Dear Atlanta Braves,
Beloved team. I love you. My eyes light up whenever someone mentions your name. It doesn’t matter where I am. When someone says “Braves,” I get excited and fall into a heated discussion about the importance of relief pitching, even if I happen to be, for example, taking communion.
But it’s only a game, I know this. I really do.
It’s a silly sport played by grown men swinging hickory sticks at five-ounce balls. There’s no real meaning to it. It’s not important in the large scheme of life. In fact, it’s ridiculous when you think about it.
I mean if alien visitors came to earth and saw thousands of crazed fans at a championship playoff, hollering and screaming as though the fate of the Free World depended on a lefty-lefty matchup, the aliens would be rolling on the floor, peeing their space-pants with laughter. Then they would zap us all with their electromagnetic death rays and turn Yankee Field into a huge septic tank for their spaceships.
I would enjoy that.
I was a toddler when my father taught me the rules of the sport. We were in the backyard. I had a glove. He had a glove. He pitched underhand. I missed the ball and got a bloody lip.
My mother became so upset with him that she used a stream of four-letter words not found in the Bible. Then she threatened to lodge the baseball in a place of my father’s body that I won’t name here.
But he wasn’t sorry. Because he couldn’t wait to teach me to play. To him, glove control was as important as learning to feed myself, respecting my elders, or successfully opening a beer bottle using a vehicle door handle.
When I finally caught the ball, my father got so excited that he swung me around and said, “Wasn’t that fun?” Then, if memory serves me correctly, I made a pile of major “fun” in my diaper.
Forevermore, I would associate ”fun” with a game involving nine men on a field, running bases, making double plays, and digging their underpants from their personal regions on national television.
The year after my father died, I was finished with baseball. At least I thought I was. But one night, my friend’s father was watching the Braves play in the World Series from a portable television in his garage. There were four other boys there. And a few other fathers.
To tell you the truth, I wasn’t interested in the game. I didn’t care who won because I had already lost everything in life.
Still, in that dank little garage, during game six of the Series, my attitude changed.
For a few hours I was alive again. Real life didn’t exist. I wasn’t the child of a dead man. I was part of something bigger than myself. I was cheering for something. We were cheering.
When they won against Cleveland, grown men leapt from their lawn chairs and hurled them into the air in a fit of pure joy. Then everyone mass-hugged. Men and boys jumped up and down, holding each other.
I rode my bike home that night and felt my grief more sharply than ever. I laid in bed, staring at a popcorn ceiling and I don’t know why, but I cried.
And that’s why I’m writing you, Braves. You don’t know me, and you’ll probably never read this, but I have to say it. You are my link to those men who came before me.
Scores do not matter. You are the game my people play upon scalped fields, schoolyards, parking lots, and parks. That’s what you are.
Tonight, I watched you blow any chances of getting to the World Series. And sure, it was a hard loss. I was staring at the television with a lump in my throat. You went down in the first inning and it wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was about as pretty as watching a maggot get knocked off a gut wagon.
My phone was blowing up. It vibrated so much that it rattled off the coffee table. I was getting texts from friends, old coworkers, family. My mother texted to see if I was still breathing.
The truth is, I’m doing great. Because you’ll never have any idea how much life you gave back to a big, awkward, grown-up kid like me.
You’ll never know what it means to sit in a ballpark and do the tomahawk-chop with 42,000 fans, a wife beside me, a bunch of semi-drunk strangers, and a plastic helmet-full of nachos in my lap that taste like reconstituted buffalo chips.
You’ll never know how much I look forward to hearing the broadcast voice of Chip Caray, or how hard I pull for Freddie Freeman. Or how when my wife and I say grace at supper she mentions Bobby Cox and his family in her prayers. And Brian Snitker.
You bring back the greatest parts of my childhood, with none of the pain. You are proof that boy can remain a boy forever. You remind me that even though good men lose, it doesn’t make them losers.
I know. It’s only a game.
But when the Braves play it, it becomes the best damn game there ever was.