Chase Utley is a borderline Hall of Fame ballplayer who, at age 38, is reaching the end of his career. This six-time All-Star whose lifetime batting average was in the high two-seventies now bats in the low one hundreds. Although a reported team leader in the clubhouse, since we are denied access to the clubhouse, baseball fans can only assess him by his on-field performance.
What we see is a ball player who is no longer “himself.”
Or, more accurately, he is the 38 year-old version of “himself”, the old “himself” once a dangerous hitter, the new “himself” recently ranked the worst regular-playing batsman in Major League Baseball.
I wondered two things. How does Chase Utley feel, hitting dramatically less successfully than he used to hit, which since I don’t know the man I am unable to ask him, and even if I knew him I’d be too embarrassed to ask him, and even if I weren’t too embarrassed to ask him, he would not answer me anyway. Ballplayers with exceptional lifetime careers ruminate minimally, if at all – and my money’s on “if at all” – on the negative. You are either unwaveringly positive, or likely playing in Pawtucket. Or, more likely still, you are selling insurance and saying, “I used to play baseball.”
So I will receive no answer to the “What does it feel like to stink when you were once a feared hitter” question. The “Silver Medal” in this inquiry is in the technical arena; to wit,
“How exactly does it happen (i.e., the erosion from ‘Feared hitter’ to reliable ‘Easy out’)?”
I e-mailed my friend Ken Levine who, among various other successes, was a Major League baseball announcer, and I said to him,
“Ken, when a player gets old, like Chase Utley, what makes them unable to hit anymore?”
Shortly thereafter, Ken, as prompt as he is impressively knowledgeable, e-mailed back the following:
“Their reaction time, their bat speed, they just can’t turn on a pitch as fast as they used to. And it’s something that used to be just automatic. Also, in some cases, they don’t see the ball as well, the rotation of the ball, that sort of thing. They are also a little slower so the infield hits they used to get are now outs.”
I then e-mailed Ken back,
“Thanks. It must be terrible to see your capacities deteriorate. It’s like (drawing on our mutual comedy-writing experience) ‘I know there’s a joke here; I just can’t think of what it is.’”
Truth be told, concerning the issue of not being “yourself” or being “yourself” but in a diminished configuration, I was not entirely thinking about Chase Utley; I was thinking about myself.
Hey, where's the gasp of startled surprise?
A nudging – or is it noodging – displeasure with my work has led me to wonder, what makes a writer, comedy or otherwise, evolve into their less accomplished “themselves”, and if there are downward signals of gradual decline?
And by the way, the example I mentioned in my e-mail to Ken is not one of them, but more on that in a moment. If I remember. Exhibiting one of the “downhill signals” if I don’t.
I have some thoughts reflecting imaginatorial regression. Detectable “Danger Signals”, if you will.
Predictable thinking patterns, which, like my preferred musical playlist whose final entry dates back to the early seventies, I have neglected to revisit, reevaluate or expand.
A waning elegance in execution. Contradicting my e-mailed example, that does not mean knowing there’s a joke there but you can’t think of what it is; it’s knowing that the joke you did think of is not bull’s-eyeingly the one.
Plus, there is a soupcon of lost “lightness”, my offerings trending increasingly toward the tedious and diminishingly playfully as much fun. How long since I have interviewed a giraffe?
Then, speaking to “comedy reflex”, there’s the “diminishing speed” issue, which came searingly to light at a recent celebrational gathering I recently attended.
I could still readily go for my six-gun, I noticed. The problem was, by then, my threatening adversary had sauntered into the saloon, my performance now less “greased lightning” than greased… I don’t know, drying cement.
Shall I bore you with the specifics? Nah. I shall report only the following:
A young comedy gunfighter nailed me with a blindsiding zinger. Shortly thereafter, I imagined a hilarious “counter-zinger”, one that would wind up with “the old gunfighter” blowing the smoke off the end of my gun barrel, the arrogant whippersnapper, lying face down in the dust. It was a top-of-the-line “comeback.”
But it came to mind a couple of minutes too late.
So I kept it judiciously to myself. (Even worse than a substandard “comeback” is a belated ”comeback”, earning the derisive reaction, “Well that took a while.”)
That’s exactly what I experienced. I saw the pitch, but was terminally tardy pulling the trigger.
All adding up to a self-evaluating, “He seems to have lost a step.” Or possibly several.
But still not wanting to retire.
The good news is, in the last week or so, veteran Chase Utley mounted a glorious resurgence, accumulating, as of this writing, a phenomenal eight hits in his last seventeen at-bats, giving him a stratospheric batting average during that period of…. I don’t know, but it’s really good.
So there’s hope.
I just sighed. But it was a hopeful sigh.
What comes to mind concerning Utley’s encouraging output is a reworking of a Toby Keith country song that goes,
“I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good nine times out of seventeen as I ever was.”
Such streaks bring back thoughts of who you identify as “yourself” – the “yourself” at the top of their game, still accessible, if now only in flashes.
That’s what keeps you going.
Despite evidence of decline, your renewed best “yourself” may be just around the corner.
You just have to keep swinging.
And enjoy still being in the game.