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A Baseball Game and a Cornfield

August 9th, 2017

By Jake Gronsky

I can’t really say I’m a success story though I can’t really say I’m a failure.  I guess I’m stuck in the tug-of-war reserved for former athletes that have tasted enough success to remain content with their careers but never enough to be satisfied with the sport.  Perhaps it’s the rite of passage that must be endured for the few that are fortunate enough to wear a professional baseball uniform. Maybe it’s a wake-up call to realize that I’m a self-loathing bastard who lost sight of the fact that it was, and always will be, an honor to play this game.

Whether it was on a local little league field listening to coach tell us how their son is the next Derek Jeter, on a college diamond with your eye on a dream, or in a minor league dugout in the outskirts of Chicago, playing the game of baseball has been the single greatest journey I’ve ever been fortunate enough to trek and I am eternally grateful for every step.

This story is not a 20-some-year-old know-it-all writing about a half-baked philosophy on life, but rather, this story is simply starting over, and this is my story of trying to make sense of it all.

It’s the moment of bitter reality that the game of baseball has clearly moved on, but dreadfully, you haven’t.  It’s the moment that you have no idea what your past 20 years were spent working towards, and it’s the moment where you look in the mirror and ask yourself the only question that you can’t answer – now what?

This story is that moment.

It’s 8:00 am on a Sunday morning and I am staring out the window to a desolate cornfield in central Pennsylvania.  I’ve watched this field rise from dirt to corn only to be stripped, cut down, shredded into hay, then fall to dirt once again. Now I can’t help but feel like the corn is the only thing on this earth that understands what happened to my career.

“You want coffee, Hun?” I hear in a sweet country accent from the end of the table.   She notices I haven’t touched the menu since my dad and I sat down and walked over with a mug of coffee in one hand and the pot in the other – two items that have become extensions of her own two hands in the last 25 years.

“Water’s fine for me, thank you,” I say, finally picking up the menu as she pours my dad a cup. I can’t help but notice she is one of central PA’s finest.  The scuffs on her shoes match the calluses on her hand, and the grin on her face matches the wrinkles around her eyes.  She’s lived well, lived slowly, and lived between Sunday morning with King James and Monday morning at the diner.

I envy her.

She embodied a contentment with life that I somehow lost on this journey of baseball.  Somehow the dangling golden carrot of the big leagues overshadowed the joy and respect I had for this game and turned it into a desperate need for upward mobility; as if every step I took through the ranks was seen as merely a stepping stone for the next.  She has all she ever needed right in front of her and I had all that was left.

We couldn’t be any more different.

She came back and took our order but as I handed her the menu, she stopped and read “Monmouth baseball” out loud, trying to pinpoint why that name sounds familiar. Then, like a jolt of lightning hit her, “Oh! You’re the baseball player!”

I’ve grown to hate that expression.

When I was a boy, I dreamed of not just playing baseball, or playing baseball professionally, I dreamed of being ‘a baseball player’. Specifically, and definitely, I wanted to be a baseball player.  Then, I was fortunate enough to become just that.  My three years in professional baseball could seem more like a vocation than a career to some lifers staring down the barrel of a 15-year minor league sentence, but in those three seasons my dream finally became a reality, and my identity finally became just that – a baseball player.

But now I’m not and I finally understand the anger in Tom Buchanan’s voice when his only words after being introduced to Jay Gatsby are, “I’d rather not be the polo player.”

For a former athlete, a past career feels like a past life and this new one will forever live in its shadow.  We are just the cornstalk stripped of its fruit, waiting to be turned into hay.

“Ah, yeah, I did play.” I politely say trying to ease my way out of the conversation.

“Cardinals, right?”

“Yeah, the Cardinals’ organization.”

“That’s a tough deal, that minor league system stuff.”

Minor league system? I thought to myself.  Never did I meet anyone in this town that even knew minor league baseball wasn’t just one actually league (usually just referred to as AAA thinking it is all the same) so she has my attention.

