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The Off-Season: Life Is Fleeting

The Off-Season: Life Is Fleeting

by Tim Kabel

December 9, 2021

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With the lockout in full swing, I was prepared to write one of my “what if” articles. The topic for today was going to be, “What if Don Mattingly never injured his back and had to cut his career short?”

Then, something happened. My little dog, Dakota, had trouble standing up. His back legs gave out on him, and he lay there, looking like a frog in the mud. He tried but, he just couldn’t get up. Now, he is 7 years old. This is not something that should happen. But it did happen. I have my own mobility issues, having developed numerous infections in my spine a few years ago, to the point that I was temporarily paralyzed. I still move around like Walter Brennan and carry a cane with me. The sight of me helping the little fellow to his feet by leaning on my cane and gently helping him lift his rear end with my foot must have been a sight to see. I guess both of us will need service dogs. This is the first time this happened. I suspect strongly it won’t be the last. Later in the evening, he was able to get up as if there was nothing wrong at all. However, the boat has sprung its first leak. I called and scheduled an appointment for him at the vet.

For a while, I sat there thinking about my little friend and it led me to some conclusions. The lifespan of a pet is much like a sports career. Even the long ones are fairly short. Occasionally, you will hear or read about a Major League ballplayer who had a career of 20 years. I have been in my current job for 28 years. I have not been chased from the premises just yet. I could stay there for several more years. The point is that there would be no reason to end my career unless, I simply chose to do so. I supervised a fellow, who worked at the job for 47 years. I know I will never even come close to that.

Sports does not work that way. No one will ever play baseball professionally for 30 years, let alone 47. The only possible exception to this, might be Brett Gardner. We will have to see. Playing baseball professionally has a short shelf life, like a jar of mayonnaise left out at a picnic. Like the lifespan of a pet, a career in the Major Leagues can bring an incredible amount of joy. They both start off with development and maturation before settling into the prime years. Before you are ready, it’s over. Some are shorter than others.

That leads me back to Don Mattingly. His career lasted 14 years and he retired at the age of 34. I think we can all agree that under ideal conditions and circumstances, he should and would have played longer. However, back injuries sapped his strength and forced him out of the game. Originally, my intention was to speculate about what would have happened if he had not been injured and had played a longer career, relatively free from injury. Instead, I am focused on the unfulfilled promise of his career, which is one example of so many others. Like the life of a beloved pet, an athlete’s career is something that brings us happiness but also something that we take for granted. The duration of a sports career or a pet’s life is not guaranteed. There are nifty little charts in the vet’s office that tell us certain breeds live longer than others but, that is not etched in stone, and it is just an average. It doesn’t apply to any one particular dog or cat.

The same is true of an athlete’s career. Don Mattingly’s flame burned incredibly bright for a few years. He was one of the hardest working athletes that I can ever remember seeing. He seemed as if he was on his way to the Hall of Fame. It was not meant to be. As we watch our puppies and kittens scampering around in the backyard, we never know if they will be doing it for fifteen or twenty years, or considerably fewer. A few weeks ago, a windstorm tore open the fence to my backyard and Dakota decided to become Dora the Explorer. I looked for him for quite a while when suddenly the animal control officer pulled up in his van and asked me if I had lost someone. I said that I had. He returned my little delinquent to me and informed me that he had been a good mile or so away from home frolicking in someone’s yard, attempting to help himself to their snacks. Today, he had tremendous difficulty just getting up. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not fair. As his owner, I feel frustrated, helpless, and cheated. I realize he may well have a good amount of time left but, things are different today than they were on the day he thought he was in a remake of the Incredible Journey.

in 1986, Don Mattingly had 238 hits and 53 doubles, which is a Yankees team record. He hit 31 home runs and drove in 113 runs; he batted .352 and had an OPS of .967. He was 25 years old. In 1990, at age 29, he played 60 fewer games He had 101 hits, five home runs, and 42 RBI. He batted .256 and had an OPS of .643. We all know it was because of his back injury but, I’m sure he as well as the fans felt frustrated, helpless, and cheated. As fans, we empathized with him. We knew how hard he worked and to watch him decline so sharply and so quickly was devastating. In the minds of the fans, he was destined to fit in the pantheon of the greats: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, etc. It never quite happened

I think what I’ve gathered from all my thinking on this matter is that we as fans and as individuals should never take anything for granted. We must find the joy in each day. It’s there. Sometimes you have to look for it, as if you are looking for an actual piece of chicken in a can of chicken noodle soup but, it is there. When we see our favorite ballplayer setting records, hitting home runs, striking people out, we need to enjoy it for what it is and for how long it is. We should avoid speculating about what it will be in the future and how long it will last. We have no idea. The same is true when you’re petting your cat on your lap or sneaking your dog a morsel of turkey on Thanksgiving. You have no idea if you will be doing either one of those things three or five years down the road. It doesn’t matter; you’re doing it at that moment in time and that’s what you need to enjoy and cherish.

Tomorrow morning, I will be making Dakota an egg with a side order of cottage cheese. The little lord will enjoy it and I will enjoy watching him eat it. I will not contemplate whether he will be doing it five years from now because life offers no guarantees. As the old saying goes, tomorrow is not promised to anyone.

Enjoy today. Hope for a great tomorrow but, milk everything you can out of today whether that’s watching a Yankees’ game or scratching your cocker spaniel behind his ears.

#DonMattingly

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