Why Major League Ball Players Need Career Services

Many ex-players wander in the darkness looking for a way to feel professionally validated again

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Tony Avelar / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Curt Schilling, former Red Sox pitcher and founder of 38 Studios LLC, unveils the new "Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning" video game during the Electronic Arts Inc. annual Studio Showcase in Redwood City, California, July 20, 2010.

I recently enjoyed seeing my former teammate’s Curt Schilling’s debut into the gaming world. Years ago, he formed a company which released its first video game earlier this month. All along his eight year journey, he was executing an idea, a dream for his next masterpiece. Schilling was the rare bird that from day one knew that he would be pulling his hair out if he only chipped away at empty jobs once his baseball career was over. So he focused on an industry that gave him as much joy as baseball.

And he didn’t wait until hanging up his glove to figure that all out: he identified that next passion early on while in the midst of his playing days and ran the risk that by celebrating that passion while in uniform, people would criticize him as unappreciative and unfocused. But Schilling is highly unusual. The more typical journey is one full of wandering souls, feeling in the darkness for a way to be professionally validated again.

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There are always, of course, coaching and other leadership positions in professional sports, such as team manager. Boston’s Bobby Valentine played for a handful of Major League teams, the 49ers Jim Harbaugh played in the NFL, Golden State’s Mark Jackson played in the NBA for many years. But there are only so many slots in this arena, and so the vast majority of players must find gainful employment elsewhere, either in limited roles around the game or in completely different fields. If you are to venture into another discipline or try to start up a business of your own, you have to be well-prepared. But many retired professional athletes walk out the door with a mythical “you are set for life” illusion, when nothing is further from the case.

It’s not all a field of broken dreams. Former Red Sox and Met Mo Vaughn seems to have found a niche as a real estate developer in Harlem, revitalizing the area through hard work and knowledge of the process. NBA legend Magic Johnson has worn many hats for many years, recognized as an adept businessman with core principles that remind you of what made him such a good leader on the court.

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However, there are so many more stories of second careers that turn into third, fourth, fifth and sixth careers. If you ask any professional athlete about their resume since they stopped playing, you will probably hear of two possibilities. One is that they don’t have one, two is that it is so long that cutting it down to one page is an exercise in futility. It’s more like a extracurricular scroll of a high school student trying to get into his top college choice, except that most MLB players don’t have a college degrees, which is part of the problem. Going into the 2009 season, only 26 of the 750 or so players had graduated, which creates further challenges in a competitive professional world. Commitment to the game leaves many highly unprepared people on the side of the road.

As for my own story, after about three years working in real estate, I discovered I had better options by staying closer to baseball. I wrote a book about life in the game and was eventually able to land a relatively stable role as a baseball analyst with ESPN. Yet even so, this is another field that in the end is challenging to keep long-term. All of which is why, as a board member of the MLBPAA (Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association), I will focus on improving transitional services for former players, helping them to figure out what skills they have for the next step. And what makes it most difficult for these players is that nothing feels right but that first love, that first passion for the playing the game. But to survive, we need to capitalize on the idea that we can have many dreams and passions, and maybe the first question we should ask is “Who am I now?” instead of “Where am I now?”

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