(Note from Jimmy - Some of you may have seen my Twitter blurbs or read my previous official announcement of Desi Relaford coming on board Jimmy Scott's High & Tight to write a bi-weekly column about his career in baseball. Some of you may have scoffed. "Desi Relaford and Jimmy Scott? Bawlderdash." Time for you to refute. Because this, right here, right now, is the first column of what we're going to call "By Desi Relaford" columns, at least until we can think of another title for this series. Yes, series. When I state this is "the first," it implies more than one, which leads us to the series format of columns written by the one and only Desi Relaford, the 11-year Major League veteran who had hopes and dreams just like any kid, any player.
You might say, "Desi made it to the bigs. That would be good enough for me." But from Desi's perspective, just making it wasn't good enough. And that's what separates fans from players. There's a divide there, the "You played in the big leagues so stop whining" divide that will likely never be filled. Fans will always tell a player to be thankful they made it in the first place. And players will always wish they had done more. It's what I now call the "Theory of Baseball Relativity." If I remember, I'll write something about that one day soon. Until then, let's start at The End for Desi. Because as hard as it is for a ballplayer to make it, it's even harder to quit.
By Desi Relaford, at Jimmy Scott's High & Tight.)
Why So Soon?
By Desi Relaford
As a career winds down and ends, baseball players begin to see that there is much more to life after baseball. But are we ready for what that life has in store?
I understand how easy it is to assume that everyone you see on television playing baseball is a multi-millionaire who resides on Easy Street, USA or (Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Japan, etc). In some cases this is the absolute truth. There are guys playing now who make more money than God. (Well, almost!) But there are far more players who don’t see that side of “dreamland” than those who do. For them, the end always comes too soon.
“Hey Desi, Skip needs to see you in his office,” Mike Gallego relayed to me after a tap on the shoulder. Mike was a real cool guy that I had a good rapport with. At that moment, he didn’t look at me long enough for me to get a read on him. I don’t know how it is in most work settings, but I know in pro ball, a player generally knows why he’s being summoned by a manager. Most of the time it wasn’t good! Now, we’ve all been on that walk that felt like the green mile, but this walk was a stroll with a bop and carefree as ever since we had just won the game. I honestly had no idea why he wanted to see me. It could have been anything.
“Hey Des, sit down.” Clint spoke softly, which was odd and alarming because if you know Clint Hurdle, then you know that he has an amazingly loud voice. I braced for the worst. “You know you’ve done a great job for us so far, but you also know you’ve struggled here for a couple of weeks. So we’ve decided to designate you…blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
The room seemed to grow bigger and bigger along with everything in it. Even the chair felt like a king’s throne. I don’t even think my feet could touch the ground. I felt so small. At that exact moment, I felt worthless. After the “we’re going to designate you” part, I zoned out. That was literally the last thing I heard him say. To my surprise and chagrin, this was the beginning of the end. I remember staring, almost sneering, at Clint’s outstretched hand as I walked out of his office with a turned shoulder as cold as the transaction that had just transpired. To this day that is the only act I regret in my baseball career. It was classless; something I still have never apologized for.
Since that day, my baseball career has been a mere shell of its former self. A major injury, a couple of injustices, a couple of minor league tours and big league cup of coffee later, the dream is apparently over. What a bitter, stinging reality to face for a lifelong player and fan of the game. What do you do when the phone stops ringing? What do you do when you’ve been labeled a “has been” by your potential suitors? How do you deal with being one the boys, in that elite class one minute and on the outside looking in the next? Could it be? Could it be time for… Don’t SAY IT! Reti.. DON’T SAY IT! Retirement! AAAAAAAAARRRRRGH!
Regardless of a player’s status, there comes a time that we must call it quits. It’s the American dream to play Major League Baseball and a goal so many people try to attain. In my profession, if you get the opportunity to leave the game on your own terms, you are one of a rare breed. In most cases, it’s forced on you. It’s definitely not a time that most look forward to.
It’s hard to deal with losing something or someone of great importance. When you’re forced out of the game, you’re losing someone and something. You’re losing a job and a privilege, but the loss that hurts the most is losing a part of yourself. You lose the part of yourself that would set you apart from the crowd no matter the situation. You lose a part of you that made you special to a worldwide audience. You lose the right to call yourself a Major League Baseball player.
