Little droplets of saliva spewed out as he rattled off more nonsense into the microphone. Just a few inches from his face, I stared up at his vacant, wobbly, drunken black eyes as I pulled furious breaths of air up through my nostrils. He was 6'3" 250lbs — a solid 50lbs heavier than me — but I was confident I could hit him hard enough to either knock him out where he stood, send him through the charter bus windshield, or at least crumple him down the winding bus stairwell.
My meditative bus ride was disrupted, my neat feathers were ruffled, my cool blood had boiled, and my gracious hands made fists. Though shaking with anger and intoxicated with adrenaline, I was still certain my calculations were correct — I would only need one punch to end the standoff.
What Not To Say
I don’t remember too many car rides home as a kid. My Mom and Dad carted me all over the state of Maryland, driving me in my gray pants, navy socks and navy blue jersey to Baltimore Metro League games at fields all over Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford County. I was good for my age, and so I played for a contending team in the best league in Maryland.
My parents were encouraging. My Mom played softball through grade school, and though my Dad never played much baseball, he was a decorated runner of various distances, running a 4:02 mile, a 13:43 5K, and a marathon fast enough to earn him a spot in the Olympic trials.
I don’t remember many car rides because there was never much to remember. If I played well that day, I’m sure I cheerfully reflected either in my head or with my Mom and Dad about the good and bad hops, tough pitches and the ping of a well-hit ball off an aluminum bat. When I didn’t play well, nary a word was said by any party.
And when a word was said, it merely flowed in my left ear, through my busy mind, then out my right ear and through the passenger side window. Maybe they had perspective from their own athletic endeavors, or maybe they had been given good advice from other parents. But no matter how they formed their strategy, it worked. When I had a bad game, their plan was consistent: Leave him be. When I was mad, I stayed mad until I cooled off. I stayed silent until I was ready to talk. Their strategy didn’t have much of an effect.
Or so I thought.
The Evolution of the Car Ride
In high school, rides home gave way to a post-game greeting and a divergent path either to the school bus on away games, or to the locker room on home games. In the summer I’d take my silver Dodge Avenger packed full of Ryans and Freds, Joes and Mikes on the way to summer games. We’d pile in and carpool, blaring Incubus, Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as we drove a little too fast around back roads en route to the diamond du jour.
In college, the only ride home was my parent’s 50 minute commute from our windy ballpark that sat recessed in a wooded area below a windy soccer field. Win or lose, good game or bad, I’d trudge up the grassy embankment beside the dugout to give them a hug and thank them for coming.
When I played well we’d talk for probably 10 minutes. When I didn’t, I’d keep my hands in my black and gold 80s-style jacket (our coach favored form over fashion), provide a few obligatory fake smiles and fragmented, minimalist answers before they got the hint and gave me a goodbye hug. It wasn’t fair to them, but it was, well, was it was.
And then in pro ball, my parents’ ride home was often by plane the next morning. I’d come over to the rail when the game ended, signing autographs for the kids who would interject in our conversation with a ball, ticket, hat or program in hand. After I’d depart down the tunnel to shower and change into street clothes, they’d sit back down and take in the dim light of the ballpark as the grounds crew repaired the mound and homeplate areas before tarping them and shutting off the buzzing light towers.
We’d grab a late dinner but my Mom and Dad would rarely eat. My Dad was full on peanuts and anxiety from my outing; my Mom couldn’t eat another morsel after nine innings of nail-biting while sipping a beer from what appeared to be a large movie popcorn container. It was just one beer — to calm my nerves! she’d say, rightly defending herself as a person who rarely even had a glass of wine with dinner. They both coped with the stress of watching me pitch in their own way.
By that time, as a full-grown man playing for a paycheck in front of paying spectators, I hadn’t realized how important those post-game car rides and greetings were.
I Will NOT Sit Back Down
I had just given up the game-losing homerun that night — a walk-off bomb on the road in front of a roaring enemy crowd. It was at the tail end of a miserable few weeks for me in the center-cut of the season. I had a number of holes in my armor and this blow nearly brought me to my knees, mentally.
After blowing the game, we promptly poured back into the dugout, then the clubhouse, then silently walked what felt like a half-mile in the stadium tunnels — travel bags over our shoulders— on the way to the team bus. We had a few hundred mile ride to Bridgeport, Connecticut and would arrive around 4am.
I put on my headphones and silently slumped in one of the rear-most seats by myself. I spoke to no one, made eye contact with no one, and just wanted the night to become day. I hated baseball, baseball hated me, and I just needed to literally and figuratively ride it out. I’ll be okay; I’ll get past this; everyone has bad runs; I’m going to turn a corner soon.
Then, it happened. Our most hated bullpenmate — an obnoxious, enormous, loud, insecure, borderline psychopathic, mohawk-sporting teammate drank an entire bottle of vodka. He was upset at how the game went and how the team had been playing of late. As the bus pulled into the Holiday Inn, he knighted himself team captain, ushered the coaches off and grabbed the microphone from the hapless busdriver. He stood like the great wall in the aisle near the front and addressed the team:
IF YOU’RE NOT PISSED OFF AT HOW THIS GAME WENT!…
I lost it.
