Ten years away from baseball has changed everything. The games that were everything to me back then now survive only deep down in my dreams. This junkyard is my oasis where I can still feel my adrenaline peak as I churn for 2nd base, dirt clumps flying about like flies swarming a discarded watermelon peel, fighting to beat the throw in from the outfield. “Come on Ken, get there,” I tell myself as the bag comes closer into focus with each step I take on the soft clouds of my dream landscape. It is only when my active mind is shutdown that I can hear the unnatural ping of the ball making contact with my blue and gold aluminum bat, see the red spin of the stitching in slow motion topple over itself as the ball shoots out, like a water cannon. Outside of these rare moments though when my subconscious loses it unrelenting hold on these past occurrences, the game seems foggy and blurry; not quite a complete picture but not quite gone either. That is what 3,650 days between games will do to someone.
Ten years away from the game has changed nothing. What is ten years in the life of a person who’s DNA has little baseballs encoded onto the double helix of each strand? 10,000 swings later, losing this muscle memory is like thinking an adult forgets how to floss after neglecting it for some time. You don’t ever forget, as much as you simply pause. Some items are fastened into my mind like steel nails locking down the Brooklyn Bridge. It isn’t so obvious in my mind if I put down a bat for the last time just a few days ago or 10 years ago. Small circle with the hands, loading of the bat back into the ready position, small step forward, keep the hands in, follow through… these are the steps I can do in my sleep. For that matter I still sometimes do.
Ten years away from the game has changed everything. A full decade, an entire chunk of my life. Over these ten years I have gained perspective, but it has cost me my youth. You don’t get both in this cruel world. It is not a trade I would like to place, but a trade nonetheless I must take. I have watched and followed various college baseball teams over the years, now watching freshman take the field who were in 2nd grade when I left the diamond. How is that for humbling?
Ten years away from the game has changed nothing. I still lose sleep, like a baby moved from the mom’s delicate arms to the cold mattress of the bassinet, whenever I think back to a devastating loss. I don’t know how long it takes to get over blowing a 4 run lead in the championship game (with just 1 out to go!), or dropping the fly ball in practice with everyone watching, but I do know the answer is more than 10 years.
Ten years away from the game has changed everything. I no longer live and die by the bounce of a ball. I have learned to identify myself not just by my performance, but instead by who I am as a person and what I can contribute to my family, company, and society. I wish I hadn’t taken every at bat so serious, I wish I had more fun earlier on in my career. I wish I realized how good I could be.
Ten years away from the game has changed nothing. It is still the same dance, just a new song to go with it. The games have the same intensity, whether I am invited or not. The game has the same politics and maneuvering. Players still live and die with each game, players still think they are somehow more special than those that came before, players still can’t conceptualize that the game will end one day for them. This is the great (college baseball) circle of life.
Ten years away from the game has changed everything. I am no longer a recruit, a player, a student. I am now an employee, a homeowner, a dad. I grow further away from the game I grew up loving each day. The memories being a college athlete fade a bit more each night. The excitement of an Opening Day, the bond shared with my teammates in the dorms, the moments of pause at the dining hall. I struggle more and more now to remember these memories in color, in 3D.
Ten years away from the game has changed nothing. I haven’t forsaken baseball, in fact perhaps I have grown closer. “Going with the Pitch: Adjusting to Baseball, School and Life as Division I College Athlete” has kept be plugged into college baseball. It has let me work with young student athletes looking to make their mark on the game. Their worries and concerns are the same I had 10 years ago. Like a bone fossilized in the frozen tundra, these universal truths are unmovable. Insecurity and home sickness are as old as man itself.
Ten years away from the game has changed everything. I am no longer a student of the game. I watch the Yankees with more enjoyment; no pressure to study a swing and visualize how I would have attacked that fastball. No more forgetting to blink as I study the pitcher’s routine, trying to figure out patterns and tendencies. I am not a student, nor am I player. I am just a fan.
Ten years away from the game has changed nothing. Just because I have left that life, that life hasn’t left. It is just being lived by others. Just because I have forgotten that during a random fall day at 2:30 PM 10 years ago I would have been jogging out to practice, doesn’t mean it isn’t still happening. It is just being done by others. Other kids are taking batting practice off their dad, just as I used to, just as generations have done dating back to the grainy black and white photos found in grandpa’s old trunk lodged in the attic.
Ten years away from the game has changed everything. Life has happened. Heartbreak and failures, victories and moments cherished forever. A dog, a house, a kid, and a wife. These are items that didn’t exist either in physical form or even as a concept in my college athlete mind. I have found and developed new skills. I now have new dreams.
Ten years away from the game has changed nothing. There is no stopping a current. Either get out of the water or be Ok floating to where the tide takes you. I am a baseball player at heart. Either I embrace it and let the seas carry me to a new world where baseball is not king, but still very much alive, or I should get out of the water and keep baseball in the past. Either nothing has changed, or everything has. Either I accept baseball is always alive within me, like a pilot lamp still just barely lit but very much alive, or I accept it has smoldered out, like a forest fire with no more underbrush to consume. Is my baseball life over? Of course not. There are many more chapters to come. Alas, 10 years has changed everything, but in reality, nothing.