We are all gearing up for World Series Game 6 – Wacha vs. Lackey. It should be an amazing showdown with even more amazing fanfare. The Red Sox have the opportunity to clinch a World Series championship in Boston for the first time since 1918 (Babe Ruth was a defensive replacement in that game). The Cardinals have a 22-year-old rookie on the mound who has been their most dominant postseason starter (4-0, 1.00 ERA up to now).
It is times like these, when playoff drama and excitement are at their fever pitch, that we can sometimes lose perspective on the fact that baseball, at its core, is a kids’ game. It’s meant to be played, not for money or glory or prestige, but merely for the love of the game.
Under the bright lights, big dollars and corporate environs of Major League Baseball, that notion – that purity and passion for baseball and baseball alone – can be lost. And once lost, it often is gone forever.
Cubs rookie second baseman Adrian Cardenas understands that all too well. He’s lived it, and because of it he has decided to retire (he says “quit”, but to me that’s just too negative a word to apply to someone who in my opinion gets it) from the MLB.
He was only 24 at the time he decided he was done – he’s 25 now – still healthy and strong. Cardenas had already broken through to the big leagues, appearing in 45 games with Chicago as a pinch hitter. Many thought he had a decent chance of eventually becoming a starter.
Cardenas has penned an essay for the New Yorker where he explains his decision. I would like to share a few excerpts here on the blog, but I encourage you all to read his article in full (here’s a link to the essay). He’s studying creative writing and philosophy at NYU, and he has some serious skill with the pen and pad, not just a glove and bat.
I came to realize that professional baseball players are masochists: hitters stand sixty feet and six inches from the mound, waiting to get hit by a pitcher’s bullets; fielders get sucker punched in the face by bad hops, and then ask for a hundred more. We all fail far more than we succeed, humiliating ourselves in front of tens of thousands of fans, trying to attain the unattainable: batting a thousand, pitching without ever losing, secretly seeking immortality of the record books. In spite of the torments – the career ending injuries, the demotions, the fear of getting “Wally Pipped” – we keep rolling our baseball-shaped boulders up the impossible hill of the game, knowing we’ll never reach the top. Baseball is visceral, tragic, and absurd, with only fleeting moments of happiness; it may be the best representation of my life. I was, and still am, in love with baseball. But I quit.
* * *
I quit because baseball was sacred to me until I started getting paid for it. The more that “baseball” became synonymous with “business,” the less it meant to me, and I saw less of myself in the game every time I got a check from the Philadelphia Phillies Organization, the Oakland Athletics Company, or the Chicago Cubs, L.L.C. To put it simply, other players were much better than I was at separating the game of baseball from the job of baseball. They could enjoy the thrill of a win – as it should be enjoyed – without thinking of what it meant to the owners’ bottom lines. These players, at once the object of my envy and my admiration, are the resilient ones, still in the game. I am no longer one of them.
* * *
It was only after I quit that I wished I hadn’t always kept my head down, relentlessly climbing to reach the top of the game, to fulfill an American dream. I wish I had looked up more often, even at the cost of some of my success. The American dream didn’t tell me that an experience only matters if I acknowledge it, that losing yourself in the game is a good way to lose what makes life meaningful. When you’re standing at the plate and you hit a sharp foul ball to the backstop, the spot on the bat that made contact gets hot; the American dream forgot to tell me to step back and enjoy the smell of burnt wood.