SB Nation

Alex Belth | November 6, 2012

The long goodbye

When does an athlete and addict know to quit?

Adam Birbrower knew he was finished before the ball he’d just thrown crossed the plate, well before the MRI showed torn tendons in his rotator cuff. He’d played through pain before, but this was different. As soon as the ball left his hand he knew it was over.

Six-foot-one and close to 220 pounds, here he was, his formerly brown hair almost all gray. At 41, he still looked good in a baseball uniform, just like when we were kids growing up in the suburbs of New York City. His motions were always smooth, his chest puffed out, and he walked with a pigeon-toed gait that made him look like a ballplayer.

Nationwide, there are perhaps as many as 100,000 grown men still playing baseball every week.He’d played a lot of positions over the years. Today, he was a pitcher. It was more a testament to his willingness to be a good teammate than his talent. His curveball was non-existent, his knuckler average, and his fastball wasn’t all that fast. But he worked quickly and threw strikes, valued skills on a Sunday in the Westchester-Putnam (N.Y.) Men's Senior Baseball League. The MSBL is an 18-and-older organization whose motto is “Don’t go soft, play hardball!” The national website claims more than 45,000 members, and it’s one of several amateur adult baseball programs to form over the past several decades. Nationwide, there are perhaps as many as 100,000 grown men still playing baseball every week.

“I don’t go to court thinking I’m Clarence Darrow,” Birbrower told me this summer. “But I hit a ball in the gap and think I’m Don Mattingly.”

For the past 20 years, Birbrower, a lawyer and divorced father of a son with autism, has played ball for teams like the Alleycats and Robins, the Smokers, and now the Braves. He was the guy who’d talk about at-bats from as far back as Pee Wee League. He had stories about everything: plays the scrubs made, wise cracks from guys on the bench, what the third baseman’s father yelled at an ump. But he loved nothing more than talking about himself. Anyone who has hit a ball on the sweet part of the bat knows it’s one of the greatest feelings you can have with your pants on, and Birbrower knew that rush as well as anyone. When he was a sophomore in high school he once hit five home runs in one week. It changed the way he saw himself. He wasn’t a regular guy who had gotten lucky; he was a star and now expected more, from both himself and the game.

Birbrower posing for a team photo at Pomona-Pitzer college

“Until recently, everything was exaggeration,” Birbrower said. “If I went for a run it couldn’t be a nice run. I would be like, okay, I should run a marathon. I should write a book about running a marathon. Fuck it, I should write the best book about running a marathon that’s ever been written.”

His Braves teammates called him Train, as in “we’re riding the A Train today.” He liked the name. It spoke of reliability. But his shoulder was hurting badly after throwing two complete games in the last month. He’d already taken a few weeks off from pitching when he was called on in relief to face a dude who’d been his teammate years ago. He couldn’t say no to the guys, even if his shoulder was killing him. Birbrower threw a cut fastball for a called strike and grimaced as he walked off the mound.

“Hey,” said the hitter, “you okay?”

He waved his glove and headed toward first base, the only position where he could help the Braves with one arm.

“I’m done,” he said.

◈ ◈ ◈
He would never play catch with his son or use box scores to teach him math.

Aaron Birbrower is a handsome kid, just turned six, thin like his father was at that age. He paced the living room of Birbrower’s condo. His father sat on the couch and explained to Aaron that we were going to go watch the Braves play ball. “I want you to go to the bathroom before we leave, OK?”

Aaron made screeching and yelping noises like excited children make at a swimming pool. He climbed onto his father’s lap.

“Just because he can’t talk doesn’t mean he can’t understand perfectly well,” said Birbrower, who shares custody with his ex-wife. “He’s non-verbal but he communicates efficiently. If he wants something to eat he’ll take my hand and bring me to the kitchen.” They hugged and that turned into playful wrestling. Aaron wriggled away and stood at the coffee table turning the pages of an oversized book of sports trivia.

“He picked this out himself, I swear to God,” said Birbrower. “He likes the pictures.”

