Across much of baseball, spring is a time of jubilation. White balls with flashing red seams zip smartly across cerulean southern skies. Dark leather scrapes lightly against soft dirt as young men prepare again to play the summer game. In the backfields, round bat collides brutally with round ball. And we as fans rejoice, because for us these are the unmistakeable signs of winter drawing to a close.
But just as the springtime forest in all its chattering glory reveals in its melting snow the frozen remains of those woodland creatures who could not survive the winter, so too does the coming of another baseball spring reveal the dark remains of many a big-league dream. The game renews, but it is only the game that renews. The players get older, and sometimes they fade away.
Sometimes, though, the end is brutally fast.
On Friday, the A’s announced that Jarrod Parker had re-fractured the medial epicondyle in his right elbow. That’s a fancy way of saying that his career—the only life he’s ever known—is over. And so Parker, his family, and everyone who’s ever believed in him, are all left to face a blackened spring. John Baker, 35, knows something about that feeling. Less than two years ago—a heartbeat, in the course of a lifetime—he was a big-league catcher.
“I always said that I was going to play until nobody offered me a job, and that’s what happened to me,” he told me over the phone. “Then I got released [in 2014], and I kept in shape for six weeks, but nobody offered me a job and so my career was over.” Just like that. Death in spite of a desire for life. It happened to Baker and, this week, it happened to Parker that much faster.
“It’s very rare that you find guys that get to decide when they’re done playing,” Baker said. “Most guys are going to get released, or they’re going to not get offered a job in the offseason. And I think that getting released—in spring training with your friends around—that’s one of the worst parts of baseball. You’re telling somebody that the timeline of their dream is expired. Or, at least, you’re not going to do it here.”
It happens hundreds of times a year. Of the thousand or so players who, like Baker, appeared in at least one big-league game in 2014, fully 289 have not appeared in a single game since. Some 241 more last appeared in 2013. And 226 in 2012, and 220 in 2011, and 211 in 2010. Relative to league size, the number remains essentially constant for the game’s entire history. Hundreds of men vanish into baseball oblivion each year, and almost none of them do so by choice. We can’t all be Derek Jeter.
“I think that part of the ‘athlete’s fallacy’ is that you’re going to survive, you’re going to succeed, no matter what,” said Baker. “And if you don’t believe that you can overcome the immense odds, then it’s going to be tough for you to get to the big leagues. So everybody in professional baseball generally believes that they’re going to be a major leaguer.” So believed Jarrod Parker. So was he, for a while.
And yet so few are. So few, indeed, can ever be. Some dreams have to die so that others can live, and the game renews itself in the fertile soil of those who fall by the wayside. And so each year in the springtime forest, and in small cinderblock offices tucked away in the corners of 30 big-league complexes, the old and weak are cleared away to make room for the young and strong. And sometimes, as with Parker, it happens on the field, and an injury does the thankless job of a manager twice as fast, and with ten times the brutality. Life begets death, death begets life. And the game continues.
The end, when it comes, must be brutal for the players involved. They’re not prepared for it. It must be a hard thing to find the game moving on without you, and in fact strengthening itself by your departure. It must be hard to want to play, but be unable to. And it must be that much harder in the springtime, when your friends are getting ready to play baseball—the only thing you’ve ever known. It’s not personal, of course, but it’s not pretty either. And it’s happening right now.
The fact is, there are many dozens of players for whom this long spring will be the cold season in which the game, finally, tells them to sit down and watch from the sidelines. These are the backups, the fourth-stringers, the players on the margins of a big-league existence, and for them the call back to the green fields and dirt diamonds of Arizona and Florida will never come.
So in these early days of spring training, I’m thinking of course of cloudless blue skies, soft dirt, and the sound of bat on ball. But even more than those things I’m thinking about the players for whom these are the last living days of a boyhood hope, and who will soon have to face the waning spring alone, without the sound of bat on ball, and without the game they have loved and lost.
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