After years of being on the road of pro baseball, I knew that a late night call from my mom was not going to bring good news.
In the offseason after my first full season with the Phillies, this phone call was the entry point of what would become a spiral of bad news about the health of my father. A major stroke had sent him into a tailspin.
This would frame my career in the heart of my first and only multi-year contract with the Phillies, but also offered a window inside a game that had been simple. I had not considered often what I was missing in the rest of my family’s life. My father was invincible, even after knowing he was plagued with health issues along the way.
With the death of Luis Valbuena and Jose Castillo in a tragic car accident in Venezuela, we all take stock. We revisit the innocence of sports in a way that challenges us uncomfortably. Baseball players are like how I wanted to see my father, invincible. High-powered athletes, risk-takers, inspiring agents of youth. They bounce back, they comeback, they carry hope on our backs. They certainly never die young.
Throughout my career, I realized it was the sadness that arose from what became an annual funeral, that we often tried to separate from our daily world. Teammates, coaches, legends from our youth and even adversaries were all affected by this harsh reminder of our finite world.
Players know loss on a rational level, but it cuts them differently as the focus required to engage this game every day creates an alternate reality. We often work hard to remain insulated from distraction, in fact, we vehemently fight to stay focused. Until it is impossible.
When we lift up our heads, we see the aging in the mirror, we face our own insensitivity, we also recognize that although we can win in life’s quantifiable games, we will have to accept the great loss in the end and those left behind will have to carry on with memories.
Early in my minor league career, in my first full season in the Florida State League as a member of the Daytona Cubs, my teammate lost his sister in a tragic safety accident from a live wire in his home country. He got the news when he was with us, his teammates. What do you even say to someone in that moment? We know life is moving on for others intuitively, but our job as athletes is to freeze time as firmly as possible, so our youth holds and our productivity sustains.
It turns out that as players, we are navigating these choppy waters throughout our careers as I learned about the many members of baseball’s family who passed away. From teammates’ Frank Castillo’s and Jesse Hollins’ deaths which hit the Cubs family, or Cory Lidle or Josh Hancock or my roommate, Fred White, in Daytona who was killed in the offseason after intervening when someone tried to break into his vehicle. Senseless.
So we turn inward into baseball’s club to try and make sense of it. A small, elite, close knit unit. Once you are inside that unit, Luis Valbuena did not have to be your teammate to feel it like a brother. You do not have to be a current player to feel it like a brother. You do not even have to know him to feel it like a brother. The game is intricately connected through generations, across oceans, and time itself. Your years as a professional constantly puts you in the orbit of the game’s history where legends you watched on TV growing up become your mentors and the teenage fans in the stands could well be the next rising star who watched your career. We know each other, even when we don’t. So it hurts deeply.
In the offseason when my father’s health took the first of many devastating hits, I felt the powerlessness of being a player in the thick of his career, criss-crossing the world to perform, yet unable to do much about changing my father’s circumstances other than by being supportive from mostly afar. The offseason would change forever for me as I wanted to do as much as I could to help my mom in her caretaking, just as I had to wake up to the fragile nature of the lives around us. Illness or tragedy can strike anyone close to you at any time.
But time stays on its arrow towards the future regardless. Sending us forward anyway. Spring training will come around, we will keep those we lost close in honor of their time, but also as a reminder of the gift of being able to enjoy time in a uniform while playing a game we love. Something we should work hard to appreciate as much as we can.
I would start the next season with my father’s health in constant jeopardy, carrying with me a burden that I would not trade for the world since it was part of the gift of having had him in my life. I would play, grapple with the distraction and the guilt of my absence and the need to be focused on my craft despite how much I wanted to meet my family’s need too. It would be a tug a war for the rest of my career.
This is life and the offseason spares no one from reminding us that loss can be around the corner and we will all be forever changed by it.
And we should be.