Play Hard and Dream Big

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Michael Cuddyer, MLB / Retired - The Players' Tribune

A cork wrapped in some yarn, some string, and some leather. One hundred and eight stitches to hold it all together. On its surface, baseball seems like a simple game. It’s what we put into the game that injects it with magic. I’ve been graced by that magic my whole career.

I’ve made the decision to retire. With one year left on my contract, it is especially difficult to imagine not suiting up in a Mets uniform for one more year. As an athlete, retiring is the toughest decision you have to make and I don’t make it lightly. I’ve always run out every hit like it was my last. As an untested high school kid drafted with a dream, I’ve never taken a single moment in the Majors for granted. It goes against every grain in my body to consider a future without the game. But after 15 years, the toll on my body has finally caught up to me.

Baseball is a game of beautiful contradictions. It can be entertainingly fast and painfully slow. You sacrifice your personal and family life for the grind and the glory. Baseball is my life’s passion, but at the same time I knew in some distant part of my heart that it wouldn’t and couldn’t last forever. Ever since I was a kid, my mantra has been, “Play hard, dream big.” But I’ve always believed in loyalty to the game itself: the day that I can’t give it 100 percent is the day I have to walk away. Now that the day has come, it’s harder than I thought it would be.

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Over the last four years, I was on the disabled list six times. I missed 150-200 games over that time span — a broken shoulder, a strained oblique, a torn-up knee, a bulging disc in my neck. I pushed through it. Mentally, I was able to overcome it for a long time, but the physical and emotional taxation took its toll. Part of being a professional is to know yourself and to know your limits. Chasing the ideal of professionalism became a theme throughout my career.

In a team sport, no player can act like he’s on his own island. It was an early lesson that has stuck with me.

I’ve been a professional ball player for nearly two decades, but learning to become a professional was a lifelong learning process. A memory from high school jumps to my mind. One game as a freshman, I got stranded on second at the end of an inning. I let my frustration get the best of me. Trotting off the field to grab my glove, I tossed my helmet clear across the infield towards the dugout. A voice called me back over to the bench. It was my high school coach, Martin Oliver. “I don’t know what they did in Little League, but we don’t throw our helmets here. Come in here and take a seat with me the rest of the game.” I watched the rest of the game from the dugout. From that moment on, I never threw a helmet on a baseball field. But Coach Oliver wasn’t just talking about helmets. In a team sport, no player can act like he’s on his own island. It was an early lesson that has stuck with me.

After high school at the young age of 18, I would make three of the best choices of my life. The first two had to do with meeting the right people: Casey Close, now my agent, and John Palguta, my financial advisor. They’ve both been with me for 19 years. The people you surround yourself with ultimately shape your career and your life. I couldn’t be more appreciative of Casey and John and the long list of people who have worked with them on my behalf.

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Signing with the Minnesota Twins out of high school was the third decision. I wasn’t actually really fond of it at the time, but it turned out to make all the difference in my career. Being from Virginia, I didn’t really know much about the Twins. I knew of Kirby Puckett and … that was just about it. I knew that at the time I was drafted in 1997, the team was not very good, to put it kindly.

I should have remembered the pitfall of judging something before you give it a chance. From the day I got to Minnesota, I learned another important lesson about professionalism. What I didn’t know was that the Twins organization was on the rise — and the reason was because they did things the right way. From the bottom to the top.

Our lockers had to be in order, our cleats had to be clean, and our infield needed to be errorless.

There were so many people in the Twins organization who impacted my career. Too many to mention. But a big influence was Larry Corrigan, the Twins minor league field coordinator at the time. LC was the definition of the term “attention to detail.” To me, he epitomized the spirit of the Twins organization.

Our lockers had to be in order, our cleats had to be clean, and our infield needed to be errorless. Professionalism off the field translated to it on the field. I remember one time he made me get a new glove because there was a crease in the palm that shouldn’t have been there. Everything had to be perfect. One day one of the players didn’t have his locker arranged in the right order. We came in after practice and every single locker was unpacked in a pile in the middle of the room. It took us forever to sort everything out. But it never happened again.

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That mentality was contagious and trickled up throughout the organization. It’s one of reasons we won six division championships in nine years. We didn’t beat ourselves. If you were watching a Twins game from the early 2000s until the end of the decade, you saw how hard we went all of the time. These were lessons that as I got older and began to carry a little veteran clout, I tried to instill in younger players.

As I’ve grown in the game, I’ve grown up as a person. This brings me to another reason for retiring, beyond the physical toll of the game. The beauty of family, once a distant idea, became an integral part of my identity. In 2006, I made the most important decision of my life when I married my wife, Claudia. She has been my rock and my constant ever since. Our relationship showed me a love greater than baseball. She has made me a better person and an even better baseball player. From our partnership, I’ve learned to value the importance of clubhouse relationships and leadership. Claudia and I now have three children: Casey, who is seven, and Chloe and Maddie, who are both four. As hard as it is to retire, I know my family deserves to have me home full-time now. It is time for my kids to develop their own dreams with their dad by their side.

As I look back on my career, I savor the championships and Champagne celebrations. But more than that, the people who supported me stand out most. In my mind right now, all I see are the people, most of them who helped me without any reward or recognition. My career is nothing without you.

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I was very fortunate to have two wonderful parents, Henry and Marcia, to whom I am eternally grateful. They never once told me I couldn’t achieve my dreams. I’m also grateful for my younger sister, Katie, who challenged me in sports, unwillingly at times, despite being five years younger. She made me tougher.

To my hometown in Virginia: you helped shape my life and career. From my PONY League teammates to the neighborhood kids who played football and baseball with me in the street, I’ll always be your buddy from Chesapeake.

To the Twins, Rockies and Mets, thank you for always treating me with class and respect. Thank you to my managers and coaches both in the minor leagues and major leagues. Thank you to my teammates. Every one of you holds a special place in my heart. Thank you to all of the front office workers, PR departments, clubhouse attendants, head clubhouse guys, and trainers for the wonderful relationships we formed. Thank you to all of the stadium workers and security that took care of my family while I was playing. Thank you to the fans, for loving me, celebrating me and especially for holding me accountable for times I didn’t live up to your standards.

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Finally, thank you to the game of baseball. I was one of the lucky ones who got to play the game for a living. One of the lucky ones who got the play for All-Star managers and coaches. One of the lucky ones who got to be a poster on a kid’s wall. I never played for money or fame, but you showered me with both. I played baseball the way I did because I knew one day it would be over. Today’s that day.

I hope you know that physically, mentally and emotionally, I gave you everything I had.

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Baseball’s Architecture: Photos By Michael Cuddyer

I became interested in photography in 2011 after seeing some of the beautiful pictures my brother-in-law was taking of sunsets while we were on a family trip. I studied up on lenses and cameras and settings for six months and then I started photographing every stadium I had the good fortune of playing in. I did it because I knew I was so lucky to play baseball for a living. From city to city, ballpark to ballpark, I never took for granted that I was living my dream. The photos were my way of never letting myself forget.

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