When I was a kid, I had a baseball card that I absolutely loved. On it was Ron Guidry and J.R. Richard—E.R.A. leaders. I didn't really care about Richard, I was only interested in Louisiana Lightning. He was a Yankee, went 25-3, so that was all I needed to know. Years later, I found out that Richard had a dominating fastball which got him about a strikeout an inning, and that he averaged a sick 281 innings a season between 1976 and 1979. But at 10 years old, that meant nothing to me. J.R. Richard wasn't a Yankee, so I didn't care.
Two years later, Richard suffered a stroke playing catch before a game and never pitched in the majors again.
A few years after that, I was riding a bus home from high school. Finals were over, it was turning summer out, and I was reading a paper about how the hated Celtics, who had just won the championship, had taken a super-talented forward to pair with McHale and Bird. Mike Krzyzewski said of this forward that he and Michael Jordan were the two most talented players to ever play in the ACC. His name was Len Bias. Two days after the Celtics selected him first in the draft, he was dead from a cocaine overdose. The Celtics haven't won another championship since then.
It is always upsetting when we see budding talent lost or squandered—when possibilities seem endless and the promise of amazing deeds await us—but it might even be worse when it is a young athlete. When someone is capable of true grace on a field of play, and then that talent is lost, it seems like a crime.
Go watch Grant Hill before ankle injuries robbed him of his talent. Go watch him and tell me he wasn't put on this earth to play the game of basketball, and that injuries robbed us of one of the best all-around players to ever play the game.
Go check out Doc Gooden, circa 1985, when he was just 21. Check out his absolutely sick high fastball and his leg-buckling sweeping curve. Check him out that year when he won the National League triple crown for pitchers, with 24 wins, 268 K's, and a 1.53 E.R.A. Then try to figure out how he won only 194 games. How he never won 20 games again. Try not to feel sad about it.
In sports, unfortunately, this happens all too often. Because of injuries, drugs, or any other numbers of reasons, guys who seem like the next Michael Jordan, Dick Butkus, or Mickey Mantle lose the battle with fate. It happens all too often, yet I am still just as saddened each and every time it happens.
Take Rocco Baldelli of the Tampa Bay Rays. Debuting in 2003, when he was just 21, Rocco seemed like the centerfielder of the future for the Rays. Athletic, someone "who mans centerfield like a young Joe DiMaggio" with a sweet stroke and with the potential to grow into a decent home-run hitter, Rays fans saw him teaming with Carl Crawford as a young duo to build around. Unfortunately, Baldelli must have walked under a ladder behind a black cat, while breaking a mirror. After the 2004 season, Baldelli tore an ACL and missed the beginning of the 2005 season. Then he injured his elbow and required Tommy John surgery, and he missed the entire 2005 season and missed a big chunk of the 2006 season, though he looked great in the action he did see, hitting 16 HRs in just 92 games. The 2007 season was a wash as well, as hamstring injuries lingered all season and kept him from making any real contribution. It has since turned out that Baldelli has been suffering from a mitochondrial disorder that has kept him in a constant state of fatigue. His baseball career is in serious jeopardy and it's unknown if he can ever play again.
There's also Mark Prior who won 18 games in 2003 when he was 23, and has won just 20 games since due to injuries. Or how about Monica Seles, who won the French Open when she was 16, for two years absolutely dominated women's tennis—with a 55-1 win-loss record in Grand Slam tournaments—until some psycho stabbed her in the back and forced her into semi-retirement and has never been the same since. Of course, there is Michael Vick, who, while overrated as a quarterback, was nonetheless a brilliant athlete and a mega talent. That is, until he decided to hang some dogs and flush his talent down the toilet.
When It Had Been Effortless
Speaking as someone who can never glide to the basket like Grant Hill, or throw a 75-yard bomb like Vick, or glide through centerfield to catch a deep drive like Baldelli—and who has always blunted his sadness that he can't do these things by idolizing those who can do them with ease and grace—it saddens me when people who can do these things lose the ability to do them.