Aaron was two when the diagnosis came: autism with pervasive developmental disorder. Birbrower was still drinking then, a year from getting sober. I spoke to him on the phone after he learned the news, and he told me Aaron’s autism was a mild case, that it might not even be autism. If he felt sorry for himself he never said so. I imagined it was tough for Birbrower to accept that he would never play catch with his son or use box scores to teach him math.

Adam’s own experience growing up was so much different. His father, Barry Birbrower, grew up a jock in Peekskill, New York. He briefly played football at Syracuse University but never made it off the practice squad. Almost 70 now, he’s still a fit, broad-chested man.

We met for breakfast in Manhattan this summer. Barry told me stories about his playing days, one reminding him of another. He'd go from a highlight of his time as a lineman in football to a self-deprecating tale of getting pummeled by bigger opponents. College was followed by law school, then life on St. Mark’s Place for a couple of years before marrying and returning home to Peekskill to open a practice.

Adam was the first of his three children. As soon as that boy could walk Barry taught him to throw a ball and swing a bat. They spent hours practicing, the boy wanting nothing more than to please his father. Barry came home from work one day when Adam was three or four to find him sitting on the front step of the house in a Yankees uniform, mitt on his hand, ready to go.

They went to the Garden together to watch the Big East Tournament, went to Yankee Stadium, and watched the Jets every Sunday on TV. When Adam was a few years older, they’d shoot hoops in the driveway. Barry talked trash and slapped the boy's shots into the ground. If he couldn’t strike out Adam in their backyard games, he’d brush him back. Adam never knew when the different sides of Barry would show up. One minute his dad was teasing him, the next they were pals, and that might be followed by a stern reprimand or, if Adam had really angered him, silence.

Barry coached Adam in Pee Wee League, then against him in Little League. He wanted his boy to have the experience of playing for someone else. When they weren’t facing each other, Barry sat on a hill watching. He was there when Adam hit his first home run in Little League. Adam sprinted around the bases and didn’t slow down when he touched home plate. He ran straight up the hill and hugged his father.

◈ ◈ ◈

A Jewish Foghorn Leghorn busting everyone’s balls.The Adam Birbrower I remember from high school was a good student, and a wiseass, quick to boast, a Jewish Foghorn Leghorn busting everyone’s balls. He couldn’t keep quiet or sit still, his attention deficit disorder untreated since it was undiagnosed. He played basketball and was the starting quarterback on the freshman and sophomore football teams until a back injury forced him to quit. His heart, though, belonged to baseball. He had a smooth left-handed swing and wore his uniform just so, making sure his stirrups were pulled high, wristbands even, the eye black perfectly applied to his cheekbones. He made sure he looked just like the guys in the big leagues.

He was also the kid who’d be on the verge of tears after striking out. Birbrower seemed like too good of a player to get rattled by the same failures the rest of us faced. He’d head to the bench looking toward his father, there at every home game and many of the away ones, too. Barry would sit on a lawn chair down the first base line. He never yelled at the coach, argued with the umps, or cheered demonstratively. He sat there, impassive and intense, communicating with his son through a series of hand gestures that were indecipherable to the rest of us; when Adam was upset Barry would rub his finger on his nose, their signal to cool it.

Birbrower in his college locker room

Birbrower was a pitcher and outfielder and, by his junior year, a catcher. Kids like him with a strong arm and good instincts usually played shortstop, but Birbrower was born with radioulnar synostosis in his left arm. If his arm was at his side, his left palm faced backward and he couldn’t turn it over. Even after reconstructive surgery, he had to backhand every ball hit to him. No coach would let him play the infield.

He made the varsity baseball team his sophomore year and the coach batted him third though he’d gone hitless in his first nine at-bats, pounding the ball often but pulling everything foul. He hit a home run in the next game, then another one, a bomb into the trees beyond right field.

“I’ve never seen a ball hit that far in my years playing or coaching here,” his coach, Bill Thom, told the local paper. “It must have gone 425–430 feet, and if the trees hadn’t stopped it, it would have just kept going.”

