The sun is lowering over the trees on the horizon, and the sky is lit orange. The world is filled with light. The birds are chattering.
Baseball season is almost here. Hallelujah.
I am catching a game between two Little League teams. It’s an unofficial matchup. This is pre-spring training in a small town, where baseball is still something folks get excited about.
The kids are young, and still unclear on the rules of the game, but they’re trying.
A child hits a ground ball.
“RUN!” the parents in the bleachers cheer. The kid drops the bat. He sprints straight toward the pitcher, runs over the mound, leaps over second base, and keeps going until he collides with the centerfielder. And I love it.
Major League spring training starts today, and I can hardly stand myself. I’ve been counting down the days.
When I was a boy, my father and I listened to ball games on his Philco radio, or watched them on television. Almost every night of the summer, we kept a scorecard placed beside an AM speaker, and a bag of parched peanuts.
When we weren’t following baseball, we were playing catch. When we weren’t doing that, we were at Little League games, like this one. When we weren’t doing that, we were in church.
Of course, my childhood baseball career was cut short. My father died in a terrible way. It was the kind of death that makes everyone in a small town gasp when they read it in the papers.
It was though someone had erased the sun.
And something else bad happened on the same day of his passing. And I mean the ACTUAL DAY of his death.
It was an announcement on the national news. The commissioner of Major League Baseball stood at a podium and proclaimed that there would be no World Series that year.
It was the worst thing to happen in the history of the world since 1904.
To boys like me, it was like someone had cancelled the Fourth of July, or Thanksgiving, or pushed Santa Claus off a tall cliff, set his workshop on fire, and forced his elves to file for unemployment.
That was the worst year of my life.
What would I do? What was going to happen to us without a breadwinner? Who would raise me?
Also, what would happen to my favorite Major Leaguers? Would they be found bagging groceries at Piggly Wiggly? Would you walk into the store and see Greg Maddux wearing a red apron, asking if you need help out to your car? Would Bobby Cox be washing windshields for pocket change?
I sort of gave up talking that year. Besides, there wasn’t anything to talk about. My mother quit talking, too. And our house became a silent one.
Okay, that’s enough depressing facts for one column.
I’ll never forget the February after my father’s death. The newspapers announced that Major League spring training was scheduled to start. Reporters said the players and franchise owners had come to an agreement.
And baseball was back.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more grateful than I did that day. It was a rush of emotion. I cried when I read it in the paper. Not for baseball, but because you never know how much you love some things, or some people, until they’re taken from you.
In April, I listened to the first pitch of the season on my father’s radio. And I stood for the national anthem, even though I was alone in an empty workshed.
I checked the newspaper box scores every morning. I watched games on television with parched peanuts.
My uncle took me to a few games in Atlanta. I hollered, laughed, screamed, leapt to my feet for good plays, and booed the opposition. He let me eat as many hotdogs as I wanted. And for nine innings, I was me.
In daily life, I was a kid who didn’t know where our lives were going, or whether my family would survive hard times. But during a ballgame, I was part of something bigger than myself. And when they won, they did it for me.
Sometimes I wish that I could talk to that little boy. He’s still out there somewhere in time and space, eating peanuts, worried about his own life.
I would tell him to look upward. Just over the treeline. There’s an orange light, stabbing through the limbs making the prettiest sunset you ever saw.
The sun only goes down for the night. Tomorrow morning, it will rise. Tears will evaporate. Winter will end. And boys will take the field again.
And you will know that nothing bad lasts forever. No way, no how.
And that is why I love baseball.