A little over four months ago, I decided to retire from my interesting journey as a professional baseball player. It was to my fortune that I was lucky enough to play for nearly 9 years as a pitcher in both the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins organizations, respectively. My first seven years were spent playing on different teams in the minor leagues for the Braves, grinding through an elbow surgery, and a few different shoulder problems, including a damaged labrum, before being released in 2011. Although injury ridden, I feel lucky to have played with some amazing, talented, and very interesting people from every corner of the world. Minnesota ended up signing me shortly after my release, and I was able to have some success with them before a torn hamstring effectively ended my career in the early summer.
Retiring is never an easy thing to do, especially when it’s not on your own terms, as it was in my case. Unfortunately, injuries plagued my career, and I was never able to fulfill my childhood dream of reaching the Major Leagues, and playing at the absolute highest level for a baseball player.
I’m not writing to go into any detail about the roller coaster ride that was my livelihood for nearly a decade of my young adult life, but I am here to share with you how I was able to take on the different faces of adversity, then find unique ways to conquer and overcome as a man would.
The story of how I came upon the poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling is pretty interesting. It was only a few days after I received news in 2011 that I did, in fact, have a torn UCL (Ulnar Collateral Ligament) in my elbow, from a pitch that I threw in my first game of that season. It happens to be a very common injury in pitchers due to the extreme stress the elbow is under each throw, however operation requires 12 plus months of rehabilitation before returning to game speed.
“Tommy John” surgery as it’s famously known in the baseball world, would take a season of promise, and an offseason of hardcore, ball – busting training, and swiftly erase it like it never happened.
Hearing this news broke my heart. When you pour all you have into something, and see it taken away so instantaneously for no apparent reason, it’s always going to be a bit hard to swallow in the beginning. There were several times in my life and career where I needed to persevere, but with my baseball age (24), and my level of accomplishment (playing at the A ball level at 24 years old isn’t considered too bright from a future in the game standpoint), it was a make or break situation with Atlanta. Either I was going to recover fully and scorch through the minor leagues, or I was going to be without a job.
Well, while lying in my hotel room bed the day before surgery, I was scrounging the internet for some motivational quotes I could print out to put around my hotel room in Orlando where I would be living the next year for the duration of my rehabilitation. While searching, I came across Rudyard’s poem and a youtube video of someone reciting the words.
I continued playing it over and over, trying to listen closer to the ominous sounding words rolling off this foreign man’s tongue as I read along from a page. I was immediately captivated at the way those simple, yet powerful sentences put together well over a century ago, could relate so perfectly with a down in the dumps twenty something year old baseball player in the 21st century.
During the course of my rehab, I would always have both Kipling’s composition handy, and that video on cue. Now, looking back, I can break down several parts of this work of his and see why it helped turn me into more of a “man of the game” so to speak…able to tackle anything.
Here are some excerpts from the poem, and key takeaways that made a difference in the way I approached my day in and day out life as a professional athlete. As Steven Pressfield might say, it helped me really “turn pro” in the more meaningful sense of the word.
1.) If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…
The game of baseball is filled with very passionate fans as you might know. Often, even at the minor league level, we are in the spotlight, and constantly being critiqued in our actions on and off the playing field. This of course leads many players astray by putting too much of their mind into what others are thinking or writing about them. When things go wrong in the game, and they do to everyone, it’s the players who can keep their head, stay focused on what’s important, and also possess the tools to ward off any negativity trying to creep in who end up with the long, successful careers.
My team’s manager last year, Doug Mientkiewicz, who happened to play in the Majors for parts of 12 seasons, told us after a game which we played particularly pathetic in..
“Do you guys know what kind of men make it in this game?…..Grown men….Grown men make it. You know what? I truly..truly liked playing the game hurt, sick, even hungover. Why? It forced me to dig from a place down deep. That’s the place that the great ones pull from every single day.”
It’s so true in any profession. You gotta bring your best on the worst of days. The greats do that every time.
2.) If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…
A successful big leaguer who chatted with me one day, explained why he believed he succeeded by saying, “If you play the game with the big three you’ll be fine. You must play with your heart, your brain, and your balls. All three have nothing to do with talent, you just have to be willing to give more of yourself than everyone else on the playing field.”