I grabbed my backpack and marched up to the front of the bus, where I reached an impasse. As I stared up at him — virtually nose-to-nose like an angry manager does an umpire — he angrily demanded I sit back down.
I would not.
Leave. Him. Be.
I hadn’t thought much of it until I became a coach during my professional years. Instructing kids paid my bills, as it does for so many players in the offseason. I observed parents, coaches and kids. Some had unconditional encouragement at home, others had a combination of constructive critique and home-coaching, others still had relentless criticism and nitpicking, living with a clear understanding that even their best efforts were never enough. The relationship between athlete and parent is heavy-handed enough to shape the trajectory of every kid in every sport.
For me, I fell into category A: unconditional encouragement. My parents highlighted things I did well — win or lose, well-played or not. When I fell short of my own standards and was frustrated, disappointed or downright angry, they’d mostly leave me alone, peppering in a few compliments that — though I tried in vain — I couldn't unhear or ignore. In my car rides home along with a banana and granola bar, I was always handed encouragement, fed positivity, and drank from a Gatorade that was perpetually half-full, never half-empty.
They had the wisdom to let me sort things out in my own head, which has always been my solitary space to make sense of the world and plan my next move. I conjure up 100 times more thoughts than I share. When I wanted to talk, I’d talk.
But they reminded me that my play on the field didn’t have even the slightest impact on their love for me, on my worth as a person, or on the life that I had to live off the field. And if they didn’t say it directly, it was implied. I could play ball because I wanted to, and no one was going to give me grief about how I played.
I received zero unsolicited instruction at home, zero commentary on my work ethic or hustle, zero things I could work on, zero…well, shit. Kids go home nowadays after getting shit from their teammates, shit from their coaches and shit from those in the bleachers, just to get even more shit at home from their parents. The output from all of that is predictable: kids quit things that make them feel like shit, even when it comes from a constructive I just want you to not look back on your career with regrets type of mentality.
No matter how you dress the criticism and critiques, the could haves and unsolicited next times…it’s still just plain old shit. Using the word “crap” in this story — P.C. though it is — just wouldn’t do justice to how it feels to get grief from everyone about your poor performance in a game you love, when you’re already beating yourself up inside about it.
Another Voice Spoke Up.
I was listed at 6'0", 200lbs. I know my way around the weight room. I was certain that I could have hit him hard enough to watch him righteously tumble down those charter bus steps like he deserved. It would have been the vindicating frustration release of five lifetimes.
No one ever gave me grief like that after a game. No one questioned my hustle, gave me unsolicited advice, told me I needed to work harder or that I would retire with regrets. Parents tell their kids that stuff all the time, but I hadn’t heard it from anyone. And on that bus, it was a perfect storm of the wrong teammate challenging the wrong pitcher at the wrong time. I couldn’t imagine how so many kids endured that kind of treatment in their safe place, their own home. In my late 20s, I was poised to knock a man out for it.
But I didn’t, and for that exact reason.
I stood there, staring at him with rage oozing from every pore as my clenched fists trembled and teammates streamed in behind me to quickly snuff out what they assumed was going to be a brawl.
And as they did, I made one more calculation: what would happen if I sent him tumbling through that bus windshield. That outcome was even more certain: I’d be released— sent home the next morning to turn in my jersey.
And within the Senate of brain cells that makes up my unique mind, one voice took the floor as it fell into reverent silence. The voice reminded me how much I loved the game, how far I’d come, how much I’d been through to be on that bus, pitching in front of all those people. Even through miserable years sitting on the bench, on the operating table, in the weight room and running poles, I loved the game and never wanted to give it up. I could not end that this way.
I learned to grin and bear the dreadful, tedious work that it takes to make it to the professional ranks. The burden of preparation to get to the top and stay there is enormous — it’s heavy, and it’s something no one volunteers to carry without a deep love of the game, or will carry for someone else. I had that love and it gave me the resolve to work hard to stay on top, to do the rehab, to grind through the slumps, and finally to unclench my fist. I always played for myself, I answered only to myself, and because of that, I was free — free to play the game for what I chose it to be; I chose it to be my everything.
Where did it come from? The answer is clear:
It was all those half-full Gatorades, gulped down with my Dad’s hand on my shoulder, on the car ride home.
I’m Dan Blewett. Thank you for reading.
For more on my life as an athlete, read my book, Dear Baseball Gods: A Memoir.
I write, create videos and host a podcast. I share stories like this in various forms each week, hoping to help others find their way. Share this with someone if it meant something to you — I’d appreciate it.
If you’d like to be notified when I create new things, please subscribe to my email list here. You’ll hear from me when I have new things to share
Follow me on social media: I’m coachdanblewett