Ernest Hemingway, in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, wrote about F. Scott Fitzgerald in a passage I'll never forget, both for its beauty and for its horror.
"His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless."
In 1991, picking first in the amateur baseball draft, the Yankees took Brien Taylor, a nineteen-year-old lefty who threw lightning bolts and who swaggered on the mound because he knew he was the real deal. Scott Boras, agent to hundreds of athletes, says of him, "Brien Taylor, still to this day, is the best high school pitcher I've seen in my life." In his senior season at high school, Taylor struck out 213 guys in 88 innings with a fastball that touched 99 mph. At Class A Fort Lauderdale, he struck out 187 in 161 innings and posted a 2.57 ERA. The next year, as a 21-year-old at Double-A Albany-Colonie, Taylor went 13-7 with a 3.48 ERA and struck out almost a hitter an inning. Baseball America had named him the game's best prospect. After his second year in the minors, Taylor went home for the winter. Getting into a fistfight with his cousin, a known felon and loser, Taylor throws a punch with his thunderbolt-throwing left arm and misses. Taylor suffered a torn capsule and torn labrum and had his arm examined by famed surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe. Jobe later calls it one of the worst injuries he has ever seen. After the surgery, Taylor's fastball topped out at 91. He never had an ERA below 6.00 again. He currently does odd jobs and lives with his parents in his hometown.
"Out There Was What I Was Born To Do..."
The reason I've been thinking of J.R. Richard, Brien Taylor and Len Bias was because of Josh Hamilton. Hamilton was the Rays' first (and number-one) draft pick for the franchise in the 1999 draft. He was picked right ahead of Josh Beckett. An absolute can't-miss phenom, Hamilton didn't drink, didn't smoke, and was called by scouts, "the best pure athlete they've ever seen."
Three years later, Hamilton was out of baseball due to cocaine and crack. He says that he spent most of his time out of baseball walking the streets of Raleigh looking for dealers who could give him some crack. He says he would sometimes wake up surrounded by other junkies whom he didn't know. "The best pure athlete" was a crack junkie who didn't change his clothes, lost 60 pounds off his athlete's physique, and was nowhere near the game he was born to play.
But then the impossible happened. Hamilton stopped doing drugs. He got himself a job at a baseball facility scrubbing toilets and raking the field, so that he could use the facilities at night. At night he slept on an air mattress in an office overlooking the field. "It was hard to look out at that field," he says. "Out there was what I was born to do, but because of decisions I made, I couldn't do it."
But he did do it. In 2007, after three years of suspensions, and four years since he stepped onto a field, Hamilton was reinstated to play baseball. Picked up by the Reds, Hamilton batted .292 with 19 HRs in under 300 ABs. This year, he's batting .300 and has a slugging percentage of .562. It was as if Hamilton had never left the game.
The story of Hamilton is amazing. Nobody comes back from crack addiction. Eddie Guardado, a former teammate of Hamilton, said this: "I don't think people understand the sort of odds Josh overcame to make it. My brother was a heroine addict who died from drugs...So for Josh to return from all those years of not playing baseball—having barely picked up a bat—and perform at that level, well, it tells you what kind of player he is."
There's a poem I like by John Greenleaf Whittier. Whittier was a Quaker and a fierce abolitionist, but he was also a poet. The poem is entitled Maud Miller, and is quite long, but the lines I like are these:
And for him who sat by the chimney lug,
Dozing and grumbling o'er pipe and mug,
A manly form at her side she saw,
And joy was duty and love was law.
Then she took up her burden of life again,
Saying only, "It might have been."
Alas for maiden, alas for judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!
God pity them both ! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall;
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"
What might have been for Taylor, Richard and Bias. Sad isn't a big enough word when you think what they could have accomplished, what joy they could have had and given. Because frankly, for me, not an athlete, but a fan, there is nothing like watching the grace and beauty of someone doing what they were put on this earth to do.