Luckily, my dad is more willing to talk about baseball and my career than I am so he picked up where I faded away.

“Ohh, yea, real tough.  There are 7 different levels, you know.  He was undrafted and made it up to High-A, but you know, gotta make room for those bonus babies.”

“It’s a shame,” she said, “my son made it to AA, and was released for a guy that never hit over .150, but, they gave him a million bucks, and they gave my son a plane ticket.”

Did she just say AA? Did she actually understand the hierarchy system of minor league baseball? Now I’m intrigued.

She leaves to place our order, and my dad asks me to look up her son’s stats.  I was already one step ahead and began reading through – she was right.  He got totally screwed.

He lead almost every team he played on in hitting, home runs, and extra base hits.  He was a two time all-star in the three years he spent in AA, but after his standard six year minor league contract he was released.

She came back with our order and my dad asked what happened to him after he was released.

“Well, it was hard.  I don’t think he really knew what he wanted to be other than a baseball player.  He didn’t want to go play…umm,” she says snapping her finger trying to catch the word. “Where’s the place everyone plays when they don’t make it?”

“Indy ball,” I said without missing a beat, “Indy ball.”

“Yeah! Indy ball. He didn’t want to play there, so he finished up his degree, but it’s hard for him.  He says he can’t even watch baseball anymore, nor can I.  It’s just so hard seeing your son like that.  You know, lost.  But my son is tough.  There’s just so much more to my son than this game,” She takes a breath and her voice softens, “I just hope he finds it.”

Her words connect with me and instantly start etching themselves into my mind.

And she was right.

Maybe it’s not the distance we travel in this game but the times we can feel the miles trekked.

Maybe it’s not how tall we are but how tall we stand.

Maybe it’s not about the glory we tried to achieve but the legacy we leave.

And maybe it’s not about what we wanted to be, but rather, who we became that was the true currency of the game.

And now, it’s time to find that.

I look back out onto the cornfield.  I see the ragged, cut, and twined hay of my career just waiting to be fed to the livestock, but when I take a step back, I see that it was not cut just to be stripped, shredded, and forgotten.

It was cut down and harvested because without pulling the corn from the stock, the entire field would wither and die on the vine.  It was a job well done. The farmer cut it down not because it was unwanted – he cut it down because he had to – because it had finished its job, and the season was over.

The greatest thing about a season is that it begins and it ends, or perhaps, it ends, and therefore it is allowed to begin again.  Life on a baseball diamond was the single greatest season my life was fortunate enough to hold, but now it’s time I make sure the fruit doesn’t ripen on the vine and wither away.

It’s time to cut it down.

It’s time to allow myself the greatest gift the game has ever given me – a fresh start; a chance to look beyond the game of baseball and become who God has created me to be.

It’s time to begin again.

My dad finishes the conversation for me, but I can’t help but feel a sense of pride.  Her son has since found a good career off the field, and I think he found what his mother was hoping he would find.  He played the game hard, and played it the right way – as I believe I have – and I can’t help but hold a childish sense of optimism about the next chapter that I have unknowingly entered into.

My dad and I wish the waitress and her son the best and leave the diner.  My dad notices me crack a smile but doesn’t say anything.  I start the car and he smiles too.  For the first time in a long time, we both know exactly where I’m going – forward.

Jake Gronsky retired from professional baseball following the 2016 season and recently started working at Stream Companies, a full service advertising agency based in Pennsylvania. If you would like to connect with Jake, please reach out to him through LinkedIn by clicking here

To learn more about what Jake is up to with writing, visit his website at www.jakegronsky.com.

13 Responses to “A Baseball Game and a Cornfield”

  1. Tony says:

    Jake, I am Christopher s dad.
    You were a great role model to my son at Monmouth and I’m sure you still are today to him. It was great talking to your parents every Sunday morning at the Holiday Inn at West Long Branch and at the games. I remember when Virginia was recruiting my son and we were at a game in Charlottesville and you were playing Monmouth. I noticed then you were a great player.
    Wish you and your family the best.
    Tell your dad he promised me a copy of his book! I would like to get together sometime with you and him.
    Tony

  2. Patrick Cramer says:

    Good Read!!!

