Roger Marolt: There is no soft landing
I think there is a higher purpose in sports, I just don’t think we realize what it is until after we stop playing; sometimes a long time afterwards, sometimes on the verge of never.
I learned at a young age that sports are cruel. I saw how they beat down my father. I idolized him. He was a physical specimen possessing brute strength, a ski racer, an Olympian. It never seemed to be enough for him, though. I learned more about his racing career from my mother. He only talked about it tangentially in response to direct questions; never too many details, always in muted colors.
I think he got 12th in the downhill at Squaw Valley. They say he was having a good run before a big mistake near the finish. It sounded like a sliding fall that did little harm to the body — he recovered and finished — but I think it was an emotionally catastrophic crash that he did not recover from until what turned out to be his dying days as he prepared to meet some of his old racing buddies in Argentina for a reunion of sorts. He actually talked about it, how he had always felt like a failure. We already knew.
It’s not that I didn’t believe it. I did. It’s just that I saw the other stuff, too. People treated him differently. It is not something lost on a son. I wanted to compete and excel at something, too. The world encouraged me as it does all kids. Be special. Be better. Be gifted.
I got good, but never good enough. I lived in a ski town and picked baseball. I had an older cousin in California who was drafted by the Pittsburg Pirates. Maybe I thought he was happier than my dad was. Maybe I thought it was only skiing that beat people down. Later I would learn about my cousin’s feelings of failure, but that would come far too late, after I shared my own experiences with him as adults.
There is no soft landing in sports, at any age. You work and dream and work some more. You move up to the next level again and again on a ladder hanging from a mirage. The signs are there, but you never see them through the glare. And then one day, it’s over. Just like that. Somebody in charge walks up with their head hanging low and says, “Jeez kid, I’m just going to say it: you didn’t make the cut.” Then he walks away like he’s done this a million times, because he has.
The thing that hurts the most is that you lose your identity. All you’ve been your whole young life is this one thing and then, when you are not this one thing anymore, the only thing left to be is nothing. And, yes, that is the warped perspective of a 21-year-old, but that is all you have to work with. It was what you encouraged me to be. So, whatever you might say about manning up and getting over yourself doesn’t carry much weight because you have no credibility.
I think this explains most of why I never went back to my college for the annual alumni game that kicks off every baseball season. I felt like a failure. The dream of baseball turned out to be suffocating smoke from hope torpedoed. It made me not want to dream anymore. That only came back when I met my wife. Only then did I remember that dreaming is a gift.
I have good feelings from those days, too. I had great friends on and off the team. I came out with an excellent education. I loved being part of the squad, but probably for many wrong reasons. The easiest way to say it is that it was an incredible ego boost. Nobody knew if you were in a terrible slump, stressed to sleeplessness, or hanging on for dear life. They only saw the athlete, and that was the automatic override.
Then, a couple of teammates called and said I should come back and I did, 35 years after I last walked off that field. The thing I immediately noticed was that the sharp edge outlining each of us had vanished. What shone through was the goodness, the friendship, and the unspoken love that held the whole thing together for all of us. We talked about all that I have covered here. Nobody thought they should have been more serious. Everyone wished they’d had more fun.
I see it now. We, together, is what was special about sports. The rest was an excuse we didn’t need, but were misled to desire above all else. If only we had asked “Why?” If it was meant to be, it would have been. I know that now. We make our own sports cruel. What matters is “us.” The game is not bigger than that.
Roger Marolt thinks that, if baseball was as great as he has said it was, then he wouldn’t have to say it so often. Email at email@example.com.
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