All I wanted to be when I grew up was a major league pitcher. My Dad made it to the Minors before he caught a spike and ripped his back seven ways from Sunday. But I was always bigger than my Dad, and I could throw harder. In fact, I could throw harder than pretty much anybody. When I was 13 and just beginning to hit my growth, the fancy new radar gun at the amusement park said I could throw 82 mph. Nobody dreams harder than a teenage boy. And nobody – nobody – worked more devoutly at their dream than I did.
By the time I was a Sophomore in High School I’d added a nasty cutter to the straight fastball, and I could break a curve from behind your ear down to your knee. If you’ve never pitched, I’ll fill you in on a secret: There are few things in life more fun than watching some arrogant cleanup guy bail away only to hear the ump call him out on strikes!
When I was a Senior it was a rare day when the ball got up to 60, and I didn’t come close to making the college team. At a Division III school. Now, thirty years later, I can’t play catch with my kids for more than five minutes without dropping to sidearm from the Click! and Ow! that happen when my elbow gets up to shoulder height.
My Dad blew his back. I tore my rotator cuff. And I did it very professionally too.
In my life I have had two moments when I seriously cursed at whoever runs this universe for his so-called sense of humor. The second time is none of your business; the first happened in the Doctor’s office when I got the bad news.
"This is not the sort of thing that heals. And it’s not a thing we can fix. Maybe in 20 years, but not soon enough to help you. You need to understand this because the one thing you can’t afford to do is hope. Your baseball career is done – over – and you’ve got to move on."
I couldn’t even be angry at the guy. He had gone through the same thing, tearing up a knee as a college skier looking forward to Olympic trials. He actually understood. But there had to be somebody I could hit! All my life I’d been a pitcher. That’s all I ever wanted to be. And now I was nothing.
So I get it. I know what you’re feeling right now. You may think it’s worse in your 20’s when the dream is that much closer, but it’s not. You felt just as much five or ten years ago as you do today. And I’m not the only one who gets it. Half the people on this List could probably share a comparable, life-changing heartbreak. I could fill a book with the ones I’ve heard from friends over the years, from the young opera singer who developed polyps on this throat to the dancer who shattered a hip in a car crash. If you want real fear, start with the word "stroke" and move on from there.
There are people out there who will tell you it’s all for the best. It was "meant to be," or "God’s will," or that wonderful old chestnut about steel getting stronger when it passes through the fire. I cry bullshit. It’s not for the best. It sucks. But I do want to share some wisdom that might have helped me back in the day.
FIRST: Don’t give up. I don’t have to tell you that. You may not have made the Steelers, but you’re still a by-God-professional athlete! You didn’t get here without being a fighter, and there is nothing you will ever regret more than giving up your dream too soon. And there are few things you’ll be more proud of than knowing you fought to the end. May that end be many years in the future despite this setback.
BUT MORE IMPORTANT: Realize the terrible mistake I made as that boy in the story. I thought of myself as "a young pitcher" who had lost everything. And that was a cruel and unfair thing to believe. I was a young man with a talent for pitching. And that’s a big difference!
A man with a talent is a person to respect, or admire, or envy as the case may be. A talent with legs is a person to pity. My oldest daughter has a genius for art. A real, honest-to-god genius that had people using the word "prodigy" since she was five. The threat of that word is why "Mozart" became a dirty word in my house. Wolfgang Mozart was a talent with legs, and a sorry excuse as a man. It ruined his life. We’ve raised our daughter to understand that her talent may be special but it is not the thing that makes her special. If she lost it tomorrow in some terrible accident, she would still have the things that matter most: honesty, kindness, generosity, a fierce sense of justice, and a long list of other virtues that I, unbiased observer that I am, have come to treasure. Talent is wonderful, but greatness comes from character.
All your life sir, you’ve been the kid with the talent. Like it has with my daughter, that talent raised you up, set you apart, and earned you the respect of the kids around you. Your special talent even earned you a bunch of expensive stuff (which hers may never do, alas). Now that talent has failed you, and you may even be seeing an awful possibility that the Bigs are out of reach. Triple-A is a proud accomplishment, but it’s not the Bigs. That’s for damned sure.
It sucks about as badly as anything can. I really, really get that and my heart breaks for your pain. That’s no less true if I happen to agree with the team’s decision. So please accept my sympathy along with the perspective I wish I’d had those many years ago.
You, sir, are much, much more than the dream you couldn’t catch.
You, sir, are a man. A man with a talent. You are not a talent with legs.
If you work as hard at being a man as you did at being a football player, there will be nothing but greatness ahead.