Ease crashed and burned in 2000 when my father became ill. As with many a player, life off the field can reign supreme and make blank not only irrelevant but impossible. For the next three years, he would be battling cancer, diabetes, and strokes. Yet strangely enough, that wasn’t the hardest part about finding a peaceful space for concentration. That part came when my manager, Terry Francona, tried to protect me.

My father’s big stroke came on the last day of the 2000 spring-training season. We were in Seattle, about to start the year in Arizona against an ungodly long-armed pitching machine named Randy Johnson. My Mom had relayed the news about my father to me; my first thought was to head home and miss some of the beginning of the season. She assured me that the best approach was to play until our day off the following week, when we would be home in Philly and a short drive from my parents’ home in Teaneck, New Jersey. Momma knows best.

But what was missing from consideration was how I was going to perform with that question-mark-like noose around my neck for the rest of that week. How sick was he? the noose asked. Did he lose function on one side of his body? Would he recognize me?

Those questions tugged at me after I accepted the plan to play out that week. Now I had to start it off against rocket-armed Randy Johnson. Can I be blank now? Please?

All blankness was lost when, in another game in that opening series, I forgot how many outs there were in the inning. When I caught a fly ball, I thought I had recorded the final out, so I strolled in from centerfield—as the Diamondbacks’ Steve Finley not only tagged up from second base to third but now, due to my mistake, kept on going. He scored what amounted to the deciding run in their victory.

Before I even made it into the heart of the locker room, I found my friend, the late third-base coach John Vukovich, whose gruff exterior belied the fact that he was a father figure for many of us when we were miles from home. He hugged my teary-eyed soul and helped me find a moment of peace. Then I faced the music.

The press had some questions. But the shock of it was that they weren’t asking what I expected. They didn’t ask about what happened, or how an Ivy League engineering student had suddenly forgotten how to count. They asked about my father.

How did they know?

Because my manager had told them.

To this day, I love Terry Francona, now manager of the Boston Red Sox. He was my favorite manager, and under his style, I performed at my best. We never had harsh words or issues between us. I played hard; he respected that; end of story. But on this day, he had stepped in to protect me from a barrage of questions that would have been insensitive had the questioners known more about what I was dealing with the last few days. He wanted me to have a reason, teed up and clear. So now I had one, and since I wasn’t the one providing it, I would not come off as giving excuses and ducking responsibility for helping the D-Backs beat us.

Yet the byproduct of that compassion was that I no longer had a zone of blankness to which I could retreat and find peace. I would have to navigate the question of How is your Dad? for what seemed like an eternity. That question would come from anyone who picked up a paper that next day, including those on my team that I hadn’t planned to tell.

Intellectually, I knew that both my manager’s tipping off the press and the response from teammates and public came mostly out of genuine concern and sympathy. But that didn’t make it any less overwhelming. My one escape from fielding the midnight calls from the ER or from my Mom’s shrouded motherly protection was suddenly gone. Baseball had been compromised. I couldn’t leave my baggage in the locker room anymore and just play.

But I came to understand that this was just as much about maturity as it was about someone telling your secret. It certainly was not a concoction of a malicious manager out to get me; quite the converse. As with every other part of my game, I had to evolve, expand my skills, adapt to new rules or rising rookies trying to take my job, maybe even to a more tuned-in Internet. Being blank was harder every day, so I had to get harder every day, in some way. Where did the innocence go? I suppose it went where it always goes, to life.



My father would pass away on the last game of the 2002 season at 7:15 pm, which marked the time of the end of the same game where I recorded my 1,000th career hit. That day I found what blank is all about. I sensed my father’s time was coming soon, and I knew that my desire to return to the Phillies as an off-season free agent was lukewarm at best after losing my starting job. So if I wanted to get my 1,000th hit in the uniform of my childhood favorite team, the time was now. I could only hope that my father spiritually knew when I got that hit.

My opponent—the Florida Marlins’ Carl Pavano—had no chance. It was not me in that batter’s box. It was something bigger. It was a true spiritual moment where my body was just a conduit to a soul. There was no doubt; there was no fear; there was nothing past the moment, nothing before the moment; it was utter and complete concentration, total focus. I knew what was coming; I knew what was going to happen, and I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to do so. Three hits that day gave me 1,001 hits on my career, and the ball that I would bury my father with for where he was going next.

I had finally found what it means to be truly blank.


Doug Glanville EAS’93 is an analyst for ESPN.com and the author of The Game From Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View, published in May by Times Books.

 

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FEATURE: Desperately Seeking Blank By Doug Glanville
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