Thursday, January 2, 2014

Expectation Management

It's fair to say that this past year was a lesson in understanding and managing expectations. I moved 11 times in just over 8 months. Lived in various hotel rooms for 2.5 months straight, from my birthday in mid-June to late August when I was offered a spare room in a recently deceased...I mean, released...teammate's apartment. I played for 2 different organizations and 6 affiliated teams. I lived in all 4 US time zones and spent a month in that weird half time zone in Venezuela that's 30 minutes earlier than EST. Get it together, South America.

My dreams and expectations evolved almost daily. Beginning the year in my first Big League camp with the New York Mets, I expected to get a fair shot (whatever that means) to break camp as the 5th starter in their rotation. Two weeks into camp I was sent back down to the minor league side of Spring Training having been told that there was never a real chance that I was going to head north with the team on April 1st.  My expectation and destination changed in that moment from the bright lights of NYC to the bright neon desert oasis of Las Vegas. I'd never been to Vegas and all my knowledge of its endless Craps tables came from Chevy Chase in "Vegas Vacation." We lived a block off The Strip, as it's affectionately called, in a luxury apt. compound that housed about 15 of my teammates and a few local night club promotors/drug dealers. I didn't really have a bunch of preconceived notions about what life would look like out there, but whatever this was, it was certainly different that what I had expected. We rented cars, lived with 2 roommates (and sometimes more when their wives/girlfriends/family came in town) and learned what real Mexican tacos were all about. We baked in the sun and grilled meat poolside with our teammates. I pitched and pitched very well. We found routine.

Life began to feel pretty normal...and then I got a phone call. I wish I could've captured that moment in time and bottled it up, because that series of events marked just about every change we experienced over the next few months.

I was told that I got called up and would be pitching in New York again. Trying unsuccessfully to stop my imagination from running wild, I began to plan out what the rest of the year would look like. I would obviously be starting up there and if I continued pitching well I could end up as an integral part of the rotation by years' end.

That was not the case.

I was stuck in the bullpen behind an all-star closer, a 19 year veteran, a couple left handed flame throwers and just about everyone else (and their dogs). I pitched just 6 innings in 27 days. I had one really mediocre start in Miami that all but cemented my return to Limbo (aka the back of the pen). In the midst of all of the baseball expectation shattering, my wife and I were playing our living situation very much day by day. We knew that the second we decided to settle into a place in the city we would be sent away. It's a weird gut feeling that's surprisingly accurate. Therefore we couch surfed with friends, extended the stay in our team hotel and generally tried not to get our hopes up. But just as poorly as baseball was going, the team gave no indication of sending me down. Quite the opposite actually. Some coaches told me that it didn't look like the injured player I was up there for was coming back in the near future. Fighting our gut instinct we decided to move our 5 suitcases and two backpacks into a vacant teammate's apartment on the upper east side. We settled in, slept in an actual bed and bought some simple groceries. It was a big step for us as we set our expectation toward being there for the long haul.

I walked into the clubhouse the next day and was ushered into the manager's office. Now, for those of you who don't realize the significance of that event, let me spell it out for you...it's not good. You either go into the manager's office to get cut, sent down or fined. I was praying that I had broken some unwritten rule and needed only pay a fine to wash away my sin. No such luck. I was told that I was being sent down and needed to report to Las Vegas again in 24 hrs. This was less than 24 hrs since we had moved into the apartment. Less than 24 hrs since we made the gut defying decision to settle down into the expectation of staying put. So 24 hrs later I was back in the desert.

After 10 days of getting re-acclimated to Vegas, the phone rang. I had been designated for assignment by the Mets and was not allowed to play, practice or even step foot inside the clubhouse until I cleared waivers.  My next step was to figure out what the hell "being designated" and "clearing waivers" meant. How long would that take? What was I supposed to do in the meantime? Was everything about to change again? I read the collective bargaining agreement from front to back, understanding about 3% of the lawyer lingo and decided there were no less than 30 different possibilities of how this thing could play out.

We decided, since they're obligated to buy me a ticket home if I want, to go back home to Atlanta and wait out the due process. We flew in the night of June 17th, and at 11:50 on June 18th (10 minutes before my 26th birthday) I was told by the Mets front office via phone call that I had been traded to Colorado. They thanked me for my service and wished me luck. It felt like getting dumped. Like the pretty girl at the dance finally realized she didn't have to dance with you anymore. The Mets were family to me. 6 years of building relationships with the guys and their wives and kids all washed away in the span of a :35 phone call. I looked over at my wife in the back seat of my parents' car and we both felt that first tear crawl down our cheeks. We would officially not be living in NYC. Not be hanging out with Greg, Kai, Murph, or any other teammates and their significant others. We would be moving across the country and leaving everything that resembled security and safety. It all hit us in that moment and we silently wept in the car, holding hands and internally managing whatever expectations were building inside of us.

