It Happens Every Spring

            “[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” 

― A. Bartlett GiamattiTake Time For Paradise: Americans And Their Games

As far back as I can remember I’ve always loved baseball.  I wanted to be a shortstop because Ozzie Smith – The Wizard of Oz – made the most acrobatic of plays look so easy.  When I realized that I hated the very idea of getting hit in the face with the ball – along with my lack of hand-eye coordination – I decided I should be a pitcher.  It seemed to make sense in my head.  I played right field (the equivalent to being picked last in any playground game) and since I always dropped that one ball hit to me every game; I had to throw it to third base.  My arm strength was getting pretty good from all that long toss.  Well, it turns out that you need a sense of aim in order to pitch.  I don’t remember my coach’s name when the players could start pitching, but I told him one day I wanted to become a pitcher.  This worked out well for him because I was “riding the pine” but I wasn’t sulking about it.  I was terrible but naively energetic.  He told me to practice by throwing the ball against the back wall outside the dugout.  I kept throwing the baseball (I remember the ball being bigger than a baseball, but smaller than a softball.  Maybe my hands were just that small.) against the dugout wall the entire game.  I didn’t even play in the game!  That would be the closest I ever came to pitching in a little league game.

My first time up to bat once players could pitch to other players I was hit in the head.  [Insert ‘head trauma making me the way I am’ joke here]  This was all the proof I needed to show that the ball does indeed want to hit me in the face.  I could never hit the ball from then on out.  I swung at every pitch; the only thing rarer than a hit was a walk.  I continued to drop the ball in the field.  My teammates would make fun of me and another kid for being so bad.  This kid was not only bad but he was also an albino.  I batted after him.  That’s when I decided to stop playing baseball.

I have been going to St. Louis Cardinals baseball games for as long as I can remember.  I had wonderful seats.  I remember watching the Cards play Whiteyball but I was too young to remember it in its heyday during all those pennant winning years.  I really remember them playing in the early 90’s when they were terrible with their worst year in 1995.  I still had an up close view of Ozzie Smith, Todd Zeile, Tom Pagnozzi and Lee Smith showing me how baseball could be played.  Lee Smith is why I thought I could pitch.  I was always the biggest kid in my class, family and neighborhood.  I was tall but I was also…husky.  I had never seen a baseball player that looked so out of place in size.  I knew that ball players were tall, but not huge.  I felt that if he could do it, then so could I.

No matter how bad the Cards were, I still loved going downtown.  I loved seeing the buildings, the Arch and the stadium.  Busch Stadium was where most my summertime memories were made from young childhood until the last regular season game ever played there.  As if going to a real baseball game wasn’t enough thrill for a kid, I got to walk across a pedestrian bridge above moving traffic!  I think that’s why Gate 4 was my favorite.  Summers in St. Louis are already miserably hot and humid and that Astroturf only added 15 more degrees of misery to the game, more if it was a day game. As I got older my focus shifted from the character that made Busch Stadium so memorable to the games that were being played inside of it.  In 1996 the Cardinals did something I can’t remember them doing; making the playoffs.  It was unbelievable.  My mom pulled me out of school to go to a playoff game in the middle of the day!  There were five of us in the family but we only had four tickets for the game.  My mom didn’t go because she said she’d been before but wanted all of us boys to experience it.  Isn’t that awesome?  My mother pulled my brothers and me out of school to see a playoff game.  This is the same mother who refused to let me go home from school in 8th grade because I didn’t feel well even though everyone in class told me I was greenish looking.  The next day half the class was out sick.

This never should have happened; none of it.  I should have dropped fly balls, been ridiculed and quit baseball cursing its very name.  Why would any kid want to invest that kind of time and energy into something that he knows he’s bad at?  Why wouldn’t a kid then move onto something he seemed to be built for like football?  I could tell you it’s because baseball is America’s pastime or quote James Earl Jones’ speech from Field of Dreams.  I could tell you that it was a game of catch with my dad that made me love baseball more than anything else, but those would all be lies.

Baseball made me grow up.  It was the first time I learned how to cope with failure and quitting.  Instead of sulking I played other sports in youth leagues or in the cul de sac of our street.  I learned how to keep score at baseball games and find the joy in the story the scorecard told.  I learned to analyze stats to find out how good or bad a player is and how to argue his worth on the team.  I learned to love the sport as a spectator and I was okay with that.  I knew I couldn’t elevate the quality of play ever, but I got to watch from three rows back what the game is at its best; and I loved it.  Baseball never hated me and, in the end, I realized I never hated it.

And that is what happens every spring; Baseball welcomes me back into its life.  I get a message that pitchers and catchers report and a few weeks later I’m told of the practicing that’s going on and the warm up games.  Next thing I know it’s Opening Day and I get invited to see it all again.  I get to cheer it on in its accomplishments and milestones.  I get to hang my head over its bad games and blown leads. Baseball lets me celebrate great games and drop my jaw when I witness what I thought was impossible.  Baseball comes back to me every year like a dear old friend visiting for the summer.  It leaves me with a thrilling finale, but it is still a painful goodbye.  But, like all good friends, Baseball leaves me with wonderful memories and stories that will make me forget that it even left me at all.

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