Jewish World Review May 9, 2000 / 4 Iyar, 5760
The lesson that they
always learn late
HERE'S A PREDICTION about John Rocker, relief
pitcher for the Atlanta Braves:
In 10 or 11 years -- maybe sooner, if his arm gives
out -- he will turn into the friendliest man you could
I bring this up because, when Rocker returned to
active duty with the Braves the other week after his
enforced leave of absence from major league
baseball for crude comments he made in a
magazine interview, his words to reporters after his
first game were: "Beat it."
Not the warmest greeting to men and women who
had come to the ballpark wishing to speak with
him. But then, Rocker is 25 years old; he does not
yet realize that the day will come when no one
outside his own family cares about a word he says.
He is a young man with the talent to throw a small
ball speedily and accurately; he does not yet
understand the almost comical aspect of the idea
that, in our society, that fact -- that he throws a ball
well -- is the sole reason anyone in the world is
interested in his views on anything.
It happens every day and every night, in athletic
arenas all over the United States: Reporters on
assignment from their newspapers' or broadcast
outlets' sports departments wait patiently for the
opportunity to speak with young athletes, and to
pass the received wisdom on to a waiting public.
Often, the questions presented to the athletes do
not end with a question mark -- an example being,
"So, your fastball seemed to be working tonight" --
but the athletes, accustomed to this kind of
attention from the time they were barely into their
teens, accept it as their due. They go to work (and
the work is almost always televised, live); then they
are asked questions about how their day or night at
"Beat it," Rocker said to the reporters who had
been assigned to come to the game and talk to him;
the next night, after the game, he waited in the
Braves' clubhouse until security guards had allowed
the reporters in, and then, as they caught sight of
him, said: "Anyone want an interview? Nope?
Missed your chance." And then dashed to the
shower room, where the reporters are not allowed.
A joke -- a 25-year-old's joke.
Which brings us back to the prediction with which
today's column began. When Rocker is 35 or 36
years old -- sooner, if his body fails him -- you can
put money on this: He will become so available, so
friendly, so warm, that he will seem like a
completely different person.
Why? It was explained to me at spring training one
year by Alan Solomon of the Tribune's staff, who
at that time was covering major league baseball. A
ballplayer -- famous for his rudeness -- was all of a
sudden the nicest man at spring training, seeming
almost like an eager job applicant than a superstar.
Solomon told me:
"When it's time to say goodbye, they say hello."
Meaning: They finally figure it out. The men who
have been treated like pampered royalty since they
were children figure out, as soon as their arms and
legs age, as soon as their hand-eye coordination
slips a notch, that they are about to become, in the
sports culture that for so long embraced them,
yesterday's garbage. A harsh term? Yes -- let's
soften it. They are about to become totally
expendable. Soon, no one will care.
And this is when they finally understand: No one
will be coming around to speak with them
anymore. No one will care what they say or what
they think. If they haven't managed their money
wisely, they will have to consider getting a job -- a
conventional job, where no one waits breathlessly
to ask their analysis of how they have performed
on their latest work shift.
Some of them figure out that there is a way to ease
the transition from being desired to being forgotten:
television. Or radio. For athletes grown too old, it
is the closest thing to avoiding expulsion. If you can
get a job broadcasting the games, or at least
commenting about them, you are permitted to stick
around and be famous a little longer.
But surliness and refusal to speak civilly with
people are not parts of that job description. Thus,
many athletes who had no use for anyone outside
their locker rooms find themselves in something
close to low-grade panic when they are about to
become the ones locked out of the locker rooms.
When it's time to say goodbye, they say hello.
When it's time to realize that, minus their athletic
skill, no one has any interest in what they think or
what they have to say, they approach the world
with newfound courtesy, with sudden friendliness.
Much of the blame belongs to those of us in the
news business -- we're the enablers, we're the ones
who put the athletes' names in the papers and on
the air day after day, while people doing fine and
worthy things in other lines of work never are given
a day in the sun -- in the paper, on the broadcasts.
For now, though, be assured that Mr. Rocker will
eventually change his words from "Beat it" to some
version of "Please let me in." No one is young,
strong and insulated from real life
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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