Posted: Thursday March 31, 2005 11:05AM; Updated: Thursday March 31, 2005 11:05AM
I used to play for hours with an acquaintance of mine at a small Oakland park. We would play in the dust from morning to night: swinging, hitting, chasing, and running. We could play all day every day. We never got tired. We, baseball and I, became comrades, competitors, and friends ... baseball became my life. I lived for it. As a young fan, I followed players and statistics religiously through any medium I could find.
Baseball supported me through grade school, middle school, high school and college. It kept me on the straight and narrow, challenged me to work harder and be better, and rewarded me with home runs, doubles, broken bats and sweet spots.
As a youngster, I wanted to play the game as long as I possibly could. As a professional player, I wanted to play the game as long as I could compete with the best of the best. It was a job that, as a professional, would challenge me at every turn, would teach me so many real life lessons including the intrinsic value of teamwork and how to deal with adversity, no matter the score or the circumstance. It allowed me to see that being a champion had nothing to do with being on the winning team or even supplying the tiebreaking score, but it had everything to do with how you are as a person, as a teammate.
I played with my friend for the very last time in September, 2001. This point in our relationship was inevitable, yet strange. I was anxious and ready to move on to the next chapter of my life, but I could not escape the feeling that this moment was somehow premature. I suppose this is how all people feel when a love affair ends; it is a distinct sadness that comes when a good thing will never be again.
In the past four years, one of my biggest challenges has been to redefine who I am, what my passion is now. It was a struggle, but a valuable experience. What I discovered is that I am and always will be a baseball player. I will always be an athlete. My passion is still baseball and I can still draw upon those times for strength, endurance, discipline, motivation and comfort.
As a retired baseball player, reminiscing can be beautiful, but it can also be bittersweet. I wanted to play forever -- a fact I have known since first my first swing. But the play, statistics, lessons, and ideals I developed from baseball are what will actually endure. I have realized the essence of many of life's lessons and I see them through the bars of a catcher's helmet: keep your eye on the ball all the way (into the mitt), scan the infield and look for potential (steals), anticipate (the bunt), take it (in the back) for the team, and keep swinging (for the bleachers). I have continued to watch my old friend and to keep track of all the highs and lows that have happened with baseball since my departure. Though I have not stepped onto its hallowed grounds in four years, I am anxious to visit, to reengage, to spend time and appreciate the game from a different vantage point. To roam around its halls and loiter at its gates, expressing my passion with words.
Questions about baseball's integrity have cast a dark shadow and it seems as if my friend could use a friend. It has been painful to watch the suffering, but as I look ahead I see so many reasons for greater days ahead. I know that things will be OK, even better than they were before. I believe in baseball -- what it stands for and what it provides to players and fans.
As a new columnist, my hope is to remind all of the beauty of baseball, the energy of its game and the intricacies of its play. I would like to give all a perspective of a player, one who's been on the field and in the dugout, who's relied on this game and has not been let down, who's faith has been challenged but has not failed, one who's still swinging for the bleachers. I would like to introduce you to the life of MY longtime friend.
Brian Johnson was a major-league catcher for eight years. Johnson broke in with the Padres in 1994 and played in 471 games in his career.