“To an Athlete Dying Young”

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Jan 232017

Once again, the baseball world is in mourning. Yesterday, we learned that Yordano Ventura was killed in an automobile accident in his native Dominican Republic. The rising star pitcher for the Kansas City Royals played with a fiery passion, much like the departed Jose Fernandez, who was killed in a boating accident last summer.
Both men were 25 years old and faced bright futures which surely would have propelled them to the top of the baseball world. Their passing grimly reminds us just how fragile and uncertain human life actually is.
At a time like this, I am reminded of other athletes who died in accidents long before their time.
I think of Cory Lidle, the New York Yankees pitcher, who crashed his single-engine plane into a Manhattan skyscraper in 2006 one day after the season ended. Both Lidle and his flight instructor were killed. Ironically, Lidle’s locker in the Yankee clubhouse was just across the room from the locker left vacant to memorialize Thurman Munson, who met his death in the crash of a plane he was piloting in 1979.
Flying had become Lidle’s passion. It was what he talked about in the clubhouse; it was what he did on his off days. He longed to be soaring with the clouds. In one horrific moment, though, those clouds darkened, and two young lives were extinguished.
We are emphatically reminded that baseball is a game—not life and death—and that no matter how passionate we become about that game we must work to keep it in perspective.
When a young person dies, I am always reminded of the words of the poet A.E. Housman, whose “To an Athlete Dying Young” has clearly resonated with me. In the poem Housman writes about the impermanence of worldly glory and suggests that it may be better to die in the zenith of fame than in old age.
Housman writes, “Smart lad to step betimes away/From fields where glory does not stay/And early though the laurel grows/It withers quicker than the rose.”
I’m not enough of a philosopher to know whether Housman is correct, but I do think of those words whenever young people meet an untimely death.
I thought of them when Munson, the first Yankee captain since Lou Gehrig, died in his Citation jet which he bought so he could spend his off-days with his family in Akron, Ohio.
I thought of them when Roberto Clemente died on New Year’s Eve in 1972 attempting to deliver supplies in an old DC-7 to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. I thought of them when Payne Stewart’s chartered jet fell from the sky in 1999.
I can’t fault a man for exercising his passion. Lidle died doing what he clearly loved. His flight instructor must have felt that same passion, for he had posted the following quotation on the Web site for his flight school:
“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will always long to go.”
The author was Leonardo da Vinci.