Junior Alex Ott joins the DP Sports staff after two seasons of varsity baseball at Penn. Despite notching 17 appearances as a freshman (the fifth highest single-season total in school history), Ott chose to walk away from the sport with great reluctance and a greater story.
Former big league pitcher Jim Bouton once said, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”
From the day I was born, I was convinced that God put me on Earth to play baseball. I started playing competitively when I was three years old, trying to make a name for myself on my five year-old sister’s tee-ball team. I was the kid that asked for a bucket of balls and a bat for Christmas; the kid that always told everyone he wanted to be a professional baseball player.
Without baseball, I probably wouldn’t be at Penn.
And even when I arrived at college, I still told everyone that I wanted to be a professional baseball player. People wondered why I would attend an Ivy League school if I wanted to go pro so badly. I told them, “If fellow Penn guys Doug Glanville and Mark DeRosa could have major league careers, why can’t I?”
So I went to all the 6 a.m. lifts, sat on the eight-hour bus rides and practiced in the snow, never once thinking that getting hurt or giving up baseball was ever a serious option. Every time things got tough or I wanted to give up, I would ask myself, “How are you going to be a professional baseball player if you can’t get through this?”
For a little over two years at Penn, I poured my heart and soul into baseball,going through some extremely difficult months with the sport. Losing, butting heads with coaches, not having fun and not getting playing time can quickly snowball into a miserable semester.
And when you make baseball your life and baseball isn’t good, it not only affects you, but everyone you love. I took out my frustration on my family and became someone I didn’t want to be. I forgot about how fun baseball was when I was a little kid; it became a job instead of my escape.
Yet even in the worst of moments, I was blinded by my ambition to play baseball at the next level. I knew the joys far outweighed the heartaches and that one good game or one good season would make the world right again.
But it never did.
The hardest thing in the world for an athlete is to admit that you’re hurt. But at a certain point, it hit me that the radar gun wasn’t lighting up anymore. My knees began to resemble those of an 90-year-old man, and my arm didn’t get out of bed with me in the morning when I woke up.
I finally saw a doctor and found out that if I didn’t get multiple surgeries and miss a year, I would never play baseball again. Reality sank in, and I made the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make: I walked away from baseball.
And that night, as a 21-year-old man, I cried on my mom’s shoulder like I was a 3-year-old boy again.
I wanted to hate baseball. I wondered how I could ever love a sport that allows a man to fail seven times out of 10 and still be considered a Hall of Famer. I wondered how I could give so much of my heart and body to something just to finish college with an underwhelming career and aching muscles.
But I couldn’t hate it. Not even for a minute.
How could I hate something that gave me so many incredible memories? How could I hate something that let me travel the country and got me into an Ivy League school? Something that bonded me with my mom and grandpa in a way nothing else in this world could?
My playing career is over, but I’ll continue to benefit from baseball long after my time at Penn is over. On the field or off, many of my fondest memories have been with the guys I’ve met playing baseball. Even at school, I live with the nine other guys from my recruiting class in a house that’s split down the middle by those who still play and those who walked away. I was never lucky enough to have a brother of my own, but until the day I die I will consider those nine guys family.
So now, it’s time to learn to live as a NARP. It’s time to remember why I came to Penn and realize everything else that the school and Philadelphia has to offer. It’s time to make a career out of writing about baseball rather than playing it, and to make new memories that I never would have had the chance to make if I still played.
The other day I found myself beginning to say, “Time to move on to bigger and better things.” But I caught myself. Even though I don’t play anymore, baseball will always be a part of who I am and who I will continue to be.
So cheers, Mr. Bouton. I no longer grip a baseball, but baseball will never lose its grip on me.
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