Barry had missed only a few of his son's games over the years. A few weeks after the home run that made his son a sensation, Barry lay in a hospital bed after having his hip replaced. He grew agitated waiting for the call and figured Adam had a lousy game.

It was past dark when the phone finally rang. Adam coolly told his father he’d hit two more homers, one a cheap shot over a short right field fence and the other a blast. There was a third one as well, hit even farther that the umpire incorrectly ruled foul. Barry couldn’t wait to see his star son play.

He checked out of the hospital the next day, ignoring the doctor’s orders to go home and rest, and told his wife Neda to take him straight to Adam’s game. New hip and all, Barry leaned on his crutches on the sidelines. “He didn’t look good,” said Adam. “He looked old.”

It was a small field, 315 feet down the lines, maybe 340 in center. In his second at-bat, Birbrower missed the sweet spot but still hit one over the fence in center field. A couple of at-bats later he got under a pitch, normally a sure sign of an easy fly out, but this one carried over the fence. Adam put his head down and ran quickly around the bases, his teammates ready to mob him at home plate. He didn’t care if neither was a bomb, they were home runs. And his father saw them.

With it came dreams of the big leagues. Birbrower with a college teammate “It’s funny how one good week can set up a series of expectations that you chase for 20 years.”

Adam finished the year with seven home runs to lead the county, ahead of Dave Fleming, a stud athlete who became a 17-game winner one season for the Seattle Mariners. “It was the first time I ever got any recognition like that,” Birbrower said of being selected to the All-Section team. With it came dreams of the big leagues.

The scrapbooks we flipped through at the kitchen table of his condo were all that remained of those dreams. Nearby was a set of new baseball cards, neat stacks arranged by team, each pile stored in a clear plastic case. As a kid he kept each team’s baseball cards in albums. He’d memorize the stats on the back, and was drawn to the guys with long careers: Willie McCovey, Pete Rose, Ed Kranepool. Now he looked at cards for reference when he watched a major league game on TV. It had been only a few weeks since he’d quit playing and this was the first time in years he found himself watching professional games and enjoying it instead of using it to catalogue his failures.

The album in front of us held clippings from the local newspaper covering his high school games plus printouts of team stats, all in mint condition. He talked about how loose he was that sophomore year when there was no pressure on him.

As a junior he struggled at the plate while his pitching got stronger. “I was throwing hard and beginning to know what I was doing,” he said. Then he dislocated his shoulder diving back to first base, ending his high school playing career 10 games into his senior year. He’d overcome a lame hand but this injury made him feel as if he were cursed.

For many that would have been it. Birbrower wasn’t ready to quit, though, not yet.

“It’s funny how one good week can set up a series of expectations that you chase for 20 years,” he said.

◈ ◈ ◈

He went off to Vanderbilt University still recovering from the shoulder injury. He did okay in his classes but the school was too big and too conservative for him. When Jim Barker, the new baseball coach at the Division III Pomona-Pitzer Colleges in Southern California called, Adam was interested. Barker had found Birbrower’s name on a recruiting list from the previous year and asked to talk to Barry. “You mean the Great Santini?” said Adam, referring to the sadistic father that Robert Duvall played in the movie of the same name.

Barry’s wife Neda was against the transfer. She felt it was time for Adam to stop focusing so narrowly on baseball. Barry felt he needed to chase his baseball dream. Neda was outvoted. I asked her this summer if Adam’s baseball fantasy had been harmful. She said, “I don’t see how it did any good.”

Birbrower pitched three seasons for Pomona-Pitzer. He bragged about leading the conference in appearances and hit-batsmen one year, as if the scouts were looking for red-ass headhunter. There were no scouts and Adam came back east knowing that pipe dream was dead. Yet he wasn’t ready to quit the game. Soon after enrolling in Brooklyn Law, he took up adult baseball.

