Editor’s Note: Brad Balukjian is the author of the new book, “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife,” and is co-founder of the Pandemic Baseball Book Club. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
If a ball is smacked in an empty stadium, does it make a sound?
Less than a month from now, baseball will be back, but thanks to Covid-19, the fans will not. Players often take the crowd and their eccentric antics for granted, but now the hot dog stands will be empty, the seats untouched. Soon Major League Baseball’s finest will be able to hear their own home runs landing.
The loss of fans is a harbinger of every athlete’s ultimate destiny, that day when their career ends. Five years ago, I set out to track down all the players in a never-opened pack of 1986 baseball cards (the first year I collected as a kid), wondering what happened to my childhood heroes once the game was done with them. Baseball is a cruel master, requiring unflinching devotion but abandoning players just as they start to reap the rewards of experience. Biology is a stubborn thing.
What ensued was an 11,341-mile odyssey across the country over 49 breakneck-paced days. I found most, but not all, of the ex-players; most, but not all, were happy to talk to me. I had no idea how useful their advice would be for our current times.
While I covered lots of ground with my quarry, the one question I asked all of them was this: What did you do when you woke up in your 30s and realized you could never again do the one thing you had spent every waking second thinking about?
Almost all of the ex-players I met with described the immediate agony of retirement. Even those who were not superstars struggled with the cold draft of assimilating into society once the crowds were gone, learning to live like the rest of us. Steve Yeager, a longtime catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers and co-MVP of the 1981 World Series, retired in 1987 when no teams picked him up. “It was tough. I wanted to play and felt like I could still play,” he told me. “I was very bitter. I wouldn’t watch a ballgame (on TV). I wouldn’t go to Dodger Stadium.”
Randy Ready, a longtime utility player with a good bat, retired in 1997 at age 37 after an 18-year professional career. “I said, ‘I’m going to go home to my family and figure out everybody’s name. I was in a state of confusion. It took a while to get over it.’”
But perhaps no one expressed the transition more profoundly than former Phillies southpaw Don Carman: “It’s like a death. It’s really hard. Because it’s your dream, and it’s gone. It’s like, ‘OK, I woke up, and I don’t get to go back to sleep and dream again.’”
In those dark times, Carman called on some wisdom from Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, paraphrasing his writings: “I don’t get to write the script. Whatever it is, I just get to respond.” One day while drowning in his own self-pity, Carman’s wife Kathy picked him up off the floor and told him to try going back to school.
Despite these valleys, each of the ex-players bounced back by rediscovering the quality that got them to the Major Leagues to begin with — the ability to be in the present moment. Many of these baseball players, it turns out, are accidental Buddhists, able to let go of their recent failures and inured to the threat of future ones by focusing on what is right in front of them.
Baseball is all about survival. With only three or four chances to hit per game, the only way to be successful is to immediately forget the last strikeout and tune in to the present. When Yeager realized that drinking had remained a routine part of his life even when the rest of the routine was gone, he says he poured out all his booze and hasn’t had a drop since February 1987. Soon after, he found new life in radio, and now owns a Jersey Mike’s in the San Fernando Valley.
Ready became the super dad he never had himself. When the timing was right (“You’ve got to catch your breath and lose the player a little bit”), he returned to coach in the minor and major leagues.
And when Carman realized that drinking had become a hobby, he kicked the habit, enrolling in college for his bachelor’s degree in psychology. He’s now working on a doctorate and is the staff psychologist for agent Scott Boras’ clientele.
Like most of the guys in the pack, these three didn’t stay down for long.
There’s a lot we can learn from these ex-players, especially during a pandemic, a time when we find ourselves alone often with our thoughts. There’s less to distract us, more time to spend in the past (guilt) or the future (fear). It’s in times like these that we need to remember that the script was written for us – a horrific virus has unleashed its fury on the world, an act we had no control over.
Get our free weekly newsletter
But, as Frankl says, all we get to do is respond. Will we use the power of agency in a healthy way, both for our own mental health and society at large? Will we get up off the floor as Carman did? Or we will obsess over the things that we can’t control?
When today’s ballplayers take the field in late July, it will be without the roar of the crowd. Their baseball lives will go on — balls will be thrown, balls will be hit, balls will be caught. And while the fans will one day return, the players’ stay will be temporary.
Eventually, we all have to play in an empty stadium. How will we respond?