In Chapter 11 of Late Innings: A Baseball Companion author Roger Angell profiles pitcher Bob Gibson. The chapter is titled "Distance" and it ends with some thoughts about the larger issues of life and growing older. Gibson has just said that he doesn't miss pitching, but "... I think it's the life I miss --- all the activity that's around baseball. I don't miss playing baseball but I miss ... baseball. Baseball. Does that sound like a crazy man?" Angell concludes:

For the first time in our long talks, he seemed a bit uncertain. He did not sound crazy but only like a man who could no longer find work or a challenge that was nearly difficult enough to nurture his extraordinarily demanding inner requirements. Maybe there was no such work, outside of pitching. Baseball is the most individual and the most difficult of all team sports, and the handful of young men who can play it superbly must sense, however glimmeringly, that there will be some long-lasting future payment exacted for the privileges and satisfactions they have won for themselves. Like other team sports, baseball cannot be played in middle age; there is no cheerful, companionable afternoon to the game, as there is for old golfers and tennis players and the like. A lot of ex-ballplayers become sentimental, self-pitying, garrulous bores when they are cut off from the game. Some of them, including some great stars, go to pieces.

Thinking of what Wendy [Gibson's wife] had said, I told Bob Gibson that I was sometimes aware of a sadness in him.

"Sad?" he said uncomprehendingly. "No, I'm not sad. I just think I've been spoiled. When you've been an athlete, there's no place for you to go. You're much harder to please. But where I am right now is where the average person has been all along. I'm like millions of others now, and I'm finding out what that's like. I don't think the ordinary person ever gets to do anything they enjoy nearly as much as I enjoyed playing ball. I haven't found my niche now that that's over --- or maybe I have found it and I don't know it. Maybe I'll still find something I like as much as I liked pitching, but I don't know if I will. I sure hope so."

Maybe he will. Athletes illuminate our imaginations and raise our hopes for ourselves to such an extent that we often want the best of them to become models for us in every area of life --- an unfair and childish expectation. But Bob Gibson is a tough and resolute man, and the unique blend of independence and pride and self-imposed isolation in his character --- the distance again --- will continue to serve him in the new and even more difficult contest he is engaged in. Those who know him best will look to him for something brilliant and special now, just as they have always done. Even those of us who have not been spoiled by any athletic triumphs of our own and the fulfillment of the wild expectations of our early youth are aware of a humdrum, twilight quality to all of our doings of middle life, however successful they may prove to be. There is a loss of light and ease and early joy, and we look to other exemplars --- mentors and philosophers: grown men --- to sustain us in that loss. A few athletes, a rare handful, have gone on, once their day out on the field was done, to join that number, and it is possible --- the expectation will not quite go away --- that Bob Gibson may be among them someday. Nothing he ever does will surprise me.

TopicLife - TopicLiterature - 2002-11-04

(correlates: HappyMoments, KnowledgeAndConsistency, Hobbes and Geometry, ...)