If you are a professional athlete, you know that your dinner table has musical chairs. There is an in-season seating chart, an off-season seating chart, a playoff seating chart, even an “I’m on the disabled list” seating chart. No two charts look alike, no two charts are even remotely the same year to year.
With the close of the World Series, the last of the major league baseball players will head home. I made the trek home on numerous occasions, most times after a losing season. But it is a rite of passage that every athlete takes, no matter what the sport. And the rite isn’t in the journey, it’s actually in how you handle the destination.
If you want to substitute home for destination, go right ahead. But keep in mind that home changes with the wind in this particular world. I was traded twice in my career, once two days before Christmas, once smack dab in the middle of the season. My only warning was via media innuendo or backroom rumor, hardly enough to start looking for an apartment.
But that was my life as a major league bachelor. A life which did not and could not have understood the lives of the many pro athletes who are not single, who have wives, children, extended family in their circle. And now that my post-career includes a family of my own, I look back in awe of how these players and their support system endured so much uncertainty. America’s family game, as it turns out, is not terribly family friendly to professional ball players.
Many of those marriages buckled under the strain and did not ultimately endure. The attrition rate for a player’s marriage is particularly high — I have heard in the ballpark of an 85% disintegration rate, most of which collapse after the playing days are over.
During the season, there are games. Games to enjoy, games in which to compete, games to distract you from the mundane, even games to hide behind. Then, when the last game is played and a season has ended, cold turkey, you are a civilian. Uniform neatly placed in the back of some storage bin. There are no more shining lights or baggage handlers, you are home like it or not.
Now you must re-enter the matrix of going from being Mr. Absentee to Mr. Ubiquitous. Play dates and dinner parties, vacations and surgeries, PTA meetings and screaming baby monitors. And all while you have to re-introduce yourself to your spouse and the rhythm of your new post-season relationship.
Like every other couple who has experienced a spouse retiring from a profession, it is a challenge to work on a new way to relate. But for a pro athlete, this ritual is performed annually, while half the year, poof, he is a road warrior.
Of course, that road trip back home at the end of season often does not come with a round-trip ticket. It may well be a one-way trip to the end of your career, which adds a substantial amount of stress to the family reunion.
So yes, you may be a champion, feeling good about your professional life and on top of the world. But that world usually has to be checked at your front door. Otherwise, there won’t be room for everyone to eat in it.