‘Surrender is death’

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HBO’s Eastbound & Down shows the ups and downs of the professional athlete

Colton Hordichuk
Contributor

In the world of sports, there’s nothing sweeter than a comeback story – especially one with a character you love to hate. Eastbound & Down is a sports comeback story that follows a fictional former Major League Baseball pitcher, Kenny Powers. Powers was inspired by (though not based on) real-life former major league pitcher John Rocker, who was known less for his baseball skills and more for his homophobic and racial slurs in the 2000s. Like his real life counterpart, Powers is known by audiences as a poor role model for being racist, profane, and an avid drug abuser, which led to his expulsion from the major leagues prior to the first episode.

It’s quite obvious that Eastbound & Down is a comedy. But once you look past all of the humor and memorable quotes, you’ll begin to see that this is a story about a man who is truly in pain and battles his inner demons in order to once again achieve his dreams of playing in the major leagues.

After Powers is cast out from the majors, he finds himself in in his hometown of Shelby, North Carolina, as a substitute phys. ed. teacher. He claims that it’s only a gig “until the majors call him back up,” but Powers spends the entire season both trying desperately to cash in on his dwindling name recognition and prepare for a major league comeback by any means necessary. He even gets caught up in steroid abuse. If real-life former major leaguer Jose Canseco is right, and  that approximately 85 per cent of professional baseball players have at one point used steroids in their career, then call Powers the archetypal baseball player. Powers began to learn that if he wants to be on top, he must learn what it’s like to be back at the bottom.

Throughout the entire comeback process, Powers always knew what it took to become a champion again. “A true champion,” he said in the first season, “face to face with his darkest hour, will do whatever it takes to rise above. A man fights, and fights, and then fights some more. Because surrender is death, and death is for pussies.”

But the big question is, why use the badass Powers as a poster boy for sports comebacks instead of Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, Theoren Fleury, or even Sidney Crosby for that matter (except for the obvious fact that the libel suits would probably bankrupt HBO)?  First off, Powers doesn’t constantly change his mind like Brett Favre changes his Wrangler jeans, and secondly, Powers is a character who in his mind, has hit rock bottom and has no way out. Powers is simply a way of capturing nearly every possible dilemma a pro-athlete could face during a sports comeback – like drugs, family, ego, prostitution and criminal issues – and combining it into one character.

Eastbound & Down is HBO’s way of showing sports fans a fictional version of their very real 24/7 series.  Professional athletes only publicly expose themselves once they’re on top, but that’s not what Powers is about. He’s about understanding the long battle that an athlete has to go through, both internally and externally, in order to be at the top once again.

Eastbound & Down’s third and final season is scheduled to premiere on HBO Feb. 19.

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