My feet guided me mindlessly in the familiar place. I rounded corners and explored with the ease one finds when returning to their childhood home. My jeans and light sweater shielded me from the slight morning chill—I’ve worn a similar outfit innumerable times as I walked the Arizona grounds during the early AM hours.
As I approached the spring training complex, I felt I should go inside. I wanted to see my old locker. I wanted to touch the old weights of my workouts. I wanted to lie on the training room tables that supported my stretching. Yet I couldn’t. They no longer belonged to me.
The playing field tempted me as a bank tempts a thief. I could imagine the grass’ morning dew scattering as my warmup interrupted it, splattering on my back. I could hear the conversation amongst a small group of ballplayers, a mixture of jokes and stories from the previous night. I could see others putting on sunscreen, a thin shield against the scorching sun. Yet I couldn’t join them.
A security guard in plainclothes stood at the entryway to the playing fields. The same man carefully watched the entrance to the building. His job: prevent outsiders from entering a world in which they are not welcome. It was the same man who stood watch throughout my playing years. At one time he acted like he knew me personally, giving a huge grin each time I approached him in baseball attire. Now, while wearing civilian clothes, I drew only sternness.
Instead of walking on the field or in the clubhouse as one of the players, I resigned myself to stand amongst a small group of fans—the outsiders. Coaches went by and said hello. Felipe Alou—always with his signature half-grin—inquired about my well-being. Others did the same. Players stepped out of their way and gave me a hug. All seemed happy to see me. Everyone quickly went on their way.
Yet I didn’t really mind this feeling of exclusion. I watched as guys lined up to perform stretches. Soon they began running from one station to another. They moved not as individuals but as small units. One dozen went to the batting cages while another dozen went to perform baserunning drills. Still another group worked on bunt plays, a mass of bodies aligned behind the mound. Fifteen minutes later, a horn blew and all of them rotated, all jogging together in unison. Another fifteen minutes passed and the horn blew again, resulting in another rotation. The head honchos sat in their golf carts, watching over their prized herd of cattle as an old rancher might sit on his horse. They wordlessly evaluated every movement with expressionless faces.
I thought about how recently I had been one of these masses. I thought about how different my life is now. I begin each morning by picking up dog poop. I work three part-time jobs to pay the bills. Instead of signing autographs for kids, I now give pitching lessons to them.
One of my jobs requires me to work in an office downtown. Recently my boss wanted to play catch under the Gateway Arch. I did my best to explain sinkers and cutters, curveballs and sliders to him. He even wanted to learn a knuckleball. I tried to oblige even though I’ve never really thrown one. All around us, tourists took photos not of me but of the magnificent structure towering above us. A year ago, I threw pitches in front of thousands of fans. Now not a single eye glanced my way.
I knew I was moving on with my life outside of baseball, but I’m realizing now that baseball is moving on without me as well. The names on the lockers change, the style of the jerseys change, and the faces of the players change. Yet the baseball world keeps spinning. Like a Shakespearan play, the actors change but the script remains unaltered. The game halts not for the retirement of greats, and definitely gives no pause to the passing of a minor league blip. Each generation it gobbles new bodies, this spinning black hole. My baseball life is mere debris, cast aside as waste, scattered in the same bin as a thousand others.
But I don’t miss spinning within the black hole’s grasp.
At least not yet.