the excitement of another job well done by the Giants or any other champion seems eternal. Yet home is not built that way. It thrives on certainty and consistency and an immunity to all things that shine but fade. We would like to believe that World Series titles are the exception, that the luster of what we deem a ticket to baseball immortality never wanes, but during that long walk home, you are never completely sure.

Republished from The New York Times.


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