We celebrated my birthday the following evening and braced ourselves for what was certainly going to be a crazy next 3 months. By the next morning I was in Tulsa, OK playing for the Rockies AA affiliate in the Texas league.

The 2 weeks I spent in Tulsa were spongy. Meaning, I soaked in as much as I could about my new station in life. New people, a new organization with new rules. My expectations of them and their expectations of me. I saw some old familiar faces and forgot everyone's name at least 3 times. Even though I was immediately the veteran guy on the team, it was pretty humbling to realize how much I didn't know. I was all at once trying to make a good first impression while staying true to who I was. It was a constant battle between "what's expected that should I do?" and "who am I?" It became a daily battle between identity and expectation.

"They traded for me so they must expect some sort of return on their investment."

"I was traded but that doesn't change who I am, what I expect of myself or what I'm capable of."

These divergent conversations were on replay in my mind and there wasn't a clear winner on either side. I became self-conscious. Irritable. Shy. And more importantly, baseball became less and less fun. I still threw the ball pretty well (well enough to be promoted to AAA) but the joy that characterized my baseball career for the last couple years was gone. It became increasingly clear that the only way for my expectations to be met was for me to get to Denver and thrive.

Three weeks in AAA Colorado Springs and I got called into the manager's office again. I know I told you that no one wants to be called in there, but that was in the Big Leagues. In the minor leagues there is the possibility of a promotion every time that door swings open. Sure enough, that was the nature of that particular managerial meeting. I was told that I would be starting in a couple days against Milwaukee at home in Denver. Finally!! My chance had come to prove myself. To prove that their investment was a good one. To prove to myself that I was capable, worthy. 5 innings and 6 runs later, my expectations were once again dashed against the rocks of failure.

I spent about 36 hours in Denver during that brief stint. I was sent down the next morning after having packed for a 10 day road trip the team was about to take. The trip went through New York and finished in my home town of Atlanta. My wife was supposed to meet me in both NYC and ATL, but instead I was sent with my bags packed and suit freshly ironed to Colorado Springs.

I was embarrassed. Embarrassed that I had allowed myself to expect so much. Embarrassed that I had failed again and that my reputation was forever stained. Embarrassed that I couldn't hang on for another 3 days so that I could see my wife.  Life, it seemed, was telling me at every turn that being hopeful was a useless emotion. That the moment I allowed myself to hope, to expect, in something good, the opposite was sure to happen. So I went back to Colorado Springs, tail between my legs, determined to expect nothing from here on out.

It seems pessimistic, I know. That expecting nothing is preferable to expecting success. But the problem I had, the problem I assume most of us have, is that I had substituted expectation for entitlement. I felt as if I had earned some sort of success. As if the work I put in and the price I paid had secured for me some cosmic balance wherein some good things would balance out the bad things. I was playing this eternal game of tug-o-war against a brick wall, determined to pull hard enough to tear it down. The words "fair" and "unfair" kept trickling from my mind to my tongue. I had deemed the events of the year to be good or bad. When in reality, they were just events. Life changing events? Of course! Hard and testing events? Most certainly. But simple turns in the road nonetheless.

I finished the minor league season with Colorado Springs and got a chance to pitch again with the major league team. It was more ups and downs, minor successes and minor failures. Overall the season ended with both my wife and I looking at each other and saying "we have to figure out a way to deal differently with all of this." We were convinced that our marriage and sanity couldn't take much more of the way we had managed our expectations. I decided that I needed to look at baseball as more of a job and less of a "calling." The roller coaster of events surrounding baseball were taking up way too much emotional space in our lives. It might not change the actual things that happen (how many times we move, how long we get to build relationships with people, how many tacos we get to eat in Vegas) but seeing these events as normal hazards of the job and not personal vendettas on my expectations has made the transitions a bit easier. Building expectations on a foundation of things you can control is key. I won't set up my expectations to fail because I won't hinge them on how I pitch or where we live. I will build my 2014 expectations on my identity. Who am I and what should I be able to expect of myself in my relationships, my job, my faith? These aren't entitlements. There is no phone call that I can get from a front office executive that can crush my expectation of myself. I control those. God controls the rest. I think that's a pretty fair deal.

In poetic irony, we were just claimed by the Houston Astros on Dec. 18th (my wife's birthday). Since we're talking about expectations, here are a few that we had to break when we heard the news:
- Spring Training in FL and not AZ
- Not moving to Denver (leaving a community we built there)
- AAA team in OKc is 6.5 hrs from Houston while Co. Springs is 45 min from Denver. Makes prospective travel a little less convenient.
- Houston is hot. Denver was cold.
- beach vs. mountains
- liberal vs. conservative

Just to name a few...but we believe things happen for a reason. And some things won't change just because we change cities:
- I expect to be a great husband
- I expect to be a great teammate
- I expect to treat everyone with respect
- baseball will be baseball, but I expect to work my hardest in the hope of reaching my fullest potential as a ballplayer...wherever that may be.

