Baseball.

It’s baseball season, and apparently I have A LOT to say about baseball.  Today alone I’ve made three attempts to write one simple blog post about the good old national pastime.  Up until now I’ve ended up with two short stories and a rambling page of baseball themed nonsense. So, yah, it might take me a while to fully work through this topic. Don’t worry I’m going to try to keep this post to just the basics.  At least my basics.

Wait!  I see the fear in your eyes, don’t run!  No need to panic, I’m not a fanatic, I promise.   You’re not going to be subjected to pages of player stats, playoff projections based on spring training standings, who’s on the DL, or who we should trade.  Nope. Trust me, I don’t care about any of that. Yes, my baseball is the same box of cracker jacks on a warm summer night game as yours, but I’ve never gotten the chance to experience a game as just a fan.  I come from a sort of baseball mafia, if you will.  My Grandfather played baseball, my father played baseball, and my brother plays baseball.  When I say “play baseball” I don’t mean they were the first baseman on their High School team senior year when they won State.  I mean middle kid and I happened to leave the TV on a network channel last night, a game came on and we ended up watching my brother face down The Braves.  Don’t ask me what team he’s on, if I tell you I’d have to kill you (mafia and pseudonym remember?).

Growing up baseball was a constant. We spent weekends at the fields practicing, or in my case fielding balls once I made it clear softball was no longer in my future.  There was always a game taking over our living room television, a running commentary of my father’s take on the mentality of the sport it’s soundtrack. The sounds of Vin Scully’s voice or the Braves Tomahawk Chop would probably put me right back in front of that set at ten years old.  For any baseball aficionados following along the family has southern roots, but we lived in Dodger territory, hence the references. The family schedule revolved around trainings and games. Eventually “vacations” were taken to tournament locations. We just kind of became…the baseball family.

This is where the story turns.  Where I start to get stuck each time I begin on the topic of baseball.  I want to explain what it’s like watching the career of a professional athlete take shape.  I want to explain the importance of the mentality of the game, and that all you couch coaches out there don’t actually have the inside understanding of what’s happening on the field.  I want to explain what I know about players relationships, many that begin as teens. I want to explain that these players were nationally ranked kids far before you ever heard their names.  I really want to explain chronic injuries and how stats don’t matter the way everyone wants them to. I never can quite get to any of this though, I think it’s because I have a more important topic I need to tackle first.

In our family baseball was never a choice.  It was a given. It was stereotypical. You had the parent that couldn’t separate his inability to make it out of the minor leagues, his fate due to lack of either will power or skill.  His failure possibly, even sadder, due to lack of confidence. Like I said, stereotypical. Although, we never did recreate that whole coming of age movie moment with the kid tearfully saying, “it’s your dream, not mine.”  There was no real rebellion, since a major league career was, in fact, my brother’s goal too. Now, there was a turning point for sure. Sometime around the beginning of my brother’s high school career it was made clear to my father that it was time for him to start stepping back.  My brother didn’t need him anymore, he had outgrown the coaching my father was able to offer. This was something I don’t think my father was ever able to fully accept, that he wasn’t needed anymore. He began trying to push himself into my brother’s world. He couldn’t let go, eventually his bleacher coaching became so disruptive he was banned from sitting near the infield at games.  He couldn’t stop himself. The situation became increasingly somber. My father somehow lost his entire identity in his son’s ability to play a game. While our family had been built on shaky ground from the get go, this codependency was the unstable fault line underneath that made our weak foundation begin to crumble. My brother got better. My father lost more control. Son would get moved to a higher level team.  Dad would get reckless. He got called up. Dad had no purpose.

