Learning to Let Go and Look Forward
Sports can be an unexpectedly good teacher when it comes to emotions.
Having been an Atlanta Braves fan for my entire intelligible life, for instance, I am quite familiar with the feelings of hope and pride, as well as their inevitable association with disappointment. All jokes aside, though, the range is vast; following a team going through a rebuild can teach patience and long-suffering, while a player coming back from losing his/her season to injury can teach a great deal about the joy at the end of those.
Today, though, I want to talk about what sports can teach us about loss, and how we must cherish the times right in front of us before they go away.
Permanence is not something you find an awful lot in the world of sports, especially professional ones. From the athletes themselves, whose careers typically last anywhere from three to six years, to the tenures of coaches and executives, which can be even shorter, transience is a part of the environment. If you're a fan of college sports like I am, you'll know that players in that arena have strict limits on how long they're allowed to play. By definition, their careers don't last very long at all. Even though it can seem like they're in our lives for ages, in truth, we don't get to spend very much time with the players that we associate with our favorite teams. While the idea of the "team" stays somewhat permanent, the rosters and front offices that actually form that team are shifting constantly, to the point that we get into a bit of a "Ship of Theseus"-style philosophical experiment about whether or not it's actually the same team at all.
I mentioned the fact that I'm a Braves fan earlier; between the Braves' 2005 playoff appearance and the next time they made the playoffs in 2010, only two starters played on both teams: Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson. Not too many more than that were even on both rosters. Think about that! There are nine position players in the starting lineup, plus 10-12 pitchers, and two of them were key contributors on both of those squads. That level of turnover happened in just five years' time; if you've been a fan of a team for 20 or more, like I have, I'd encourage you to go back and look at the first groups of players you supported. There will be more than a few "oh yeah, that guy" moments, and probably even a few names you don't even recognize. That's the nature of these things; people come and people go, but the team somehow remains.
And yet, there are a few names that endure. Chipper Jones, for instance, was on both the 2010 and 2005 Braves playoff teams, and I remember those. I remember the time in my life when those games were happening, and how I felt. I remember him being a fixture in my day-to-day experience from afar, switch-hitting us into playoff contention while the other pieces of the roster continued to move around him. Not for nothing, he was also on the 1995 team that won the World Series, which I don't remember because I was all of one year old. Some guy named Steve Bedrosian (who won the Cy Young in 1987, apparently?) was on that team, too, but weirdly, I don't have as much of an emotional connection to Steve. Sorry, Steve.
Such is the connection that can be forged with those who endure: I don't remember many details of elementary school, but I remember when Chipper switched to playing left field when the Braves signed Vinny Castilla in 2001. I remember that Chipper was sponsored by Mizuno (or else he just really liked their gloves and bats), and that he always walked up to "Crazy Train" by Ozzy Osbourne. The players who stick with a team for a certain amount of time tend to stick with us, too, and that connection can make it more difficult than you might expect once it finally has to be broken.
I do not mention all of this, of course, in a vacuum. I have a particular circumstance on my mind this week that has me all sentimental.
On Monday, Tottenham striker Harry Kane made it known to the soccer world that he would like to leave the club. It wasn't exactly a surprise; Harry had made it known for years that he wanted to win trophies, something that being a Tottenham player had not yet afforded him the privilege to do (see earlier comment about hope and disappointment). And so, with Tottenham having just experienced a down year and headed for a rebuild, Harry has declared that he would like to leave the club.
This is far from a done deal, of course; there are plenty of external factors and interests that could yet prevent any of that from happening, namely that Harry is still under contract at Tottenham until 2024, but in my heart, I think it will. I think he'll go to a team like Manchester City to win everything there is to win, and if he does, I wish him the best.
