Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sometimes Getting Your Way Kinda Sucks

I've been saying since about halfway through last season that Craig Rivet needed to be scratched from the line-up.  I'd never been super high on him, but he was looking particularly old and slow, just completely out of sorts.  Eventually it came out that he'd been trying to play through a shoulder injury that probably should have been surgically repaired months earlier, and everyone thought he'd come back at 100% this season.  I wasn't convinced and I admit, I've taken a little delight in being right.  I wanted him to be scratched so badly.  

And then Lindy Ruff actually did scratch Rivet.  He kind of put himself in the position where he had to.  He couldn't go on and on about playing the best players and ignore the elephant in the room with 52 on his back.  And I think Lindy is pretty desperate to find something that will wake someone up.  But I was pretty surprised.  Every time I've ever publicly rallied for Rivet to be benched, someone has come along and told me the story about how Lindy was scratched while wearing the C for the Sabres and how much that wounded his pride and ended his career in Buffalo.  And I got that.  As much as fans, me included, insist that management set aside feelings and do the right thing for the team, I understand that everyone carries the weight of their own experiences with them and those experiences affect us and how we deal with others.  I know a lot of people will insist that Lindy shouldn't get any credit for finally doing something that should have been done a long time ago, something any good coach would do, but I disagree.  I give Lindy a lot of credit for making this move because it does hit so close to home for him. I think it's obvious from his comments - "No player understands. He won’t understand" - that this was a tough one for him.  

And then I watched this interview with Rivet.  (If you haven't seen it, I'd encourage you to take a few minutes to check it out.)  I'm not going to lie, I was completely fascinated by this interview.  I've gotten so used to seeing professional athletes give plastic interviews where they break out all the familiar catchphrases: we're not getting the breaks, we're not playing within the system, we're trying to do too much, we just need to keep working hard and putting pucks on the net.  This interview was not like that at all.  Rivet doesn't break down in tears or punch Kevin Sylvester in the mouth (alas) or anything like that.  He's completely in control of his emotions.  And yet, he's not in control of his emotions at all.  He's clearly feeling a myriad of things: anger, disappointment, frustration, guilt, pride.  I think in that interview, you really see a guy who knows he's watching the end of his career come up fast and also seeing the possibility that it might not end on his own terms.  

There's a really wonderful book called "The Boys of Summer" by Roger Kahn. (I promise this is going somewhere so please hang with me.)  At a very young age, early 20's, I believe, Kahn suddenly found himself working as a beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune.  His assignment was to follow the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team he grew up rooting for and still unashamedly loved.  The first part of the book follows those years spent covering the Dodgers, the seasons that end in heart-breaking losses to the Yankees and the season, 1955, where they finally become Word Series Champions.  The second part of the book is Kahn visiting various members of the Dodgers in the late 60's and early 70's, catching up with them and seeing where life took them after their playing careers were over.  

I was, I don't know, maybe 11 or 12 when I first read "The Boys of Summer."  I adored the first part of the book.  I ate up all the descriptions of Ebbets Field, the stories about Jackie Robinson, the travails of the loyal fans who almost always watched their team come up just short.  I loved the stories about traveling with the team, and the hustle and bustle of an old-school newsroom, the reporters calling in scores and guys in the office fishing the correct numbers out of a pile and placing them carefully on the press.  I think "The Boys of Summer" is probably responsible for instilling the dream to be a sportswriter, a dream I carried through my freshman year of college before finally abandoning it.  I know it was responsible for my childhood crush on Pee-Wee Reese and for me probably being the only person in my age group to send him fan mail.  I didn't really care for the second part of the book, however.  I mean, jeez, who cared about a bunch of old geezers, you know?  

