When Baseball Careers End

Article excerpt

Parker Brown had just arrived in the clubhouse when Joe Zacek, the Greenville Braves trainer, gently tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Don't dress, Brownie, the skipper wants to see you." Parker felt himself blanch. Fixing his eyes on the floor, he walked past the lockers where his teammates were dressing, down the corridor, past the shower, and into the cramped low-ceiling office of his manager, Ed Henley. The expression on Ed's face said it all. "Parker, this is the most difficult thing a manager has to do in life." The rest was a blur. By the time Parker had returned to the locker room it was empty. His teammates--now former teammates--were on the field. Fighting back tears, he mindlessly stuffed his gear into his canvas travel bag with the Atlanta Brave emblazoned on each side. Then he went to the front office, where the paperwork for his release and a plane ticket home were waiting. Meanwhile, the clubhouse attendant removed the nameplate--Brown--from the front of his locker and tossed it into a wast ebasket. His gear and ticket in hand, Parker ascended to the top row of the grandstands, hoping no one would see him, to take a last look around. He stayed for only two innings. It was too painful and humiliating. [1]

This essay describes how baseball careers end, the athletes' adjustment to life outside of the game, and how the athletes fare in their new careers. The data come from over 100 taped interviews conducted with ballplayers, coaches, and managers over the past eight seasons. The research also involved living and traveling with two Minor League teams, the Birmingham Barons and the Jamestown Expos. Although this paper is about contemporary players, it is also informed by my own experiences as a Minor League player in the 1960s.

Although every professional ballplayer knows that one day he, like Parker Brown, will be let go, very few are prepared for it. With most jobs, an employee plans for retirement years in advance and may even decide the exact date he will leave work. In baseball only a handful of players, mostly veteran big leaguers, are able to retire in this way--gracefully, choosing when and how they leave. Most players are fired or, in baseball talk, "released?' They are let go to make room for young and talented players whom the organization believes have more potential. Veterans are let go as their skills decline with age. The attrition of skill occurs at a much earlier age in sports than in almost any other profession, and it occurs in public. For big leaguers the decline is chronicled and monitored by millions of fans who study the unsparing statistics that are the measure of accomplishment in pro ball. [2] For many Minor Leaguers, the end comes when the front office--the player development folks--have seen enough to co nclude that the player is unlikely to ever perform at a level that would help the Major League team win. With five Minor League teams, each organization has room for only about a hundred players on its rosters. Any addition means someone else must go. Thus, the signing of thirty or more new players from the annual June draft results in some veteran players being released. When the big club acquires an extra player through a trade or free agency, the affect is felt down the ladder as rosters are adjusted to make room for the new acquisition. Injuries also end careers and do so without warning. "The saddest thing in baseball," said Hall of Famer AlKaline, "are the guys who are cut-down in mid-career by freak accidents and injuries." [3]

Being released not only means the end of a player's career but the end of boyhood dreams and ambition. There is also the loss of identity. We Americans, compared to people from other cultures, tend to derive much of our identity from our work. For example, when we meet new acquaintances, one of the first things we are asked is, "What do you do?" Ballplayers have a particularly strong identification with their work. Playing a professional sport confers tremendous prestige, especially given how few openings exist for the millions of youth who aspire to them. …