But man, is that going to be hard to stomach. See, like Chipper Jones, Harry Kane is woven into my very understanding of what Tottenham is. When I became a fan in 2014, Tottenham were struggling to rebound from selling their best player the year before, a Welsh guy named Gareth Bale, who, ironically, is back at the club this season. To put it gently, Tottenham were not an elite-tier team at that point; they finished sixth in the league, but based on their goal differential (goals scored minus goals allowed), something like eighth or ninth probably would have been more appropriate. They fired their manager before the season even ended, and the guy they replaced him with was even worse. The roster was a hodgepodge, a bizarre amalgam of the players they'd brought in with the Bale money and the guys he'd left because they weren't good enough. In short, the club was an absolute mess, and crying out for a star that could lead them forward into the next era.
Enter Harry Edward Kane (and manager Mauricio Pochettino, but that's another blog post for another time). As it slowly became apparent that Roberto Soldado, the high-profile striker that Tottenham had signed with the Bale money, wasn't working out, Harry started getting more minutes. And hoooo buddy, was he doing something with them. At just 21 years old, Harry scored 21 goals in the Premier League that season, good enough for second place in the entire division. Other players like Christian Eriksen and Danny Rose were also starting to break out by that point, but it became clear pretty quickly that Harry was going to be the star of the show from now on. The #haters said that it would be a one-season thing, an aberration, but he put all of that to bed by leading the league in scoring for the next two seasons after that. With Harry as their centerpiece, Tottenham had their most successful run in modern club history, qualifying for the Champions League nearly every year, and finishing second in the league with a club-record 86 points in 2017.
That was my introduction to Tottenham Hotspur. As I really dove head-on into the Premier League, and fell more and more in love with the game and the team, Harry Kane was an ever-present figure. Aside from the time he spent on the injury table rehabbing his glassy ankles, he was scoring nearly every week, all while catching a world-record number of flies in his mouth in the process (for the non-soccer fans reading this, he runs with his mouth open a lot).
While he did make allusions to his enduring love for Tottenham during that time, I didn't know for certain if Harry Kane was going to turn into what's known as a "one-club-man". That kind of thing is especially rare these days, so maybe it was unreasonable to expect, or even hope for that to happen. Not even Harry Kane's idol, Tom Brady, got to live out that fantasy. Sure, he said that he wanted to finish his career at Tottenham, but with the caveat that he would only do so if they were consistently winning things. So far, that hasn't happened, and it looks like we might have to start embracing a Kane-less future a lot sooner than we'd hoped.
This has me feeling, in a word, sad. I don't know what Tottenham will be like without Harry Kane; I've literally never experienced it before. History tells me that yes, there will be a team without him, just like the Braves have existed, and even thrived, long after Chipper Jones left the organization, but that reality doesn't exist yet for Tottenham.
As fans and as people, I think it behooves us to do two things: appreciate what we have, but also realize that there is a future beyond it. I think back to all the dozens of goals I've watched Harry score; those were good times. I've seen him score from on my couch in Greenville, at my Mom's house back in Alabama, in my college apartment back in Tuscaloosa, and on my phone in a dozen or more other places. He and his teammates are an inextricable part of my memories of those times in my life.
But as I continue to go through my own career, I know that there will be more times and places in the future. There will never be another Harry Kane, of course, but there will be other players for me and other Tottenham fans to unconditionally support. The Braves, after all, have Ronald Acuña Jr. now, and who could have predicted that back in 2010, when he was just 13?
There are going to be more painful departures from star players soon. I think firstly of my Green Bay Packers fan friends, who may, like me, have to endure watching their favorite son have success with another team in the near future. Take heart, my friends. We don't know what sort of unexpected joys may await us down the road. Sure, it may take until 2028, or even 2038, but they're on their way.
That is the beautiful part of sports being impermanent. There is sadness in the moment, to be sure, in my own heart as well.
But there is always hope to keep going. Best of luck, Harry. You have given us everything we could have asked for and more. I look forward to seeing what is up next, both for you and for the club that we both care a lot about, in the future.