[Note: I wrote this two years ago, and it's one of my favorite posts, and one I go back to when spring training starts, as it does this week.]
The sport of baseball has provided many useful metaphors over the years. Some people have two strikes against them, some throw you a curve ball, others hit a home run in their career, or strike out, if they're unlucky. Unprofessional behavior is "bush league." High school boys still grade their sexual encounters by what base they happen to reach, or at least claim to have reached. (Stand-up doubles very easily get stretched into triples or homers in the retelling.)
I was reminded of this today in an email conversation with a close friend. Like me, he's been buying old wax boxes of baseball cards from the 1980s (they are surprisingly cheap), and has been noticing the career trajectories of the various players. He saw a parallel with his academic career, likening himself to Steve Balboni and perceiving a similar career decline. (I think he is being to hard on himself, and also forgets that Balboni hit clean-up for the 1985 World Series-winning Royals.)
During my brief academic career, I never managed to stick as a big league starter. I was a solid journeyman who never played for the right team, and am now I out of the game as a player. Working as a "visitor" for a regional state u was like riding the bench on a fifth place team. Moving from there to my job as a tenure-track professor, where I was not allowed to teach in my specialty most of the time, was like hitting seventh and being switched from a left fielder to a third baseman. My current job teaching high school is almost like becoming a minor-league manager. The best player metaphor for myself that I could come up with was Tom Brookens (he managed the West Michigan Whitecaps, one of Detroit's class A teams, when I was living in the area. He also wore glasses as a player.) Then again, maybe I never played in the majors at all. My old institution was the very definition of bush league.
Baseball stings hard because like life itself it is so dominated by fear of failure. One line in the movie Moneyball has really stuck with me: "at some point, we all realize that we can no longer play the boy's game." As I crack open my packs of baseball cards, I see names that I had forgotten about, and players whose accomplishments have all but disappeared into oblivion: Calvin Schiraldi, Ken Phelps, Chet Lemon, Kirk McCaskell, Atlee Hammaker, Sid Bream, Oddibe McDowell, Mark Wasinger, Floyd Youmans, and on and on and on. Some were pretty damn good for awhile, others only managed a season or two in the majors. Then again, they did make it to the bigs, their names are in the Baseball Encyclopedia and they've been immortalized on very own bubblegum cards, something that can never be taken away from them. Baseball greatness, like greatness in any walk of life, is pretty goddamned hard to achieve. Perhaps its pursuit, rather than its attainment, ought to be emphasized in this cruel, failure-laden world. After all, we all can't be Robin Yount.