June 7, 2009
Op-Extra Columnist | Heading Home Baseball Family Secrets
By DOUG GLANVILLE
I haven’t spent a lot of time watching “MTV Cribs,” but I know the host likes to check the featured homeowner’s DVD collection for a copy of “Scarface.” Apparently, owning this movie is the key to street credibility (by “MTV Cribs” standards), and it is understood that the homeowner will play it for anyone who sets foot inside.
We all have our favorite movies, and I have some staples of my own in my collection — “A Few Good Men,” “Sixth Sense” — but I would never demand that visitors watch those movies as a rite of passage into my “crib.” However, a few months ago, the executive producer of MLB Productions, who is a friend of mine, sent me a housewarming gift of some classic documentaries about baseball. The jewel of the package was a contemporary piece called “We Are Young,” and if you are ever in my home, expect to sit down and take it all in. (Alternative plan: It will air on MLB Network this coming Friday at 3 p.m. EST.)
I have seen a lot of footage on the life of a baseball player, but this story captures the essence of what a lot of players carry with them at all times: the worry about failure, the need to be driven. At times these forces are couched as inspiration and motivation, at times they come from a convergence of fear and a desire for approval — and this documentary shows that dichotomy, unapologetically and realistically.
I happen to know the family, at least the older son, Dmitri Young. I played most of my career against Dmitri and he was a fun-loving opponent. Always laughing, always having time to chat at first base. From the outside, you would think he didn’t have a care in the world, especially since he was also a stone-cold hitter. But this documentary took me inside his life. I learned about the family dynamic that shaped him.
Dmitri was a first-round draft pick, which means he had more opportunity to learn and grow than the average draft pick. The financial investment a team makes on “first-rounders” tends to allow for more latitude with the young player’s growing pains. Yet he was in the shadow of a strong father, a top-gun military man who made it clear that failure was not an option. And for the sake of his little brother Delmon, a rising star 11 years his junior, Dmitri could never show anyone that he struggled with meeting those expectations.
I myself came up chasing my big brother Ken, who was almost eight years my senior. I followed his every move and whatever he pursued, I pursued. He sparked my competitiveness, he gave me a goal. As I got older, I started to understand the pressure he must have been under and the exterior he had to keep to protect me from any disappointment or disillusionment. He had to stay strong, keep smiling, even when his heart may have been breaking.
And although my father was not a stern man with rigid regulations, like Dmitri’s he cast quite a shadow. He began teaching full-time in his native Trinidad by the age of 14. He went on to a teachers college and then became an assistant headmaster. But, unhappy with the way his career was progressing, he vowed to head to the United States and pursue medicine. When none of his school credits translated over to the education system in the United States, he began all over again, a 31-year-old freshman at Howard University, where he eventually got a medical degree and full qualifications for psychiatry. He had two careers before most people even figure out what they are doing for their first one.
I know now that my brother could have translated my father’s drive and success as pressure, but I would have never known it from his unwavering support in my life. He buffered those stresses and I was able to spread my wings; I never feared living up to my father.
But Dmitri internalized everything to free up Delmon, even to his own detriment. It was the ultimate sacrifice.
Play long enough and you become intimately connected to your fellow ballplayers. During my career, I spent considerably more time with my teammates than with my own family. But in crossing over into baseball retirement, I’ve realized that even within all that intimacy there is distance. I didn’t really know my teammates as well as I thought I did. We are often islands unto ourselves in those hallowed locker rooms. This is partly because as ballplayers we spend so much of our shared time focusing on game strategy, life on the field and all the fun elements that spin off from that life, while ignoring what really makes our teammates tick. I suppose it’s something we assume we know — we are all together in the same locker room, and many share similar stories of rising to the top. But beneath the surface, there are a lot of secrets, some that mask a lot of pain, most of them byproducts of the internal struggle to maintain a certain level in a hyper-competitive arena.
For instance, it manifested itself in the dark secrets of steroid use and how no one talked about it, no one could tell for sure who was doing what. It manifested in maybe having a teammate whose locker was right next to yours but having no idea that he was battling depression or anxiety. To acknowledge these challenges is to admit defeat, or anyway take away the edge you need to perform. Where do you go? This can eat people up in ways that often remain unrevealed and suppressed. In the world of professional sports, and baseball in particular, you don’t have time to reflect as much as is healthy, for there is always another game to play.
As players, we are doing what we love to do, and for the most part it’s an enjoyable ride. But trying to figure out why we try to excel can dampen the mood and leave us feeling inadequate. The price you sometimes pay for success is a feeling that you’re not doing enough, that you should be doing more, that you should somehow be “better.” Over time, many players mature and find ways to deal with this dynamic. It may get buried, or become masked in bravado, or re-channeled constructively to wreak havoc on your opponent. But even if we learn to harness our drive, that doesn’t mean peace comes with it.
As I watched “Young Larry” (as he calls himself), the father in the Youngs’ story, I was impressed by his ability, ultimately, to reflect on the pressure he had put his sons under. He was a caring father who wanted the best for his children and understood how to provide support through channeling his experience as a top gun. Dmitri and Delmon Young have just gone through another challenge with the loss of their mother, Bonnie, to pancreatic cancer last month. Yet they carry on, having learned to stay close to their nuclear family, no matter what. Dmitri is now fighting to come back from a stint on the disabled list with the Washington Nationals, still taking it one day at a time. Delmon is an established player with the talented Minnesota Twins.
I connected to Dmitri’s story because it showed how the rollercoaster of emotions inside so many players can often be traced back to the people who cared about them the most. And if you have the time and want to understand what I’m trying to express in this column at the most core level, take a look at “We Are Young.” Or come by my “crib” and I’ll play it for you. And you will understand, like never before, what an amazing ride a life in baseball can be.