With law school came pressure. “That first year was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” said Birbrower. His concentration wavered. He’d interrupt his reading to go play a song he wanted to hear, or decide now was the time to pick up his dry cleaning. “I kept waiting to feel like I was on top of it, but it didn’t come.” A doctor prescribed him two drugs, one for ADD, another for anxiety.

Birbrower did well in his classes but had insomnia, so he started drinking. Then came pills and harder drugs, alternating between stimulants and depressants. “I don’t want to get high, I don’t want to get low,” he liked to say. “I want to get medium.”

By his late 20s, Birbrower had come untethered. He spent $1,200 to build a bar in his apartment.

He passed the bar and was hired by a big Manhattan firm doing personal injury litigation. He moved to the Upper East Side and for three years busted his ass for that firm. “It was a mill,” he said, describing how they turned whiplash and back injuries into cash.

By his late 20s, Birbrower had come untethered. He spent $1,200 to build a bar in his apartment. One friend called it “Barbrower.” He partied on the weekends and the weekdays. He’d start at home, hit the local bars until closing time, then head off to after-hours spots before dragging himself to work. He had just enough smarts left to quit before they fired him.

Showing up for baseball games was how Birbrower convinced himself that he was OK.

“I’d be up all night partying, no sleep, and still be the first one to the park in the morning,” he said. “I’d take three painkillers, have two cups of coffee, a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, and smoke a half a pack of cigarettes before the guys got there. In the summer heat. By the end of the third inning I’d have 10 painkillers in me. It’s lucky I didn’t explode.”

He doesn’t brag about his drug days like he does about playing sports. What Birbrower remembers from that period amounts to a series of fragmented regrets. Like the time the Braves played in Cooperstown at historic Doubleday Field, a place where hundreds of major leaguers have played. In the shadows of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, tourists watch and cheer; it’s the closest many guys will get to their baseball dreams. As Birbrower tells it, it’s a place he’d like to forget.

He showed up in no condition to play. He’d met a girl at a bar, wound up at her apartment with another couple, and doesn’t remember any of that night. All he can tell you now is that it was suddenly morning, he had not slept, and he realized he needed to get to the field.

His chief memory of Cooperstown: “Two shitty at bats.”

Birbrower with his son, Aaron

He took a job at his father’s practice in Peekskill and within a few years he was married. Aaron soon arrived, and not long after, there was a divorce. Any time not spent getting high was spent hiding his addiction. As messed up as he was, Birbrower still framed his life in terms of his father, and he feared how getting caught would reflect on Barry. One day, a local detective had Birbrower meet him outside the police station. “I’m hearing things and they’re not good,” the cop told him as they sat in a police car. “You need to watch who you’re hanging out with.”

He told the cop that things were okay but he missed a lot of work for a guy who said things were fine. Barry would call and be told that Aaron was sick. Or the ex’s car had broken down and she needed a ride. “I lied about everything,” said Birbrower, “to my parents, my wife, my friends. The guilt was brutal. I had so much shame, man.”

Barry might have been the last to know what was going on. Perhaps he willfully ignored the problems or just hoped they would fix themselves, even as friends and colleagues told him his son was in trouble. Finally, he called Adam and told him to choose between going to rehab or being fired.

Adam knew it was over, so he went on one last bender before picking a rehab facility. When the month was up he stayed for another 30 days. It was spring when Birbrower finally emerged. As soon as he got out of rehab, he started playing ball again.

◈ ◈ ◈

It was a sticky Sunday morning in August when I went with Birbrower and Aaron to see the Mohegan Braves play. It had been less than a month since he’d injured his shoulder and he wasn’t sure how long Aaron would last, but he wanted to see the guys and prove to himself he wasn’t missing anything. The Braves were playing on a crappy diamond, grass sprouting up through the infield dirt. His teammates wanted to know when he was coming back.

“You going to have surgery?” one asked.

Before he could answer the inning ended and the Braves took the field. Aaron went into the empty dugout, sat down on the bench, and opened a bottle of water. Then he grabbed a banana. His father took them from him and placed them out of reach, then told me about his teammates. Each one was a story: That one’s a filmmaker, this one’s an accountant, that guy there did a bid on assault and battery charges.

