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Columns > Brian Levenson -  Head Games

Published: 2011/03/22

Jamability & The Baseball Hiatus

This could be the last time,
This could be the last time
Maybe the last time I don’t know – “The Last Time” Rolling Stones

Some buzz was made in February with Phish’s announcement that the band has no touring plans for the end of 2011. The statement prompted gossip and buzz about a third Phish hiatus. But, it also raised the question on everyone’s minds – so what’s up with the baseball hiatus?

The baseball hiatus has been the depicted in high and low-brow TV shows, movies and books – usually, the protagonist must overcome a physical obstacle to return to the game at the end of his career. In the awesome HBO series, Eastbound & Down, fictional relief ace Kenny Powers’ hiatus begins when he loses speed on his fastball. Kenny regains his fastball at a used car dealership, harnesses its power in a detour in Mexico where he reinvents himself as “La Flama Blanca,” and is now ready to rejoin the majors in Season 3. In the film, Mr. 3000, the late Bernie Mac stars as a retired hitter who, due to an incredible math error that adjusts his career hit total down to 2,997, must return to baseball at the age of 47 and overcome his retirement induced out-of-shape condition to collect three more hits to legitimize his moniker and make it into the Hall of Fame. Finally, in Bernard Malamud’s novel, “The Natural,” a young pitcher returns from a 16-year hiatus induced by attempted murder to hit the lights out of the stadium.

In real life, there are more human examples of players overcoming hiatuses induced by personal obstacles. Early in their careers Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers left baseball because of drug addiction, Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds left in connection with the loss of his father and Zack Grienke took a break because of social anxiety disorder. All three were in their early 20s and just on the verge of tapping into their extraordinary abilities when their hiatuses began. They all returned to the game and realized their potential as the game’s most elite players – Hamilton and Votto wining the MVP, and Grienke winning the Cy Young award.

But for all of the human triumph of the successful return from the baseball hiatus, the jamband hiatus is relatively less severe, though still unwelcome news to Heads. In example, take The Black Crowes– the band announced an “indefinite hiatus” following their 2010 Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys tour. The Crowes hit the road and ripped it up from coast to coast with acoustic and electric sets. The band teased the moment at their last NYC performance with an encore cover of Stone’s “The Last Time,” and then bid farewell on a December night at the Fillmore in San Francisco. And that was the history of The Black Crowes.

But then a month later the Crowes announced a summer 2011 European leg to the Goodnight tour. Just like that, the band was back, and there is no reason to doubt they won’t be on fire when they land in Europe in August. Sure it will only have been nine months off, but the Crowes have taken the indefinite hiatus for years at a time before, as have the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Phish and many more. Without exception, they all returned to high levels – musical hiatuses come and go but the jamability remains.

But, in baseball, skills fade with age. While it’s possible for players like Hamilton, Votto and Grienke to return elites levels from a hiatus taken before their primes, the diminishment in baseball skills is near irreversible from an end of career separation from the game. So before the season begins, let’s reflect on those familiar players who will not be rejoining us for the 2011 tour. Potential hall of fame players and managers like Trevor Hoffman, Gary Sheffield, Andy Pettitte, Bill Wagner and Bobby Cox all announced their retirement and said goodbye to the game this offseason. Of course, it’s possible they can change their mind and try to return to baseball this summer just as the Crowes take the stage in Amsterdam and rip into Remedy. But in all likelihood, the show is over for these baseball greats. And take note – there are no encores in baseball.

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