The last time I played an organized baseball game -- not softball, not playing catch, not going to the batting cages, but a real baseball game, with umpires and scoreboards and everything -- was June 17, 1994. I was 18 years old, back from my freshman year of college, playing on a traveling All-Star team in my hometown of Mattoon. The game, against our rival to the south Effingham, did not end well for me and ultimately other events of the day would end up outshining young Leitch's final moment in the sun. Slightly.
But I think about that game every day. I have dreams about it, except in the dreams we're playing at old Busch Stadium, and I'm running late to the game, and when I finally get there I'm not wearing pants. That last time I played baseball, that final game, it has become a single driving force of my adult life, an attempt to recapture that feeling of youth and freedom and camaraderie and immortality. I didn't know how great I had it. I didn't know how much I was going to miss it.
And I wasn't even very good.
Sunday night, Blue Jays pitcher Ramon Ortiz threw his final pitch as a Major League Baseball player, and probably his final pitch as a professional. He knew it the second he threw it, and his reaction was devastating.
Ramon Ortiz is 40 years old and has bounced around baseball for two decades, from eight different MLB teams to a stint in Japan and a few trips on the shuttle back and forth from the minors. He has never been a particularly effective pitcher, at least not since the early aughts, but he has hung around, persisted, because he didn't want to let go. Why would he? Who wouldn't want to keep playing as long as they could?
This is what makes the emotion he showed on the mound Sunday that much more affecting: He is going through, in real time, with millions watching, what every athlete has to go through, the acceptance that the only thing they've ever known how to do their whole life, the central organizing principle in their life and their personality, is now gone. It will never return. What we are watching is death.
Most people don't have such vivid, memorable optics -- Ortiz is bawling by the time he leaves the mound -- but this happens to every athlete. That it happens to them so young, typically much younger than Ortiz, has always fascinated me. I'm 37 years old and feel, all told, that my career is just starting, that, now that I've quit smoking, I'm only halfway done, at least. But if I'm a professional athlete, I'm already out of the game. (If I'm an NFL player, I've been out for more than a decade.) This strikes me as merely sad, but it must be so bewildering to the "retired" athlete, who has lost the ability to do the only thing he/she knows how to do. NFL running backs are considered washed up and beaten down at 26. Can you imagine?
It is basically the life cycle told in extreme fast forward. Ortiz, who lasted until he was 40 (and may be planning on giving another go, why not), was one of the lucky ones. In the last week, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill -- who once, not so long ago, seemed so impossibly young -- retired after wringing every last bit of talent and energy out of their bodies. By the end, Kidd, in particular, was a depressing shell of what he once was. But when it's all over, who among us isn't? If you love your job, you want to do it until they won't let you anymore.
My father is retiring in roughly a month, after 35 years working for the electric company in Central Illinois. He is not in management. He is the guy, when your power goes out because of a storm, who's called at 3 am to go fix it. He has done this since he was in his early 30s, back when heading out in the middle of the night was easy, when you could get yourself back up and ready for work the next morning. Now, when the phone rings so late, there are more groans and creaks. But he still goes, and he still loves it.
But it is time. Everyone he works with now is my age or younger; all his contemporaries retired years ago. (It's also of note how dispensable, even unnecessary, the younger people he works with now view their union. They'll see.) We'll have a big party for him, and Lord knows he'll keep himself busy, but the thing that has been the center of his life for almost four decades will be no more. I bet he'd do it forever, if they let him, if he could.
And that's fixing substations by digging dead raccoons out of transformers. I can't imagine how hard it is to let go of a baseball, or a basketball, or the natural community of a locker room/clubhouse environment. You never appreciate it until it's over.
This is, of course, life. We miss what we once had without noticing how great we have it right now, until we don't have it, and we repeat the whole process. Ramon Ortiz must have hated those dull, pointless road trips to Tropicana Field to spit sunflower seeds for three days in a series he wasn't pitching in. But I bet he'd give anything for them now. We all would. I miss everything I used to do, and someday I'll miss what I'm doing now, and later I'll miss what I'm doing in the future. This is simply human. It makes you want to take a step back from whatever you have going on, today, and take it all in. Because someday it'll be gone.