Baseball teams really are big families
Brian McCann's foul ball injured Luis Salazar, who's more than simply a coach on a club
I am close to my big brother. He certainly taught me all the fundamentals of baseball, as we played Wiffle ball, stickball, Strat-O-Matic baseball and in summer leagues together and against each other. So it is a bold statement to say that I spent more time with my big league teammates than I did my own brother. But that was the case during the height of my major league career.
More than that, my teammates didn't just seem to substitute for my brother, but they became brothers. Love 'em or hate 'em, we had to find a way to work it out. We talked about each other, we had each other's back, we rose and fell in and out of glory, but in the end we remained brothers. There were moments, such as when we had to peel teammates Terry Shumpert and Tanyon Sturtze apart from a disagreement in the Iowa Cubs' locker room; there were moments, such as when we piled on top of one another after winning the Puerto Rican winter league championship and manager Tom Gamboa had to be peeled apart from hugging Jose Hernandez. Winning or losing, we were family.
Our baseball parents were the coaching staff. Those who fit this description were managers, coaches, training staff, clubhouse managers or anyone who had more time on Earth than us and understood our world. They may or may not have liked their children at times, but they had to find a way to include everyone, or they would be one son short when the other team was trying to break apart our family.
So when I heard about the injury to Luis Salazar in Atlanta Braves camp, I understood exactly what Brian McCann and the team are going through. See, McCann hit a line drive into foul territory, where it struck Salazar in the face. Salazar had to be airlifted to the hospital, where he underwent surgeries -- and was scheduled for more -- for facial fractures. I may not know all the intricacies of their relationship, but I do know that even if McCann hadn't said a word to Salazar all spring, he feels he just accidentally hit his father with the car when backing out of the driveway.
That is how relationships are distributed in big league locker rooms. When you sit across from someone, working at the same goal with one group of people, you get close. When you do it for season after season, as I did with Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal, Jimmy Rollins, Desi Relaford, Curt Schilling and Wayne Gomes, you become inseparable, which has little to do with liking or not liking someone.
Maybe that is why a successful team gets on the same page. To excel at the major league level, you have to be inside your teammate's head. Rollins needs to know where Chase Utley is at all times; Ubaldo Jimenez needs to be in total sync with Chris Iannetta; Dave Duncan has to intuitively know that Chris Carpenter has thrown his last pitch without even looking at the pitch count.
I was a center fielder, and sure, there were mechanics to my understanding that Pat Burrell was too close to the line or that Randy Wolf was going to try to pick off the baserunner, but it is another level to know that Pat is distracted because of family problems, that Randy is tipping his pickoff move from a loss in confidence, that Mike's struggles with his girlfriend are making him forget the plan right after he visited the pitcher's mound.
So when McCann knew that he was part of a sequence of moments that led to a situation that put one of his parents on the brink of death, that concern would not just go away in an at-bat. McCann knows his family tree and the roots are too deep to be unaffected. He probably had met Salazar's son on the field. He probably saw Salazar's wife in the family room after games. He most likely broke bread with Salazar on many occasions. This was not just his boss in the accounting department who works at "corporate" in Sydney, Australia, whom you never see; no, this is a person whom you know well and who knows you well, and this intimacy comes from breathing the same air and space, every single day.
Baseball is just a game, if you look at it two-dimensionally. But like anything that can capture the heart of a culture, it works in 3-D. The relationships you forge, that you make in the game, change you.
Over the years, I have lost a lot of brothers -- teammates and opponents. Jesse Hollins, Cory Lidle, Josh Hancock, Geremi Gonzalez, Kevin Foster, Darrin Winston, Rod Beck, Harry Kalas, Darryl Kile, Ron Santo and John Vukovich to sadly name a few, and these were not distant friends; these were people I shared moments with when I could not get a hit for 20 straight at-bats, when my hamstring tore into two parts, when my father was buried after three years of illness. Sure, I called my immediate family to talk about life and the grind, but it was my coach John Vukovich who was physically present to lean on often, when the illness of my father took my breath away. Just as I happened to be there when Cliff Politte received the phone call hearing about the death of his aunt.
This is baseball, and once you get that taste, you understand immediately the power of being a teammate, of being part of a collective movement to getting something done that everyone in the family wants done. For it to work, you have to put everything into view, get close to people in ways that may scare you, that may make you uncomfortable, but it is the only way to be truly a team.
Baseball is just a game, if you look at it two-dimensionally. But like anything that can capture the heart of a culture, it works in 3-D. The relationships that you forge, that you make in the game, change you. The fans, the cities, the teams you come to love or hate, the close calls, the generational debates. Those relationships are how baseball could even be considered as a healing agent amid the devastation of 9/11. Or it could be something simple, like when we came back at the crack of dawn from a road trip, and I saw a flat tire on my truck. Billy Wagner, wearing his nice suit, was the first guy under the truck to change the tire.
We go through it all as a team, we rise, we fall, we are devastated, we are lost, we triumph, we are thrilled, we are thrilling. And yes, there is crying in baseball. I have cried many tears for teammates and opponents whom I have lost over the years. McCann and the Braves family are still holding their breath, hopeful for the best of results for Salazar. Sure, they will carry on, but it will not be business as usual, rather business with a renewed purpose in protection of the family. They saw what it is like in a flash to lose a brother, a father in their world, and they don't want to ever feel that fear again. The Braves, like baseball, is a community of families. And like any good family, in these moments, they will look after their own with everything in their soul.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11, 2010. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville