The goal of any MLB player, any professional athlete really, is to never be the subject of a Where Are They Now? story. It’s personally degrading. It’s kind of insulting. If televised, it’s a way for the masses to make fun of you. “Where Are They Now – (insert your name here)” means you were once decent enough for a handful of people to possibly recognize your name but not good enough to sustain that level of talent. And once that microphone or camera focuses on you, you can’t help but act like you want it all back again.
Watch VH-1 for example. They love that type of stuff. They’ve made a network built upon the shoulders of “stars” who have been forgotten. Spike has done it too. But even worse than some producer calling you out of the blue and asking if he and a couple of cameras can follow you around for a few hours is you saying, “Sure, I’d love that.” Because now you’ve become an accomplice to your own joke. You’ve swallowed your pride; your dignity has lost its way. Friends & family won’t tell you, but after they watch your segment, they’ll agree amongst one another that you looked kind of foolish. They won’t tell you, because you’ll know you looked a little bit more than “kind of” foolish and they’ll know you know (it’s an old joke, the I know you know that I know, but it always works). Part of the game of a Where Are They Now is to pretend none of the attention bothers you. But it always does.
Back to the VH-1 example. Remember the song “Walking On Sunshine” by Katrina & The Waves? I was their only hit, back from the mid-80s. Now they might make sense for a Where Are They Now? feature because they only had the one hit song. But the star of the band and the star of the segment was Katrina, now in her early-50s, still trying to make it back. She’s heavier, maybe more talented but with zero chance of anybody caring about anything other than “Walking On Sunshine.” If I were here, even though there’s little to lose career-wise, I’d still be embarrassed I was even asked. And my fear is that I wouldn’t say no.
The film “Spinal Tap” showed what happened when the “famous” don’t realize they aren’t really famous anymore. In one telling scene, the band Spinal Tap is in the U.S. for a tour. They hear one of their early songs on the radio. It’s great fun for the boys in the band…. Until the DJ comes on and says, “File them in the ‘Where Are They Now?’ category.” Rarely do you get to watch five faces fall more quickly than a jumper off of the G.W. Bridge at rush hour.
The cousin of Where Are They Now? is the feature, “30 Seconds With (insert name here).” This can be in the printed word or on video. It can be audio-only as well. The positive about this is it’s about you on the way up. You could also be the focus of one of these as you sustain whatever level of fame you’ve got. But 15, 20 years after you’ve “hit the scene?” Unless you’re still making hits, headlines or noise with your alleged talent, you no longer qualify for “30 Seconds With…” You’ve graduated to Where Are They Now?
None of this is easy. First, it’s certainly not easy to get to the level of fame where you’ve generated enough press to warrant being the subject of a “30 Seconds…” type of profile. To be the subject of a Where Are They Now?, you need to have made some sort of impact. Making an impact publicly is the dream of millions and the accomplishment of the very few, so there is accomplishment built into either feature. But every accolade carries its own risk. If someone praises you, it’s up to you to live up to that praise. That’s one reason the rich & famous burn out so quickly and never really get to the Rich part of the equation. They get the quick (even if it was 10 years in the making) fame, do all they can to stay in the spotlight, but lose perspective, focus, inspiration…whatever. They can’t keep it up. It’s gone before they can really cash in. Or they cash in a bit, but the Where Are They Now? feature 20 years later includes a line like this: “Coming off tax problems with the I.R.S., (insert name here) has learned (insert embarrassing public sentiment here)…”
The goal, once you’re reached Mt. Everest, is to enjoy it. But ask any climber who makes it to the top and they’ll warn you not to stay too long. You can always come back if you’re careful, and skilled enough. Lose your head at the zenith though and you may never get the chance again.
Cal Ripken Jr. is a good example of someone who’s kept the dignity of reaching the top and keeping his name and accomplishments away from the veiled insult of Where Are They Now? He was a great baseball player, a good man off the field and since retirement has made good choices, like running his baseball academy and allowing himself to be elected to the Hall of Fame. His name is still out there enough to remind those who might care that he’s still around.
Mark McGwire is a good example of someone who was on the Cal path. He was a lock for the Hall of Fame. He was perceived as a good man. Then the steroid thing got in the way. His poor performance in front of Congress in 2005 also got in his way. Then, humiliated, he disappeared from public view. 500 career home runs doesn’t generally qualify somebody for a Where Are They Now, but in McGwire’s case it does.
The worst is when you’re still active but become a Where Are They Now? club member. For example, where are the Montreal Expos now? Go to ESPN.com and you’ll see. They’re now called the Washington Nationals. If Nats fans are lucky, the team might move again soon. That way, in 20 years, we can read or watch a Where Are They Now: The Washington Nationals and agree they deserve the little piece of infamy we’re watching at that moment. Insulting? You bet. But that’s the risk you take when you strap on a guitar or a catcher’s mask. Just like praise, failure comes with the territory.
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