Trying to bring a little common sense to the game of baseball. But considering many of the people who read baseball blogs, I'm probably just pissing into the wind.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Ballplayers

So I'm finally getting back to posting some stuff. I'm working on new posts, but until I can get them done, I'm going to repost a few things that I've written on other blogs or sites. I'm pretty sure not too many people have seen this before, so here it is.

A Tale of Two Ballplayers

This is a tale of two ballplayers, and if you'll forgive me for waxing poetic, the mountains that they climbed.

Roel Koolen is Dutch, trying to play a game in a country where most people don't know what baseball is, and a superstar in a sport he loves, without the support system that was there for Frank Williams. He saw his mountain, and climbed it through a desire to be the best.

Frank Williams was an American, born to play the game, a star in school, and a former major league pitcher, playing in a country that reveres the game. He saw a mountain and climbed it, helped by a system that provided support and wealth.

Roel Koolen climbed for the top of his mountain, winning 4 Dutch championships and 7 European Cups, as well as playing for his country's Olympic team.

Frank Williams climbed for the top of his mountain, becoming a quality reliever and signing lucrative (for the time) contracts.

Roel Koolen fell short of the peak, never winning Olympic gold.

Frank Williams feel short of the peak, never making an All-Star game or the post-season.

Roel Koolen climbed down off of his mountain and went in search of other mountains to climb:

“Dutch national team infielder Roel Koolen of CORENDON KINHEIM announced his retirement at the age of 26. He informed his club about the decision at the beginning of December. He wants to concentrate fulltime on his work career”.

Frank Williams fell off of his mountain and will never climb another one:

Frank Williams, a former major-league baseball pitcher who ended up on the streets in Victoria, has died. He was 50”.

Frank Williams didn't have an easy life, growing up an orphan and living in foster homes. He didn't have a family, he didn't have a home, and he didn't have a lot of prospects. What he did have was a gifted right-arm that earned $1.5 million in a good major league career. He was living the dream life of a major league ball player.

Roel Koolen grew up in a socialized European country, where the standard of living is good and sports are encouraged and funded by the government. What he didn't have was a major league to play in. He didn't have $100,000 contracts and a minor league system to hone his talents. So he became a star in what was available to him.

Roel Koolen walked away from a game that doesn't pay him to earn a living, turning down a chance to play on the biggest stage in the international baseball world.

Frank Williams had a car accident, was out of baseball, left his family, developed alcoholism and lived on the streets for many years, the money he had earned gone to drink.

In the States, we tend to take baseball for granted. It's there every day, in 30 major league teams, 6 levels of minor leagues, independent leagues, college ball, and youth ball. It's a part of our culture, as American as the 4th of July and Thanksgiving. We revere the players and in some cases, lift them up to God-like status. Others, we condemn and chastise for failing to meet the expectations we put on them.

We want them to be the best, we want them to win, we want them to perform to a level that we choose, and can't accept it when it doesn't happen. Not everyone gets to be Babe Ruth, but baseball fans are the first ones to complain when they aren't. We cheer when they succeed and forget them when they fail. What we forget the most, however, is that the guys playing this game (and it is still a game) are people like us.

Yes, they have a measure of athletic ability that most of us don't possess, but we forget that they can, at times, be possessed by their own personal demons. Frank Williams had his demons and couldn't get rid of them, and most of us forgot about him. He wasn't performing, so he wasn't important. This can happen to all of us, in all walks of life, but nowhere is it so magnified as it is in sports.

In Europe, and most other parts of the world, baseball is an afterthought. Not many people strive to be ballplayers, and there isn't a lot of recognition for those who do play. The better players will never be treated the same as the soccer players, or track and field athletes, and will never be held in the same esteem. They just go out and play the game.

The European ballplayers don't have the same pressure to perform, and don't get the same rewards. They play for a love of the game, and maybe a chance to play college ball in the States, or to represent their country in an international competition. They don't get paid much, if they get paid at all. There are no team doctors to help with injuries, no pension plans, no (or very few, non-lucrative) endorsement contracts, no merchandising residuals. Just a desire to play.

It's the same game, fundamentally, played by the same type of person, with the same desire to succeed and be the best. You can pick up any ball player in the world, transport him to any spot on the planet, drop him in the middle of a ball game and it's exactly the same. Isn't this what's so great about baseball. The great ones will be great, and the bad ones will still be bad.

Holland, with a growing, albeit small, baseball program still in its infancy, couldn't provide Roel Koolen what he needed on the ball field, namely the ability to keep playing the game at a high level. So he had to move on to hopefully find success in another profession.

The US, with the best pro system in the world, provided Frank Williams with all the success he needed on the field, but wasn't able to help him when he needed it most. He ran out of chances.

Both men left the game against their will, when they still wanted to play, and the league or system they were part of, for whatever reason, couldn't (or didn't) do anything to help them.

Roel Koolen had to walk away from baseball because he couldn't find a league that could pay for his talents, and has to support himself away from the game.

In a league where million dollar contracts are common, Frank Williams couldn't get the help he needed to live.

Frank Williams never lost his love for baseball.

I hope Roel Koolen doesn't either.

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