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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Life After Baseball

The recent death of former All-Star pitcher Rod Beck, 38, brings into focus the oft-discussed problem of what happens to some athletes after the cheering stops…when they leave the world of sports and enter the everyday sphere inhabited by the rest of us.

Starting in high school (or even before), star athletes are the hottest thing around. They’re constantly told, and can constantly prove on the field, that they’re better than other people at what they do. Even some of the “worst” players in the major leagues were big stars in high school and/or college.

Once an athlete gets to the big leagues, playing front of crowds of thirty or forty thousand a day, life just gets tougher. Sure, most baseball players have guaranteed contracts, and that’s not an insignificant consideration. But along with the financial security comes the constant fear that you’re going to lose your skills, that someone else is going to take your job. Contracts be damned—at the very core professional athletes are competitors who do what they do because they love to win. Or, perhaps better stated, they HATE TO LOSE—on the field, in contract negotiations, anywhere.

And as a result, some (okay, many) (okay, most?) ballplayers take uppers, steroids, what have you to give them a competitive edge, knowing full well that such behavior is fraught with risks. Players want to win (and earn the bucks) so much that they do things they know are dangerous and are more concerned with getting caught than with the resulting physical peril.

Rod Beck seemed like a repudiation to that entire culture. He was big, with a beer gut, a mullet, a Fu Manchu mustache, and what seemed to be a genetically attached beer can and cigarette. Hard to imagine steroids in his body.

He was a fine pitcher in his day, even though his role in the majors was not what he’d prepared for. A starter for most of his minor league career, he converted to closing at Triple-A in 1991 and was an immediate success. He saved 48 games for the 1993 Giants, and five seasons later nailed down 51 more saves for the Cubs. Good in the community (especially when he pitched for the Giants), and apparently a great teammate, Beck would habitually hang around the clubhouse after a game and talk baseball for hours.

Fans also loved him for his approachable nature. He camped out in the parking lot of the Iowa Cubs' ballpark while in the minors in 2003, hosting fans after games in his RV. Even reporters liked and respected him for his straight talk.

Beck liked beer and smokes and fishing and comfortable clothes…and he loved baseball. So when his career began to wind down in the early 2000s, the pain must have been overwhelming. Not too many star athletes, set for life financially, would go back to the minors in their early thirties to try for another bite of the apple, as Beck did in 2003.

Beck’s decision seemed to work out extraordinarily well, as the Padres signed him that summer and he converted 20 straight save opportunities, surviving on great control and guts more than on stuff.

But even at that high point, Beck was struggling with his demons. His arm worn out, after years of pitching, having undergone elbow surgery in 1999 and coming back from it too soon, he knew that his days as a pitcher were numbered. Perhaps as an attempt to cope, Beck began overindulging. In spring 2004 he went into rehab, and after throwing 24 poor innings for the Padres later that season, his career was over.

Rod Beck had been playing professional baseball since age 17, in 1986. Eighteen years later, he was done. He had plenty of money, plenty of friends, and a wife and two kids. But it wasn’t enough.

God only knows what life was like for Beck, but he—like many other athletes for whom the glory is gone—had no way to adjust to “real life.” As he almost certainly learned, drinking beer and fishing is a lot more fun when it’s a respite rather than something you do every day.

Beck seemed to have a hard time adjusting to real life. He became estranged from his family and moved to Phoenix, out of baseball, away from the clubhouse that he needed so much, away from the shared experience that athletes at the top levels feel.

He did make some forays into acting, likening his recent work in the soon-to-be-released film Work Week to baseball, saying that he was acting all the time that he was pitching anyhow.

It’s hard to know if Beck would have been able to rescue himself with screen work, which could have eventually put him in an even faster-moving party lane than baseball did. We’ll never know.

Healthy people, even those with a beer gut, usually don’t die at age 38 unless they have some sort of pre-existing genetic condition. Until all the information comes out, the more skeptical among us will hope for the “best” and assume the worst.

Beck had an agent, who issued loving comments in his memory. He had friends and family and former work colleagues, all of whom mourned his passing. But nobody could help get him out of the abyss, despite their efforts. It’s not clear how much, if at all, Major League Baseball did to help Beck, or ever attempts to help its former employees adjust to life away from the game.

He died Saturday, alone, in his house in Arizona, his body discovered by two female friends—most likely girls who came by to party with the guy who used to be a major league baseball player.

Bill James once wrote, though in a very different context, that ballplayers are paid too well for tragedy. I think this case is an exception.


Anonymous Dan E said...

Well put. And one wonders if Beck would still be here if he'd had a bit more of that "superstar" ego to sustain him.

For me, the saddest thing is that a guy who was so clearly loved by all was seemingly unable or unwilling to reach out when the darkness started to close in on him. A lesson for us all, perhaps...

3:50 PM, June 26, 2007

Blogger Stuart Shea said...

Dan, couldn't agree more.

5:51 PM, June 26, 2007


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