As I progressed in the game it became more and more apparent how many guys there were at the high levels who were actually much less talented than I was, but had one thing I didn’t have in my young career. They had unwavering belief in their abilities. I felt like even the best players often tricked their minds and convinced themselves they were the best until they truly believed it with every bit of their soul. It took work, but eventually I knew a positive attitude and bulletproof confidence were both something I would need to truly become the best I could be.
3.) If you can dream and not make dreams your master; If you can think and not make thoughts your aim…
All of us become obsessed from time to time about our end goals. I think, also, this works to our disadvantage way too often. When you throw a young kid in a situation where all of a sudden if they play well enough, their lives change forever financially, and they get to play a child’s game for a living, looking at that prize at the end of the tunnel is way too distracting for them.
I’ve learned the most successful athletes are always able to get wrapped up in the game itself. They can turn the switch on and forget every distraction off the field when they step between the lines. Then, even more impressive to me is when it comes time to get promoted, or receive awards and accolades, the celebration never lasts long at all. They get back to work like it never happened. They delay the gratification, because they know it will eventually be worth it when all is said and done. It’s about the process, not the final destination. When you become engrossed in your work without distraction, you put out your best work. It’s as simple as that.
4.) If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those impostors just the same…
In Major League baseball, if a hitter has a .300 batting average, meaning he gets a hit three out of ten times, he is considered one of the best in the world, and will surely make millions of dollars if he can do that consistently.
3-10 is 30% though. This means baseball is a game of failure, and even though hitters fail most of the time, if they can manage to forget about their 7 mistakes, and focus on continuing grind through the adversity to improve and get hits, they will be considered “successful.”
Possessing a short memory and remaining even keeled is the way to go. Never to high or too low, just plugging away at your craft, getting better with every moment that passes is the way to win in whatever you do.
Hot streaks tend to blow up the “amateur’s” head, drifting him off-track. The professional acknowledges it for a second, then is back to work.
5.) Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, and stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools…
When a player is drafted to play baseball as I was in 2006, some of us are lucky enough to get a nice signing bonus, then some of us are not. Some players can be set for life, while some might only be able to afford a nice dinner and a plane ticket before being broke.
Whatever boat you are in, the salary and lifestyle is all the same in the minor leagues. Everyone starts on the same level pretty much, and everything we do becomes about the game. The way we eat, sleep, dress, travel, train. All day, everyday, is about becoming the best that you can be.
Yet, the chances of ever “making it” are only around 10 percent for the average draft pick. That number rises with the investment the team pours into you. Still, even if you are given a multi-million dollar signing bonus in the draft’s first round, it far from guarantees that you reach the top.
In pro baseball you have no choice but to go all-in to your craft. With odds stacked against you, failure around every twist and turn, you still must absorb the heat and forge on if you want a shot. Several times during my 9 years, I felt like I would never get out of a rut or funk I was suffering through.
The great thing about baseball though, is no matter how bad the night before went, the game stops for no one. It’s a blank slate the next day. You pick yourself up by the bootstraps and continue pushing forward.
6.) If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew…to serve your turn long after they are gone, and so hold on when there is nothing in you…except the will which says to them: “Hold on!”
Finally, my favorite, and what I believe to be the most inspiring part of Rudyard Kipling’s work. As we grow older as athletes, people slowly tend to write you off as a threat. The chances of success continue to dwindle as you pursue your dream. Injuries add up, and the body sometimes doesn’t feel as fresh as it used to be.
This is how you are “supposed” to feel. This is what is “supposed” to happen to you. I always felt an extreme fire burn when I would hear the following remarks..
“He’s too old…No longer is he on the prospect radar.” or
“He will always be labeled as injury prone.” even..
“He’s a bust of a draft pick.”
From a purely statistical and historical standpoint, many of these things are, in fact, true. But is that what makes me a man? Is it your batting average or my winning percentage?
Of course not. It’s continuing to go back in for more when no-one thinks you’ve got anything left. It’s how you show up in the bleakest of moments with the odds stacked against you that makes you a professional.
Do you ever notice how sometimes the greatest fighters or athletes continue to hang around and compete long after their prime? That fire still rages on inside of them. They want to prove that sometimes wisdom and a strong will can conquer all. That is what I will always believe.