What hurts most of all in a lot of cases is not just being released or not receiving a call. It is the fact that you are no longer allowed to do what you’ve trained your mind, body and soul to do for the majority of your life. You can’t just walk away without a fight. Believe me, when that time comes there is a fight. Whether you’re trying to cope or come to terms with your own inner struggle, there is a fight. Jumping through a series of their fire-riddled hoops disguised as lies, minor league stints, independent leagues and 15-hour bus rides just to get an ever-fleeting chance, is a fight. Sure, playing baseball is playing baseball, but nothing compares to Major League Baseball. There must be something infectiously special about it because just about every guy I have ever known or met would love to trade places with me, even if it were just for one at-bat. I take that with the highest of honors.
After the fight you’re left tired and wandering aimlessly in search of purpose and fulfillment. We all know or heard of that guy or girl who just couldn’t get over “the break-up” with the love of their lives. The end of a big league career is like that, but worse…a lot worse. Women come and go, but Major League Baseball careers aren’t so plentiful. Multitudes of players, including career minor leaguers, make up generational groups of men no longer in baseball who are searching for what’s next. What is going to replace that adrenaline rush or sense of accomplishment? My sense of belonging? Or better yet, what is going to replace my income? After injecting your entire life with a conquest as daunting and near impossible as making it to the big leagues, the last thing on your mind is mentally preparing to retire. If you arrive anywhere short of your retirement age goal, it’s Disappointment City. Can you imagine how hard it would be to visualize and dedicate yourself to being the most elite player you can be while simultaneously preparing yourself to walk away? This would be an extreme exercise in futility (either that or try to get a big league invite while having the name Desi Relaford).
So what is out there right now during The Great Depression II in this dog eat dog world? Here’s a clue. A sizeable portion of professional ball players (major and minor leagues) don’t have degree or much less any form of higher education. So you tell me what’s on tap for in the real world for a baseball expert! There are a few options, but not a whole lot based on your skill level outside of the game.
Making the transition from baseball life to real life is a hurdle that can at times seem insurmountable. The baseball life is “The Life.” It’s a fairy tale. Let me try to open a visual portal into the world of Major League Baseball. Think heaven, only it’s a baseball heaven. You don’t carry your own bags. There are people who clean up after you. Please believe me when I say this, if you ask you shall receive, or at least everything that the law would allow. Then again, we also know from the recent past ballplayers could even get away with procuring felonious items as well (PED’S).
Big league baseball provided a myriad of supporters that would range from individuals in the organizations whose job it was to make sure we didn’t have to do too much. Grown men making dumb money, being treated like spoiled children.
I loved every minute of it!
There is someone there to help you find housing. In some lower level minor leagues some teams provide host families. Whether you tear an ACL or get the sniffles, the doctor comes to you at the park and provides care. Once again, it’s “The Life”. All that you are accountable for as a player is to be on time and give 100% of what you have and they will take care of the rest.
Being waited on and catered to has its ups and downs, and one of the downs is that it is invitingly easy to get accustomed to “The Life,” hence the real world dilemma of “The End.” You’re suddenly thrown into the Indy 500 driving a lemon. In my opinion, we professional athletes are cut from a different cloth. It’s a thicker, tougher, more resilient cloth. Though under-skilled, we have over-sized hearts and multiple talents. Just like our whole careers, this is the moment we once again have to show and prove that we are able to overcome the odds.
When all is said and done, we ultimately need to just appreciate that endearing era in our lives. We need to relish the fact that during our time we put a lot of smiles on a lot of faces (some not so friendly faces as well). We must acknowledge the fact that what we accomplished was special, that there are legions of boys (young and old) who would give an arm and a leg for the opportunity. And we must come to the realization that nothing lasts forever. But still, why does it have to end so soon?
Desi Relaford will be writing bi-weekly articles for Jimmy Scott’s High & Tight. He was drafted out of high school in the 4th round of the 1991 Major League draft. He played for 8 teams over 11 seasons, manning every position except first base and catcher. Desi never officially retired, although he hasn’t played since the end of the 2007 season. To hear more from him, you can listen to his interview at Jimmy Scott’s High & Tight.