My favorite White Sox fan is an 12-year-old from the far South Side of Chicago, who summers at his family’s beach house in Massachusetts, where news of the outside world comes but slowly.
So as I watched Mark Buehrle, the implacably Midwestern Sox pitcher, toss a perfect game on a July afternoon last year, I figured I’d let him in on the excitement. I reached his dad by cell phone, and over the static and the breeze clipping our conversation, I could hear in the background the tinny plinking of surf hitting the sand and the voices of kids playing.
Except for the cell technology, the whole scene was out of Rockwell, or maybe Updike: a grown man telescoping his own baseball fandom, and all the history, legend and sacred continuity that goes with it, into the mind of a facsimile of his former self, playing on a New England shoreline.
Only Rockwell’s America, and certainly Updike’s never anticipated a phenomenon like Buerhle, a 30-year-old lefthander who opined in a spring-training interview yesterday that he might take his mitt and go home after his current contract runs out after next season. “I’ve done enough stuff in this game and obviously made enough money,” Buehrle said, “that I think I can walk away in a couple years and be satisfied.”
Buehrle indeed has more to brag about than most pitchers–he did more than most just last season, when, besides the perfect game, he hit a home run, won a Gold Glove and set a record for consecutive batters retired. And Lord knows he’s made enough dough. Since being drafted out of a St. Louis-area high school in 1998 by the Sox, Buehrle has been paid more than $55 million. Now, he says, he wants to watch his kids grow up, see them hit their own home runs.
Here I’m supposed to invoke my 12-year-old pal, who will see another sports role model take the money and run. But frankly, it’s me that wants to tell Buehrle that he’s got an obligation to keep pitching: not to baseball, or to the fans, but to himself. Sure, his motivations are admirable (if a little sentimental: if my dad were a professional baseball player, I’m not sure I’d want him watch my flailing first attempts to hit the curveball). And grinding out a 162-game season must be tough when you’ve already got two no-hitters (his perfecto was his second) and nothing much else to prove.
But he has a gift, to which he owes not only his pile of lucre but mountain-top experiences. Perhaps he has more to offer–the standout New York Knicks star Bill Bradley became a U.S. senator after he hung up his Chuck Taylors; who knows but that Buehrle has other promises to keep.
But to walk away from the out years of his current promise would put his achievements in a smaller box than they deserve. Mark, your kids can do without you for another couple of years. They only want you to be all you can. I’m pretty sure that’s not a guy standing on the sidelines, yelling for his little man to go yard.