In 2008, Rocco Baldelli was diagnosed with a career-threatening mitochondrial disorder. Midway through the season, when he feared that he might never play baseball again, he logged onto his computer and wrote his reflection upon his time in the game.
Baldelli's condition was later rediagnosed as channelopathy, and he returned to play for the Rays and Red Sox. But he kept his words as a reminder of his love for the game, and shared them with ESPN.com:
Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn't, but once a year I made sure of it. Before the final game of the season I was absolutely sure to be out, standing in front of the dugout, for the playing of the national anthem.
Preparing to play a Major League Baseball game is not always a simple task. Up until the moment he takes the field, a player may be taking swings in the batting cage, pouring himself a final cup of coffee or maybe riding the stationary bike in an attempt to get loose. I have done these things and many others, sometimes bypassing all other pregame activities -- most notably the national anthem.
It can be argued that when the national anthem is being played or performed, that every person in uniform should be present and should feel compelled to give it their full attention. However, neither the world nor the world of baseball are idealistic settings. I, for one, had been consistently guilty of considering it a formality. I didn't always have the self-mandated allegiance to our country that I should have had. For this I do feel a bit shameful, though I know my intentions were not ill-willed.
However, every year on that day in the first week of October, it was a premeditated act that I went out there for the anthem. I always dressed earlier than usual for this game. I also went out to the field early; this way I was fully warmed up, stretched thoroughly and in the dugout waiting for the game's daily hymn.
I vividly remember these specific games. My rookie year our final game was at Tropicana Field against the Red Sox. The following year we finished on the road in Detroit, and again on the road two years later in Cleveland. Due to injuries, those were the only years I was present for our final game. I watched a couple of others on television.
On this day, I didn't look at things as a ballplayer should. Oddly, I became aware of my surroundings as I did on no other occasion. It was as though I was "taking it all in." I will admit, as a professional athlete, your job is not to enjoy the moment. Your job is to perform and perform well. There is no time or place for rejoicing in your surroundings or in your fortuitous situation of being paid to play a game.
I was always told as a child to appreciate what I had, whatever it may be. And this was an occasion I chose to actually do it. Standing on the top step with my cap removed and my teammates at my side -- I loved my life. At that moment there was a beauty that was going on all around me. A beauty that literally cannot be put into words. A beauty that put me at peace with myself and everything in my life, even if it was just for a 90-second song.
I looked around at angles of the ballpark that I had never seen before. I focused in on a particular fan who was intently singing along with the national anthem. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath just to enjoy the odors of the ballpark. I looked down and with my cleats played with the dirt, not in a meaningless way but in a beholden way.
I looked at the wide sky and at the multiple flags that were blowing way up there in the breeze. I peered down the line at my teammates and over at the opposition. I wanted to have a lucid mental image of everything that was happening around me. I knew it was something that I didn't want to forget, and forget it I did not. I did all this while sporting an internal smile. I was truly happy.
A great man, a former player and friend of mine named Karl Allaire, once said to me that the saddest day of my life would be when I took off my uniform for the last time. And because I think so highly of this man, I took what he told me and did something about it.
As the season finale's national anthem came to an end with "the home of the brave," these exact thoughts ran through my mind each and every year:
It's a long offseason and you never know what's going to happen over the next five months. God willing, I plan on being back out here next year for Opening Day, but don't take that for granted. Enjoy the moment because it could be my last on a field. Tears welled in my eyes. I'm not sure why exactly, but one thing was definitely for sure -- every year at that exact moment I was overwhelmed with a love for this game.
Obviously, for most players, there's almost no way to know when your last day in uniform will be. My final at-bat may have passed me by already, but I feel extremely fortunate for what I've been able to experience as a major league baseball player. The joy it gave me can never be duplicated and the memories can never be taken away. Remembrance of that period in my life will always make me smile.
Like all of us, baseball will go on without me and I will go on without baseball. But I am indebted to the game. This little end of the year ritual was my small way of saying thank you.