28 comments:

  1. Wow, good stuff, Collin. Good luck with the Astros!

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  2. Great and insightful read! Thank you for sharing your journey with us. I wish you nothing but success both on and off the field with Houston!

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  3. Very interesting read Collin. Sometimes we forget just how human athletes are. Good luck in all you do from a NYM fan!

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  4. Great post, Collin. Really interesting to see the human side of baseball. I saw your first start at Citi Field, which was really great, and I remember how disappointed I was that you didn't get the win. But you've got a lot of potential, and I'm rooting for you! Good luck!

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  5. Mets fan, came here from the link at ESPN. Thanks for your service with the Mets, and some good & honest writing. Good luck in Houston -- seems like you ought to have an opportunity there. may be time to change the photo & description above, though ;-)

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  6. Collin, I remember meeting you after a game you pitched in Binghamton a couple of years ago. You were one of the most gregarious, gracious, and friendly athletes I had ever met. I still have the ball you signed for me that day. Thanks very much for this post. Whatever happens from here on out, I am confident that you'll continue to succeed as a decent human being.

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  7. Terrific read! You are an excellent writer and have a future in it after baseball. As a Mets fan, I was excited about your future and the teams future after seeing your debut. Following the debut of Matt Harvey is a tall order for a prospect, but you were up to the challenge. I was sad to see you go, and I wish you the best in Houston. They are a young club with a lot more opportunity for you to shine. Best. -Stark Family

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  8. Great blog, Collin. As a met fan, I'm sorry to have lost you but wish you and your family the best with your future. Keep on writing -- it matters!

    Rayu110

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  9. This is a very well written blog, it's cool to hear some perspective about the hardships of playing pro ball, up until this I thought it was all rainbows and sunshine

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  10. As a fan who never played baseball at a high level it's a bit embarrassing to admit that I've lost site of the human element in the day to day life of professional athletes. Thank you for bringing that to us with your blog. In today's world it's easier to root for the Mets on the front of the jersey or the name on the back; often only as it pertains to our fantasy sports teams. Thanks for bringing some perspective. I'll be rooting for you and your family whatever organization, whatever profession. With God and Family as the lodestones you'll succeed outside the lines of the diamond and have won a lot more than even a Hall of Fame baseball career will yield.

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  11. Here's something else for you to chew on, Collin. The cycle of life and inevitably at some point, our time on this planet ends. It ended for my 23 year old nephew just a few days ago, the split second of being in wrong place at wrong time, thoughtlessly stepping in the street without looking. He was full of life and in an instant it was over, and life for the rest of us, will never, ever be the same. And for his parents, one of whom is my sibling, their lives are shattered forever. So add life to your list, that you have it as do the ones you love. Be grateful for that everyday as guiding principle. Keep that in perspective as you continue to grow throughout your time on earth. Baseball is fortunate to have you - you the person, for your depth and introspection - your ability to share yourself with the public as you are is a gift to the rest of us no matter how your career unfolds. Maybe, ultimately, that's your calling - baseball being that vehicle to touch lives.

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  12. Good things happen to good people. Your life path will take a turn for the best real soon.
    G luck young man.

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  13. As an outsider (I'm a brazilian fan who happens to love your favourite pastime), it's great to read some insight to what transpires in pro ball. To change paths in life you have to have that gut feeling and corageous soul to accept what comes to you, embrace it, and, with your principles, turn it for the best. It was awesome to read your blog, Collin. Wish you and your loved ones the best! Happy new year!

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  14. Dude. Life is a gas gas gas according to Mick Jagger, and he can't hit or throw a curve-ball. As a lifetime baseball player I've been nurturing my exploded rotator cuff, now 15 weeks out from reconstructive surgery. Of course my playing career never reached beyond high school, but as a youth coach I've been able to learn from those who would become MLBers. Colorado? Ryan Spilborghs played for them and for me! Ryan's blog from Japan last year never quite caught on...maybe he's not the writer you are? Houston? Triple-A. The stuff of dreams for how many young(er) players. Relish. More than what to put on after the mustard. Relish/enjoy/savor every moment, and share with us, apparently we're interested! hahahahahahahahaha

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  15. Love the article. Has me thinking about my own expectations from life and my past few years. What if your baseball adventure is already written or pre-ordained and it's designed for you to spend time with certain people. They watch your reactions, they read your blog, they receive some encouragement from you...

