What Baseball Taught Me

Baseball is such a wonderfully unique game. It doesn’t require some extraordinary physical prowess or stature as much as it requires hard work. People of all shapes and sizes have been some of the greatest in our game. If you saw a professional baseball player sitting in a coffee shop, you may not be able to single him out of the crowd — not usually the case with a football or basketball player. It’s what makes baseball the common man’s game: The common man stands a chance at succeeding at it — with much dedication and discipline, of course.

I think that is why baseball is so adored. At some point, even in the ethers of their mind, everyone has thought that they could maybe, just maybe, square up a 90 mph fastball if they were standing in the box, or find a way to force weak contact against a threatening home run hitter. The allure gets us all.

I was that boy growing up watching on TV, imagining myself on the mound in the Major Leagues. I feel so blessed to have been able to play with and also face some of this game’s greatest players over the last 15 years. Experiencing the highest levels of the sport I fell in love with as a kid was a dream come true.

My baseball career has been a mirror to my life off the field, full of euphoric highs and devastating lows. I’ve been at the top of a rotation and the 25th man on a roster. I’ve started Game 1 of a World Series in one year and I’ve been left off of a postseason roster in another. I’ve been labeled as both drastically underpaid and severely overpaid. I’ve been praised as a savior and deemed a curse. The thing I take the most pride in, however, is not my career itself, not the Cy Young or even the World Series rings. Those things are important, but they only ever gave temporary satisfaction, a fleeting spike or two on my ego’s Richter scale. They are memories that I cherish, of course, but they’re only symbols of something bigger and more challenging to articulate in words.

Beyond all of the achievements, the single thing that fulfills me today is the acceptance of myself as a worthy and valuable person, regardless of what my stature or position in the world was on a given day of my career. Through the ups and downs, accepting myself was by far the hardest thing to achieve over the last 15 years. I believe it is a battle we all face as we are taught to buy into the ravenous lie that any great success, short-lived fame or bank account will bring us the deep fulfillment we are searching for.

The year 2008 was the toughest of my life so far. I was being told by strangers in public places just how terrible I was — my own fans in San Francisco yelling obscenities to my face while I was in the dugout. I even found myself ringing my mother at times because I was literally losing my mind and needed five minutes of solace with someone who understood me. But that year taught me something: If there was still a reason to smile at certain points throughout those painful days, and if everything I thought had defined me as a person was crumbling down and yet I was still standing, then maybe what I thought defined me truly did not. I came to realize that I was defining myself through my achievements on the field and through the opinions of other people. In reality, that was just the surface of who I really was.

My mother passed later that year and I needed another place to find comfort. It took a few more years of being stubborn, but in 2011, with the help of my wonderfully inspiring wife Amber, I finally found my savior; not in myself, or another self-help book, but in Jesus. What I discovered was a newfound reliance on something bigger than myself. I am grateful that my path went exactly the way it did. To finally get the message, I had to be broken not one time, but over and over and over. I clenched desperately to my own diminishing strength for many years because that was the same strength that earned me a Cy Young, and I thought things would eventually go my way again, but they never did. I am far better off now because I found a greater strength than ever before.

Baseball has surely yielded a windfall of material blessings on me and my family, and I am grateful and humbled for those things every day. More than any dollar earned or trophy standing on my shelf, I can thank this game for the life lessons it taught me about enduring pain and struggle and where to turn when I face adversity again. Every single fan out there in the Bay Area played a vital role in my journey, whether it was the cheering fans or the booers. In sports, these two opposites go hand in hand.

I was once told that anger is frustrated love. I couldn’t possibly have expected to embrace the uplifting surge of energy from the Bay Area’s baseball passion when I was succeeding and yet not weather the storm like a man when that passion turned into a raging frustration. I feel so honored to have spent my career in the Bay and to have been a part of the two incredible organizations that reside there.

I’m retiring today from baseball, but I’ll never be too far away from the game that made me who I am. I am beyond thankful to be at peace with walking away, thanks in large part to my year of renewal in Nashville with the Sounds. My return to Oakland last month was a “cherry on top” moment in my life that my family and I will never forget. I will no doubt be in the stands on both sides of the Bay in years to come.

Today, I am very excited to be a “rookie” all over again in a new field: songwriting. I am sure the lessons baseball has taught me will help me develop the thick skin I’ll need for this new endeavor. If one day you ever happen to hear a song of mine, I hope you’ll be honest about what you think. I have been building a skill set of handling adversity for years, so fire away!

Thank you, again, to all the men and women who are as captivated by this great game as I still am. Whether we’re on the field or in the stands, we’re all one family making baseball what it is today.