I was never much of a planner growing up. I was always more of a go-with-the-flow, let’s-see-what-happens, live-in-the-moment and not-worry-too-much-about-tomorrow kind of guy. I began playing baseball at around the age of 5, and instantly fell in love. I would watch all my favorites on TV growing up: Vlad Guerrero, Pudge Rodriguez, Benito Santiago and the Braves teams of the 90s. I knew I loved baseball, and I wanted to be a big-leaguer, but I never really thought about what I needed to do to get there. I just went out and had fun hitting and throwing a baseball around.
My senior year of high school, scouts started coming to my high school games and talking to me afterward. I was like, “Cool!” That’s when I began to realize, “Okay, so this is how you get into professional baseball.”
On June 3rd, 2003, I was fortunate enough to hear my name called on draft day: “With the first pick of the 6th round, the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays select catcher from Miami, Florida, Christian Lopez.” I’ll never forget that day. I was at home, by my computer, by myself and did a little celebration dance with no one else around. This was it, my dream was coming true.
I went on to play six years with the Rays and three more years of independent league baseball. My nearly 10 years of professional baseball are still, to this the day, the greatest years of my life. Baseball was technically my job, but I never viewed it as just a job. I got to live out a dream. I got to play a game that kids play for fun, and I got paid for it. Squaring a ball up into the gap and legging out a triple, hosing a guy at 2nd base, having fun in the clubhouse with my teammates, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans, the kids who looked up to me, the travel to different cities, all the friends I made, and people I met, I loved it all!
Yes, I’ll admit, there were days where I kinda wished for a rain-out to have a day off. I mean, I went from playing twice a week in high school to playing every single day for seven months straight. But, I genuinely enjoyed every single day I got to come to the stadium and put on that uniform. I think I would’ve been happy just coming to the field, taking batting practice and shagging fly balls in center field. The baseball field was my sanctuary, my safe zone. It’s where I could be myself and do what I love.
I was fortunate enough to be drafted out of high school, meaning I passed up an opportunity to go to college, but my years as a professional baseball player gave me more life lessons than any college experience could have offered.
I learned that everyone needs a support system and a team, no one gets through this life alone. Whether you’re Barry Bonds or just a young kid playing tee-ball, at one point or another we need people around us to offer a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on or some words of encouragement. I was foolish enough to believe that I was going to hit a homer every single time I stepped up to the plate. You can probably guess that I was wrong. We all have bad days. We all go through slumps, and we all get down on ourselves and think we’re never going to be good again. It happened to me more times than I can count. If it weren’t for my teammates, coaches, friends, family and loved ones, I would have never made it through the grind of a professional athletic career.
The idea of “self-made” is an illusion, every successful person has had help at some point. Whether it’s Mom or Dad driving us to practice, a teacher helping us learn something, a coach giving us a pat on the back and telling us to keep our chin up, or a friend offering a hug when we’re feeling down, we’ve all had a little guidance or assistance along the way. Remembering this along our journeys is what makes us grateful and keeps us humble.
Another thing I learned is to not take anything for granted. I recently read that our chances of even being born are somewhere in the range of 1 in 400 trillion. That’s a lot of zeroes, way more than Giancarlo Stanton’s contract! So even being alive right now is an amazing gift that we’re incredibly lucky to have. We should always keep that in mind. The fact that I got to play even one inning of professional baseball is like winning the biggest lottery I could imagine, but, of course, that is not how I saw it while I was playing.
I let my ego fool me into thinking that it was my right to play baseball, that I deserved it, that it was owed to me. Nothing is owed to us in this life. We’re lucky just to wake up every day and take a breath of fresh air, eat a healthy breakfast, take a hot shower and put on some clothes. I took all these little things for granted, especially baseball. And in doing so, I thought baseball would be my career forever, so I never bothered planning for life after it. Remember how I said I wasn’t a good planner? It really came back to bite me in the butt.
I retired over five years ago, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my teammates, the fans, the stadium and the thrill of a well-earned victory. Life after baseball has been a struggle for me, because I wrapped myself up in the sport—my identity and who I was. I was always Christian Lopez, the pro baseball player. After baseball was gone, I was just Christian Lopez fill-in-the-blank. I had no idea what to fill-in-the-blank with.
Don’t let this happen to you. Love the game you play, but always remember that it’s a privilege, not a right. Be grateful for every day you get to strap on your gear. Be a good teammate, and be willing to pay forward all the love and support that you’ve been blessed with. Be the best darn athlete that you can be, but remember that you’re so much more than merely the uniform you wear or the sport you play. You’re a human being with so much depth and complexity. You can be, or do anything, you want if you just believe it and put in the work to achieve it.
Put every ounce of yourself that you can into the game you love, like I did. But, unlike me, don’t be foolish to think that your body is bulletproof, and that you will play your sport of choice for the rest of your life. Read books, try stuff, learn new things, take chances, broaden your horizons; trust me it will show you who you really are and better prepare you for life outside of sports whenever that day happens to come. It’s something that I’ve been trying to do in these five years of life after baseball. Why not get a head start on it now?
What I learned as an athlete
Being part of a team is amazing! There is nothing quite like helping each other achieve our goals individually, and collectively. I get just as much joy in achieving a personal goal as I do in helping a friend, coworker, family member or my wife achieve something.
“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller
How I try to apply what I learned
One of my favorite things about being an athlete was being a teammate. I have transferred that love into all areas of my life. I try to be the best son I can be, the best brother, the best coworker and, most recently, the best husband. My wife and I have an open and honest line of communication with each other, which is the foundation of any good team. Her success is my success, and my success is hers. We know we’re in this journey together, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes to help each other succeed