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  16. You are a good writer. I look forward to more.
    Best of luck with the 'Stros.

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  17. Collin, a truly beautifully crafted piece of writing. Best of luck with the Astros. I'll be rooting for you.

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  18. Great essay, Collin. Sorry things didn't work out with the Mets, but I'll root for you wherever you're playing for sharing your insight so generously.

    May your mind stay strong, your body stay healthy, and your pitches pepper the edges of the zone.

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  19. Dear Collin, I have been a fan of yours since AA and loved your first start as a Met and believe that if you'd been given regular work and been allowed to settle into a routine that your curve ball and stubbornness would have cemented you as a rotation fixture. Why they went for Shaun Marcum is beyond me. Being bounced from the rotation to the bullpen to the rotation doesn't help anybody, especially someone who's never done it before and is suddenly being asked to do it as a major league rookie. I thought your text after the Yankees sweep was funny and that the Mets were tight assed for scolding you for it. Your personality is your greatest asset. Always be you! You have my admiration. Thank you.

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  20. What a great read that was. I really get a feel from your descriptions and experience of life in the game. All the best and good luck to you in the future.

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  21. A very good read. And I thank you for that.I wish you luck in Houston this year and in whatever the future brings you.

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  22. Great stuff. Sounds like managing emotions is harder than playing the game. If it helps any, consider that most of us reading your blog would give our left arm to spend a day in AAA let alone the big leagues. You have already accomplished so much, if you make it any further you can consider that gravy. Rooting for you.

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  23. Colin, I think you've learned the most important lesson already (one that most of us also could stand to learn): to manage your expectations. I followed your time with the Mets, and with the Rockies (die-hard Mets fan living in Denver!). You definitely showed promise.
    But when I read the synopsis of this blog piece on Yahoo, I thought "Wow, this kid has an ego problem! He was decent, but he's no phenom like Doc Gooden (yeah, I'm old school)".
    So, I came here to read the entire piece. What Yahoo didn't include was your enlightenment about life -- we can only control certain prts of our lives, and employment (in ANY job, really) is mostly out of our control. Layoffs happen, or in baseball, trades "for salary cap reasons". Or, maybe you are so good that the team realizes you have fantastic trade value. These days, players are loyal to their teams, but the reverse isn't true -- all about the mighty dollar. So, building your expectations on showing the team how great you are and expecting them to bask in your glory is never a good idea. In baseball, being "good enough" is possibly the only way to ensure your safety on a team. "Too Good" and you'll be trade bait.
    And nwo you've come to understand that. I bet this understanding will actually relieve a lot of the pressure you were putting on yourself, and you'll see your pitching improve tremendously! I'll bet the next timne you are called up, and I have faith that you will be, the nerves won't be as great -- because you won't have mapped out all your next few years and be worried about those 'plans' not coming true.
    Take a lesson from another former Met who went through a similar process: Jason Isringhousen. He was one of 3 prospects brought up early by the Mets, all of them collapsing into a mess of depression and failure. Traded a couple times, landing with St. Louis, he turned into a fantastic reliever/closer!
    And, remember, a pitcher getting cut by the Mets is almost a sure sign of great success: Tom Seaver, Mike Smith, Jason Isringhausen, Jeff Reardon, David Cone.
    And let's never forget Nolan Ryan -- his best years came with the Astros! Step into those shoes and let history write itself.
    Good Luck, Colin! We'll be watching and cheering!

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  24. Colin I enjoyed your time with the Mets, and I thought you showed real promise but you were also something the Mets had to spare as they had plenty of pitching and needed position players, but the US has 6 times zones not 4 yes Alaska and Hawaii are apart of the US and do count just some food for thought. Best of luck in your career and if it doesn't work out you are a decent enough writer.

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  25. Hey, Colin. I'm a big Mets fan. I just wanted you to know that when you pitched that game against the Colorado Rockies last year in a late August game when half the fans were already tuned out for the season, I was really rooting for you. You pitched a great game and my heart really ached for you when you got a no-decision after pitching such a great game. I was really mad at the Mets team as a whole, as I often am, when the starter does such a great job and gets no help in return.

    I believed that you had a shot at getting into the rotation in 2013. Unfortunately that didn't come into fruition. And then you were traded to the Colorado Rockies, and I felt that same heartache for you that I did when you got the no-decision in August 2012. I just wanted to let you know that I've always rooted for you and always will. Good luck, Colin, coming from a 14 year old Mets fan.

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  26. Hey, Colin. Great read! I'm a huge Astros fan and was wondering if you'd be interested in doing an interview with me via e-mail. Let me now if you're interested. My email is anton.joe22@gmail.com. Thanks, bud. Hope you do great here in Houston!

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  27. great to read you again!! greetings from austria!

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