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December 06, 2016
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Hang it up

I still remember a diving catch I made in a baseball game of my youth. It was perhaps my finest defensive play. It was the summer of 1998, I was 15 and I was playing second base for the Tusten Chiefs. It was down on the baseball field in Narrowsburg.

It was kind of an out-of-body experience. The crack of the bat and a jump and the glorious feeling of the ball landing in my glove. I don’t remember thinking much about it, just doing it. In my mind, the crowd went wild. But I’m not sure about that particular detail.

At the time, baseball was a big part of my life. I practiced a few times a week and followed the Yankees religiously. Back then, the team had a lot of heart, and it was easy to root for them. Players like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera were young rookies. I identified with them, traded for their baseball cards, tacked up posters on my bedroom walls, even made a trek down to the city for a ticker tape parade one championship year.

Last weekend, Jorge Posada, now 39 and batting under .200, took himself out of the lineup because he was upset to be batting ninth. He no longer catches, now plays first base occasionally and bats as the designated hitter. His refusal to play created quite the wave, and he later apologized. It was the kind of thing that made me embarrassed to watch. Quite the leap from the Posada of my youth.

The New York Times recently wrote about Derek Jeter’s shrinking range at shortstop and decreased productivity at the plate. It was only going to get worse for him, the Times supposed. They compared him to Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays—all superstars in their day who played long after they should have. Many of them had to switch positions and put up mediocre numbers for a few years before finally hanging it all up.

I would imagine that it’s a very hard thing to deal with as an athlete. The huge success must build up quite the ego, so to bow out gracefully seems out of the question.

It’s almost an abridged version of life. It’s the depreciation of one’s body and mind that everyone has to look forward to except, for a baseball player, every single strike out or error is tracked and talked about.

“Well, his batting average is at a career low.”

“He doesn’t quite have the power he once had.”

Nothing to do to reverse the hands of time.

I haven’t really followed baseball for a few years. A bit here and there. But I’m making an effort this year. I’ve watched a dozen games or so. To be honest, it’s been a real disappointment. Sure, the Yankees are still very much in the running. The games are now broadcast in beautiful and crisp HD. The slow motion is better than it ever was before. But being forced to watch the baseball heroes of my youth deteriorate has been a little heartbreaking.

I still remember what it felt like to connect with the ball cleanly. A swing and then ‘thwap.’ The ball came off with a jump if you hit it just right. Nothing quite better in the world.

But personally, I could never hit a curve ball. And it became very clear that my baseball career was never going anywhere. I played until it wasn’t fun anymore.

Posada, Jeter, I don’t know much about baseball but it’s probably getting to be that time. Don’t embarrass yourselves. You and I will always have the memories.