An Old Man Walks Away in Defeat

Why do I find myself sitting here at 3:30 in the afternoon, stinking and unshowered, yet tearing up over this photograph of Bobby Cox, 69-years of age, humbled one last time in the post-season, taking the long walk back to the locker room after his beloved Braves are eliminated by a vastly superior opponent? Is it because I know that he ended up moments later, standing in the home team’s locker room, weeping uncontrollably, incapable of delivering his final goodbyes to his players? Is it because I want to tell myself that time is impermanent and fickle and erodes all while at the same time actively believing that some things will not change, that the Atlanta Braves are Bobby's team, and always make the Playoffs, and always lose in some crucial way, that Bobby’s teams plow through the regular season on the backs of an unending series of Hall of Fame pitching staffs and line-ups filled with all-around athletes, and those games are called by Skip Carey, and Skip is half-cocked and cracking wise about the horrible movie slated to follow that night's game?

See I know that it's not possible, even in my most irrational moments such as now, weeping openly in a greasy pair of scrubs, for this to always be. Skip Carey died in 2008. His death was particularly moving in its own way: his wife, Paula, thought old Skip was napping, and she found herself looking out of a kitchen window to admire her yard, then noticing a bird feeder not hanging where it should have been. Paula decided to go outside to put the feeder back in the tree where it belonged, thinking it had been blown down by the wind. When she stood up, she noticed her husband lying there on the ground next to the fallen bird feeder. And that was the end for Skip Carey. He never could overcome his alcoholism, a family tradition for the Careys, and in the end he gave up the ghost like we all do ultimately, his heart stopped pumping, but he did leave his mark, and in my mind I can still hear his deadpan voice, articulating the movements of Ron Gant chasing a flyball across the outfield of old Fulton County Stadium, or Chipper Jones, blasting a rare home run while hitting righty, or teasing Don Sutton about something he'd said earlier in the telecast.

I'm certain that Skip's is but one voice that Bobby heard echoing in his mind as he wept in front of a room full of 20 and 30-something-year-old ballplayers, many of them also powerfully moved by the end of an era, by the team's elimination from the post-season, by what could have been if only certain things had broken their way. For Chipper Jones, one of the best third basemen to ever play Major League Baseball, a lifelong Brave who’d always played for Bobby Cox, it was just too much to take silently. Chipper's career is also likely over, ended by an unexpected injury. He too stood crying uncontrollably, and later said there hadn’t been a dry eye in the place. Others may have been mentally planning dinner that night or deciding if they should go on vacation as planned or perhaps to begin training earlier in order to win it all next year. There may even have been some who perhaps never cared much in the first place about Bobby Cox and who simply intended to remain quiet and wait the whole thing out due to a sense of propriety and politeness. In the end it is probably all of these things. In the end it is probably more mundane. But in the end, they all wept for Bobby.

In the end, baseball is not a poetic pursuit. It is not an artform, despite how we may choose to poeticize it with our words, articulating the ineffable characteristics that comprise a hero like Stan Musial, painting and sculpting our feelings about 'Stan the Man' as we come to terms with what his legend means. In the end, baseball is not an intellectual arena, despite how we may ponder and study the game and intellectualize it with our application of game theory to show what choices reveal the ideal strategy for victory or how statistics might afford us a glimpse into what truly makes a player like Stan Musial so impressive in the end. Baseball is neither of these things. It is a game, played with bats, balls, gloves and bases. It has complex written rules and a slew of unspoken ones as well, but the primary goal is to beat the opponent more often than not, the ultimate goal to crush the opponent, to step down on his throat and to never let up once you’ve found yourself in the position to win, to choke the life out of those that stand in the way of victory. It is stark and it is pitiless, but it can also be graceful and it can sometimes feel transcendent. There are moments of great power and breathtaking beauty, but there is always an end to every game, an end to every season, an end to every career.

So now it seems that the end has come for Bobby Cox. And now the time has come for an old man who must walk down a mud-dappled hallway, who must take off his uniform -- the poly-blend jersey and leggings, the stirrups and cleats -- who must hang them up one last time. He must give his postgame talk to his team and then he must field questions from the press. He must address his feelings about this season and he must talk of his plans going forward. And then he must go about the rest of his life. Ultimately, he must go about dying. I have no idea what thoughts really lingered in the minds of those left in the room after the manager had composed himself and said his piece. I have no idea how those who watched him leave the building and vanish into the October gloaming will remember what they've seen.

I wasn’t even there so I will never know, and even had I been my understanding would have been far from complete, but it strikes me at this moment of writing down my thoughts that the thing about this photograph of Bobby Cox that is so emotionally stirring to me is the aptness of how it captures time. Memory always turns away from us, always walks away from us, with head-bowed. Despite how we might follow along behind, convinced that we can capture that memory, that we can own that moment, that it will always be there in our minds, it still flickers, still tumbles from our grasp, still trudges off into the unknown. And this is why we cry when we see beauty. And this is why we laugh when we see pain. We know on some level that we will remember what we are seeing inaccurately if at all and our bodies are revolting from our intellects, are throttling our better selves with emotions too powerful for us to contain. They leap out of us despite what we may wish for them to do and they overwhelm our rationality. And so in this way we experience the world and we store sensations both powerful and mundane and perhaps one day they all come screaming back to us, perhaps one day the levee breaks and we are flooded. Perhaps one day we feel that we are done with time, but we are foolish if we neglect to realize the ultimate fact for us all, the fact that time is never done with us until we too fade into the dusk.


  1. Very nice piece. I don't care all that much about baseball (or sports in general), but I liked this a lot.

  2. This is really beautiful, Jacob. I haven't taken baseball seriously since I was a kid collecting cards and playing shortstop or second base or pitching in the "Midget League." I'm going to send the link to my dad.

  3. Thanks, yaall. Maybe it's just that I'm obsessed with elderly people and death, but there's something particularly moving to me about when people realize that it's time to retire and have to walk away from a life's work. Goes well beyond baseball for me. Glad to see that got across a little to you too as well.