For whatever reason I just can’t seem to get off of this “turning 40 thing.” I’m not sure if I’m typical or perhaps more neurotic than the normal person. Whatever it is, it seems to be a dominating thought of late. At some point I’m sure (I guess I’ll have to) I’ll settle into the notion and the reality that comes with it and learn to accept the facts that come along with getting older and hitting certain age milestones. Like with most things, my obsession will eventually wane and I’ll once again become comfortable in my own skin, only to have that complacency slowly interrupted in the near future by a new realization … 50! But one dilemma at a time, I guess.
What is it about hitting certain milestones of maturity that have the ability to mess with our heads so badly? Is it the fear that our best years are behind us? If we have been successful in our lives, we are undoubtedly very aware of the hard work and consistent sacrifices that have been made to bring us to a somewhat satisfactory place. Perhaps in those circumstances we are a bit doubtful that we have the stamina to keep up the necessary pace to remain atop our perch of satisfaction. I’ve heard many people say over the years that the toughest thing about getting to the top is staying there. I happen to agree.
With all of that said and the long hard look I’ve been taking at how this pirate looks at 40, I believe I’ve grasped an all new appreciation for those of us who can muster the physical and, more importantly, mental energy to press on day after day with the same fortitude we did in our early 20s. And I feel the largest degree of new-found respect I’ve gained has come within my own athlete fraternity, more specifically the guys (and gals) who have eclipsed the four-decade mark and aren’t willing to peacefully accept their age and the natural course that comes with growing old.
As I look around Major League Baseball and witness on a not-too-regular basis those “old” players who are still able to go out night after night and compete against young men who were barely out of diapers when the careers of these veterans began, I’m almost in perplexed wonder not only as a fan, but as a former player. Relying on the unique perspective of having made a living as a professional athlete, I know all too well the enormous and detailed task it is to remain at the pinnacle of anything much less a highly competitive sport.
The expenditure of mental, physical and emotional energy required in one’s meteoric rise to ultimate achievement deserves enough admiration in its own right, but the ability to maintain a high level of performance and remain “king of the hill” amidst a veritable onslaught of up and comers deserves much more appreciation that I don’t think even I, until now, gave a full due of comprehension.
As I look around the league, specifically at Derek Jeter and a handful of others who played before, during and after my tenure I find myself almost shaking my head in disbelief and simply asking myself … How? It’s a difficult task to express what these accomplished few have achieved when one attempts to comprehend the level they have reached. With many of us, money, fame and all of the trimmings that come along with major success can numb our desire to continually put forth the overwhelming effort required to realize such consistent success year after year after year. I’ve played with many a player, and a lot of them – perhaps including myself in this group – inevitably find apathy setting in once that lofty plateau is reached. An almost “been there, done that” syndrome develops.
This indifference that is quite common to so many, however, does not seem to exist within the make-up of the Derek Jeters, Nolan Ryans, Cal Ripkens and Greg Madduxes of the world. What is the difference in men like these? Perhaps a sociological study should be done. What makes them continue to sacrifice so much year after year, decade after decade? After all of the awards and championships have been won, after enough money to finance five lifetimes has been earned, these special individuals continue to go about their daily business of remaining the best of the best as if it’s their first day on the job.
To illustrate my point, I will tell a quick story about Alex Rodriguez. I know that for a variety of reasons many of you don’t like Alex. For the vary characteristic I’ve just described, I have much respect for him. I was fortunate enough to play with Alex in 2002 with the Texas Rangers organization. Alex was in the third year of a 10-year contract that would pay him over $2 million a month, making him by far the highest-paid athlete in history. Most of us cannot fathom that kind of money, and as all contracts in Major League Baseball, this money was guaranteed, meaning that all Alex had to do to receive $250 million over the next 10 years was not die and to show up at the yard every day. That’s it.
To the contrary, I saw Alex Rodriguez work perhaps harder than I’ve ever seen anyone else work in all my years to remain the best player in the game. I saw him show up every day several hours before the majority of the rest of the team to hit in the cage by himself. I saw him go back into the cage an hour before game time while nearly all of his other teammates were watching TV, listening to music or eating a sandwich, to hit some more. And when he was done with his extra self-imposed work he did the normal routine along with everyone else. Every … Single … Day. It was truly amazing to watch. I’ve seen great players; I’ve personally worked as hard as I thought was humanly possible both mentally and physically in an attempt to remain. It is more difficult than I can ever describe.
There are individuals out there who are just built a little different. Achieving their pinnacle seems inevitable, and remaining there appears to be their life’s purpose. If you’re ever fortunate enough to share time and space with someone like this, you’ll know it. The air around them is just different. Derek Jeter is a person like this; he’s just different. So if you’re a baseball fan as I am, appreciate the next two months he’ll spend in a uniform because it may be a long time before you witness someone like that again.
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