  3. Barbara Carreras says:

    Hi Jake.
    Hope not to bore you but Juan loved playing baseball since he was a very young boy. Well it was always the coaches kid or friend of the coaches kid that got to play most often.
    He was very discouraged and gave up playing the game he so loved.
    Then I brought into our home a little boy who had nothing and Juan decided to help him through his problems by introducing him to baseball. That is how Juan got into coaching.
    All of those discouraging baseball moments helped him become the great coach he is today. Yes his goal is to win but just as important to him is to help the player realize his true baseball ability and to know and learn the game.
    Juan enjoys keeping in touch with you and “his” former players from all his years of coaching.
    Disappointment is a horrible experience but…. you have a wonderful family and a strong determination. Give yourself some time… you will find your next path…

  4. Deb Van Buren says:

    Jake, you are a man of integrity with so much to offer the world. You see value in everything and everyone around you – from a lake, to a fishing pole, to a baseball diamond, to a corn field, to a waitress. I wish more young men/athletics could see the world through your eyes. Your work ethic and zest for life will never go unnoticed – your legacy on the diamond is still moving forward as you begin the next chapter of your life. I know God has richly blessed you my friend. You brought so much joy to my life the year you played summer ball for the Willmar Stingers. You and Suchy took advantage of all life had to offer – both on and off the diamond. Baseball has not defined you, God has and He isn’t finished with you yet! Blessings to you and the legacy you continue to shape. Much love from Willmar Minnesota – Your Host Mom from 2012, Deb VB

  5. max foody says:

    amazing read , very deep and extremily relatable

  6. Tom says:

    Jake, great essay! Thanks for helping my sons, you gave them skills and confidence! Good luck drinking Philly tap water and keep in touch!

  7. Annette Benson says:

    Thank you Jake! Very well written. I echo what Deb said-you have blessed many on your life journey so far-and I know you have good stuff ahead! Art and I enjoyed knowing you and watching you and Michael with your smiles and zest for all you did that summer….whether it was playing ball, fishing, painting houses for Habitat, reading at the Library for kids or judging food at the fair…we wish you all the best and look forward to future updates of your adventure. With love and respect from Willmar-Art and Annette B. PS-there are still cabins for sale here:)

  8. Harold Albertson says:

    Jake, Best of luck in whatever you decide to do. Don’t forget your baseball roots in Danville. When your home give me a call to chat.

  9. Shane Hale says:

    Great read Jake. We have a bit in common including the fact we were never released. I didn’t understand what a blessing that was until 20 years after I retired following the 1996 season in AA Bowie.

    Don’t let the platform you’ve built fade away. Identify your gifts and talents and put them to work to serve others from it.

    Shane Hale

  10. David Decoteau says:

    Luckily for you, I suck at sports. I’m not a good player or fan. So to me, you were never “the baseball player”. To me, you were (and are) always a guy who is fun, and friendly, and brought laughter and smiles to me and my family, whenever we were fortunate enough to spend a little time with you.

    Thank you for writing this piece. Brought a tear to my eye.

  11. Pete Wilkinson says:

    Jake, a long time ago, I felt what you described and made real again. Stayed away from the game once I was done. I came back to it — once as a volunteer and, in time, in my own way and on my own terms. Your story leads me to want to connect. All the best to you.

  12. Julie Asmus says:

    What an incredibly well written article Jake. You have a gift! I never knew the complexities of professional baseball until becoming a host parent for the Stingers. We follow our Stinger sons, Anthony Bemboom and Steven Brault, as they progress in professional ball. You are all such fine men that make us parents proud, no matter the outcome of your baseball careers.

  13. Sam Zygner says:

    Really was impressed with the allegorical method of comparing the corn in the field to your baseball career. Baseball is truly a reflection on life and teaches us many valuable life lessons. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

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