Sunday, September 17, 2006

Why does baseball hurt sometimes?

You're a kid, and a summer treat is to go to a baseball game. You love it so much that you wish you could have your birthday in the summer instead of the dead of winter just so you could have a ticket as a present every year. Your school district gives you free tickets for getting straight A's, and that idea is on your mind every time you take a test during the last few days of the school year. Your teachers pull televisions into the rooms on Opening Days so you can watch the games. You go down on Safety Patrol Day and nearly cry when you have to go home because the game is rained out. You like that black rubbery stuff in the sidewalks because it's squishy and you're a kid and kids like squishiness. The boats speed down the river while you’re eating pre-game lunch on its muddy banks, and you talk about one day getting to take boats to a baseball game. The Reds win the World Series and then...

You grow up a bit. Your passions mature. You go to high school, and the squishy stuff doesn't amuse you anymore, but the enthusiasm for the game is still there. You understand more than just pitch the ball and hit it. You look at the numbers. You know the runners are going on a 3-2, 2 out pitch and you understand why they do it. You get out of school for the summer. The humidity from the Ohio makes the balls sail through the summer nights like shooting stars. You are a senior. You cry when baseball goes on strike, especially since your team was in first place. Real life is coming - it's already there, smashing your heart to bits.

College arrives. Your team gets swept in the NLCS. The sting lasts through the darkness of winter, but with spring always comes rebirth, and you feel hope. You skip class to watch Opening Day only to discover you can't watch it because freshmen can't have cable in their dorms and the holy day is no longer broadcast on network television. It doesn't matter, though, because the umpire has a heart attack on the field and dies, and the game is postponed. More real life, harsh and finite and more mortal than your young mind can comprehend. In college you learn things that shock your whole belief system, simple things like your country is not infallible and evil is real. But you still have baseball, and when the players are between those white lines, nothing else matters. You go to student discount nights at the ballpark since you live closer to the stadium than you ever have. There is losing. Lots of losing.

You go away to Europe for a year. You watch the World Series on tape delay with a Frenchman who has never seen a baseball game; he is fascinated with the fact that a guy named Devon White is black. You watch another game in a bar, one of those old geezer townee bars, where you and another female friend ask the bartender if you can watch the game. He looks at you like the universe is imploding, but he obliges. Spring comes again, and the desperate longing for baseball is almost more than you can bear, as MLB.TV had not yet been invented. You had to settle for reading about Opening Day. More losing. You go home.

College ends too soon. The losing has stopped, at least until September, and then the season is over, after one game, just like that, and the hurt is there. During the winter, a seeming miracle happens as your team gets one of the greatest players in the history of the game, but your hero tragically falls time and time again, and the disappointment is great. You go to California and watch another team, but it just isn't the same. Your team visits. You go and have peanuts thrown at you because of your cap.

You move to another ocean, go to a place without baseball, and you have to settle for watching an American League team in the next city over. Then, as if Providence thinks you deserve it, a team falls from the sky. They play in a dumpy stadium with some hasbeens and neverwillbes. You don't care; you have baseball. You have baseball closer than you've ever had, baseball where you can hop a train and be at the ballpark in 15 minutes. You attend the home opener on a beautiful April day where everything is magically perfect as if God himself had taken a day off from overseeing war and poverty and disease and decided to enjoy a day at the ballpark. The team does well, so well that you find yourself at the stadium time and time again, as if some sort of cosmic force is pulling you there, making the team win when it isn't suppose to. The electricity at the ballpark is mezmorizing, addicting, and no one in the city can get enough. But things start to fall apart. In desperation, you find yourself at the ballpark rooting against your childhood team that had fallen out of contention months earlier. September's song rings like a country-western tune, and then it's over. It hurts a bit.

The next season arrives like honey, though your number one team is picked to be one of the worst in all of baseball. The newness has worn off your second team; your heart is back in the right place. And then there is winning - you had almost forgotten how it felt. The winning continues right up to September, just enough winning to keep hope from slipping from the box, but then the length of the season crushes your spirit and your team quits on you. Now you find yourself oddly affected, like this season matters in the grand scheme of life, when logically you know it doesn't. You know there is next year and the year after that and after that, insha'allah, but it doesn't take the sting away, oh no, it doesn't lift the grayness that has descended over your heart.

Dear Mr. Castellini, this is my baseball bio. It spans nearly three decades - three decades in which we have known more disappointment than success. Can you give us 2007? Can you spend the money, just this once, so we don't end up with holes in our souls yet again? I invested more energy into this season than ever before; I feel tired, devoid of energy, emotionally drained. Disappointment rings out through September's waning light as we witness the death of another summer, another dissatisfying season, another post season with the damn Yankees. Oh yes, baseball hurts sometimes. It stings with the force of a thousand pinstriped wasps.

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