I re-read "The Boys of Summer" a couple of years ago, and this time the second part was much more interesting because I realized that those old geezers weren't really that old at all.  Most of them were in their mid-to-early forties.  Some of them had started new lives that were happy and successful and some of them had struggled more with leaving their playing careers behind, but it made me think a lot about what it would be like to suddenly have to start all over at such a young age.  It's not that they decided, "Hey, I think I'll start a new career."  They had to.  No one wanted them to play baseball anymore.  The thing they had dreamed of, the one thing they'd wanted to do with their lives was over.  As often as I've sarcastically said, "Oh, yeah I'd love to get paid all that money to play a freaking game," I know these guys have given up a lot to get where they are.  Hockey players especially start at such a young age, too young probably.  They leave home, they sacrifice family, friendships, schooling, and let's be honest, childhood. And then at 35, they're done.  They're starting over at an age where most of us are really getting into a groove.  

I don't mean to be overly dramatic.  Craig Rivet has made enough money over the course of his career that he should be just fine financially.  He has the means to pursue whatever he wants to pursue.  He also has the means to not pursue anything and spend a few years at home watching his kids grow up if that's what he prefers.  That's a privilege that very, very few people can choose.  The Sabres organization alone is full of guys who have found careers in hockey after their playing days were over: Lindy Ruff, James Patrick, Rob Ray, Mike Robitaille, Jim Lorentz just to name a few.  But still.  He's 36.  Emotionally, that's a huge change to make at such a young age.  How weird must it be to be just about done and still have so much of life in front of you?  How weird must it be to realize that your skill set is completely useless in the real world?  How weird is it to know that you're living a dream and that the dream is almost over and that it really wasn't that long?  In ten years, when you're only 45, 50, it'll be far enough away that it might feel like it really was a dream.  And how weird is it that the people around you are ultimately the ones who decide whether you can continue or not?  That as much as you may want to go on, they have the power to decide it's over?  I wonder, do professional athletes face retirement with the secret fear that the best years of their lives are behind them, that nothing that comes after will top what they've already experienced?

I'm rambling now, I know, and honestly, I'm not sure what I'm really trying to say.  I was just genuinely taken aback at how much that Rivet interview affected me.  It was one of those rare moments where I saw the facade of professional athlete slip and got a good, long look at the human being behind the jersey, a human being living a life and grappling with a thousand conflicting emotions and big, potentially life-changing moments, just like we do.  

I'm glad Rivet was scratched, but I'm also glad I'm not the one who had to sit down and break the news to him.  I'm glad I got what I wanted, but I'm really sad about it too.  I wish that it had ended a different way.  I hope it still does.  I guess I'm just a softie.


Becky said...

Bucky wrote a similar article after interviewing Jay McKee last week:

I think anytime someone leaves a longtime job it can be very unsettling, but especially when someone else makes the decision as opposed to deciding for yourself.

Heather B. said...

Becky, I think part of the reason this struck me is because I'd also been thinking about Jay McKee. When I first started watching the Sabres, I was extremely drawn to him for no reason other than the fact that he was my age which was, at the time, pretty young. To hear people talking about him like he's an old, broken-down veteran is weird. I mean, he kind of IS - I love, love, love him but I probably wouldn't pay him to play hockey now - but it's weird. Like you said, and like I kind of said in the post, it's one thing to decide you want to do something else with your life and it's another thing for everyone around you to decide it's time for you to do something else with your life. I don't know.

Marie Stiles said...

Last night was Matty Norstrom night and after the first period Jim Fox and Bob Miller interviewed him and asked what he's been up to since he retired. It was interesting to hear him talk about working a 9-to-5 and how it's good for him socially to be out there in a routine and doing something. And how it's actually nice to be able to say you're free on a Friday night for dinner. But he also mentioned how difficult it can be to start something new that has nothing to do with hockey, which is all he's done for so many years.

Interesting post Heather!

banshezmom said...

Hi Heather.
I'm from south central PA, an AHL fan of the Hershey Bears and NHL fan of the Caps (stop the boo's, it's for no other reason than the AHL affiliation and getting to see "my boys" make the big league). I've been reading your posts for a while even though I have no fan affiliation with Buffalo. This post drives home why I like to read your blog. Keep up the good work and I promise to keep learning about the Sabres!