Today was the first day of baseball’s spring training. Every Major League team played. The professionals all trotted onto dirt infields to punch gloves, swing bats, and make life a little better for those of us who are emotionally unstable enough to be called “fans.” Baseball is back.
I realize that not everyone cares about baseball, but last year, after our Atlanta Braves were decapitated by the Saint Louis Cardinals, it was like a nuclear holocaust at my house.
This pain can be traced back to my father, a lifelong Cardinals hater, who would have rolled in his grave after the upset. I will refrain from printing any unnecessary Cardinals jokes here because one or two Cardinals fans might know how to read.
Sorry. That was cheap. And I apologize. But I can’t help myself. Because I learned to love baseball during infanthood. My early days can be measured by red dirt stains and strained groin muscles. We would sweat all summer, rolling on grassy outfields, sliding into second, stealing bites of Navy plug chew and pretending to be men.
Of course, I was no man. I was freckled, chubby, and an all-around unattractive kid. But when I was on the field, I felt like I was part of something big.
I did not grow up in an era of technology and smartphones. Mine was probably the last generation to experience an electronically quiet life. We rode bicycles to practice, gloves hanging over our handlebars. There was no internet, instead our elders fed us tales about growing up with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Ted Williams.
My father grew up during a time when the Yanks were a superpower. A time when the Dodgers finally defrocked the Bronx Bombers to become world champions. When Jackie Robinson was in the twilight of his career. Mickey Mantle was the American League’s top slugger. Hank Aaron was hitting .314. Willie Mays was unstoppable.
Why am I telling you this? Especially when I doubt that you care much about trivial things like batting averages. I tell you this because my little heart is covered with white cowhide and stitched together with eighty-eight inches of waxed red thread.
At this age, I have lost almost every possession my father ever left me after he died. His hand tools. His workbench. His 492 mismatched ratchet sets. I lost it all. I even lost his ball glove—which he bought when he was a teenager and kept using until a few days before his funeral.
His accumulated artifacts slowly disappeared. Even his old photographs are fading, they are sepia-toned now, you can’t even tell his hair was red. But he gave me his game. And I still have it.
Televised games and radio games were ritual sacraments. During games the phone would be left off the hook, bathroom breaks only occurred during commercial breaks when the radio announcer would say, “Let’s pause for station identification…” Ballparks were like churches. Playing catch was public prayer.
He died on the exact day they cancelled the World Series. It was the second time in American history that Major League Baseball ever cancelled a Series. The first was in 1904, and it was a fluke.
The second time happened to land on the day of my father’s suicide. When the commissioner of baseball announced the cancellation of the Series, my father was lying in the cooler at the coroner’s.
After that, I went through a drought of the human soul. My life changed. I stopped watching baseball altogether. I quit my Little League team. I threw away my card collection. I was finished. Not just with baseball, but with him.
Until many years later.
My salvation came when I took a road trip through my father’s microscopic hometown. A place I hadn’t been since I was a snotnose. When I cruised into town, do you know what I saw first? I’ll tell you:
In the sleepy hamlet of Humboldt, Kansas, all visitors are greeted by a large welcome-to-town sign covered in paintings of baseball players. Walter “Big Train” Johnson—a pitcher who Ty Cobb once called the best of all time. And George “Sharkey” Sweatt—one of the greatest to play the game.
I had to pull over to admire the sign. This rural corn crib where my father was born, so proud of their baseball. The sign wasn’t boasting about stuff other towns would’ve been bragging about. It wasn’t saying, “Voted One of Newsweek’s Top 100 Small Towns!” No advertisements for barbecue joints. No real estate posters, no church plaques, no Rotary Club seal. For crying out loud, there wasn’t even a population number. It was just baseball.
My father’s whole life suddenly made sense to me.
That same afternoon I saw children warming up their arms on a local ballfield, not far from where my old man drew his first breath. And it broke me. It gave me a sense that, yes, life lets you down more often than it doesn’t. It is a fact.
One day you will lose the things you love. Someday, a hundred years from now, your photograph will fade, and your grandchildren will misplace all your belongings.
But not your game. It cannot disappear. Not as long as men and boys still gather on infields each season to remember their fathers. No one can kill it. Not even if they cancel the World Series. The grayness of life will pass. Last year’s losses will be forgotten. Hope lies ninety feet away from home plate. Winter is over.
Baseball is back.