“For the longest time,” he said, “it was reassuring to show up here every Sunday and realize what you did or who you were, didn’t matter. We’re all just players. I felt like myself out there,” he said. “I knew what I was doing. I was focused and calm, even when I was messed-up.”

Birbrower and his son, Aaron But once he got sober, things changed.

But once he got sober, things changed. He hasn’t had a drink in two-and-a-half years now and he’s also off the prescription meds. As Birbrower’s personal life settled down, so too did his need for baseball.

Earlier this summer, he’d cranked a line drive off the fence in a game. ”My fat ass only got a single out of it,” he said. “It didn’t have enough air under it to be a home run so I’m sitting on first with a 315-foot single.” He didn’t feel excited, his mind didn’t race, he just felt content. “The truth is, I’m not a five-home-runs-in-a-week guy.” Aaron stood up, restless. “His teachers say that Aaron is good at telling us what he wants. He’s just not good at telling us how he feels,” said Birbrower. “Which is how I was before I got sober.”

The boy walked out of the dugout, his father right behind him. It was time to leave. A ball field was not a safe place for this child. “Baseball doesn’t add to his life,” said the father, eyes on his son. “This is a shitty world, but he’s happy. He wants to curl up with Daddy on the couch. I do things with him my father never did with me. I cut his nails, give him baths, pick him up at school. Barry is a man’s man. I’m … whatever.”

Birbrower waved goodbye to his teammates as we followed Aaron.

“If I stay sober emotionally, I’ll help more people than if I’m a great lawyer,” said Birbrower. “At least my son.”

We’d been there all of 15 minutes, maybe less. The three of us walked to the nearby football field, the sounds of baseball fading behind us. It was mid-morning and already hot. Aaron walked silently across the field, looking down at the ground. He was concentrating, following a path only he could see. Birbrower smiled as he watched him.

“He loves to walk over the numbers,” he said.

◈ ◈ ◈
I can be a .286 hitter in life. I’d rather be a happy .286 hitter than a miserable .340 hitter.”

For Birbrower, the old temptations never entirely evaporate. They linger. I could hear it in his voice a few mornings later when he called to say the Braves were scheduled to play under the lights at the newly restored Peekskill Stadium. “They’ve got padded walls, a scoreboard, a concession stand. It’s like a minor league park,” he said. “They announce your name.”

A moment later he told me he was thinking of playing. “Just to DH,” he said. I told him to let me know when he made up his mind. When I didn’t hear from him, I called. He told me he wasn’t going to play; he wasn’t even going to watch.

“I ain’t doing jack,” he said. “My first instinct is not the sober one.”

He didn’t rule out playing again someday. But for now baseball is another thing to ignore while he focuses on today, whether that’s Aaron or not drinking. “It’s not time for me to play baseball. I don’t have that sort of energy right now.” He sounded like a man trying to convince himself. I asked him what baseball had left to offer him.

“The allure of the home run,” he said, “the greatest feeling you can have in life – outside of my son, of course. I had one week when I hit five home runs and then I hit maybe four more the rest of my life. Know how many balls I’ve hit over the fence in the past 10 years? One. But it’s like chasing the perfect high, the one you never got. In recovery we talk about being sober in all of your affairs, but baseball indulges me. Can’t I be sober in all my affairs except baseball? No, asshole, all of them.”

He laughed.

“I don’t have to be the best father or lawyer. I can just be me. I can be a .286 hitter in life. I’d rather be a happy .286 hitter than a miserable .340 hitter.”

I started to respond, but he cut me off.

“Make that .274.”

About the Author

Alex Belth has operated Bronx Banter, a sports and culture website, for ten years. In 2012 he was named New York’s "Best Sports Writer" by the Village Voice. He edited "The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan" and "Lasting Yankee Stadium Memories," and is the author of "Stepping Up" a biography of Curt Flood. Belth's profile of the late boxing writer George Kimball is featured in "The Best Sports Writing 2012."