Eventually the only relationship that lasted between the two were post game text messages of advice from a man who had nothing better to do but obsessively watch baseball games.  He desperately clung to a purpose by to give critiques to the players, men who were closer than he had ever been to being experts in the game. Inevitably his desperation caught up to him and created a self destructive breakdown.   This period, wrought with addiction and desperation, resulted in the whole structure of our family crashing down. We were all left to pick up the pieces from the rubble. My brother and I dealt with the instability that followed by constructing a wall blocking us from ever building over the fault again.  My brother and I on one side, my father on the other, trying to make sense of the shambles in front of him. Broken glass and mortar he had built and torn apart himself. My father was never a good man, but a few years after the dust has settled I think I may have a better understanding of how his life snowballed the way it did.  The catalyst always being a stupid game.  

The why of it all we can leave for a four hundred page case study I’ll work on writing once my novel is done.  Right now let’s just focus on the fact that a grown man lost himself so deep into the idea that the only way to succeed in life was to turn his son into a professional baseball player.  This belief was so ingrained in him that when said son no longer needed him he suffocated son. The suffocation to a point that he was pushed out of son’s life. Eventually losing his entire family and own job in the process.  I’m not kidding guys, this was the result.  All over a freaking game.

Do you understand now why it’s so hard for me to just talk about baseball?  It was a slowly burning fire in the basement of my life, eventually rising up and swallowing us all in it’s flames.  For a long time I took all this out on the game itself. I HATED baseball. To me the game symbolized everything that was wrong in my home.  I am pretty sure I didn’t watch a single baseball game from 2005-2011. Then something crazy happened. My brother had been stuck in AA for a while and wasn’t getting any younger, he had decided that this was going to be the last year he played.  He almost walked away mid season. Ironically, or maybe expectedly, the best advice that was given to him was from our father. He said to my brother what I can only imagine he wishes someone had said to him, “If you can walk away and never look back then, awesome, do it.  If you’re going to look back and wonder what if, don’t.”  My brother decided to give it the season.  In September he got called up. I went to my first game in years at Chavez Ravine, home of our childhood summers, to cheer on my little brother.  I still cry sometimes when I see him in person in the middle of a giant stadium fans of the team cheering and supporting him, because you guys I am SO FUCKING PROUD OF HIM.  He always had talent, but when you get to a certain point everyone has talent.  He achieved his goal with sheer hard work, sacrifice, and unwavering determination.  Plus a little bit of being with the right team at the right time. I used to feel like my brother achieved his goal despite my father, but I don’t anymore.  He had the chance to chase his dream because of our father, then suffered the loss of that father in the process.

I am finding now that the bitter feelings that once kept me away from the game are gone, in their place pleasant twinges of nostalgia.  Over time I think my brother and I rewrote our story regarding the game. It helps that he sees the absurdity of it all. He describes his work as, “chasing a ball around a field with other grown men.”  When I think back now to the baseball of our childhood I remember warm summer evenings at Dodger stadium with big silly foam fingers and backwards caps. I remember little league games with the smell of freshly cut grass and the sound of cheering parents.  I remember fielding batting practice in the outfield at our school with our Golden Retriever. I remember my brother’s smile when he won, I remember hours upon hours of watching him bounce a ball against a wall because he just couldn’t stop.  I remember that for him and I there was a time when it was just a game, and it was fun.

We now live in this weird existence where I can watch a recap of my brother’s day at work on ESPN.  Seriously, I have never once asked him how work is going. All I have to do is look up his hashtag on twitter, some guy with a handle like @StickAndBalls will be happy to let the whole world know how awful/amazing he thinks my bro is.  We don’t really get to see each other during the season, because even when we do meet it’s for an hour or two for breakfast and then he has to go to the field. It’s impossible to see him at the field because everyone wants a piece of him, and it’s his job to give that to them.  We still dutifully wait by his team’s dugout before the game starts, just to lend our support. We understand, but we miss him and he misses us. This won’t be forever though. Eventually it will be his son’s turn to play, or not play. He’s going to let his son decide for himself.

My kids?  They don’t love baseball, but they don’t hate it.  They think it’s totally normal to see your uncle on TV and that everyone gets to go to the players club at games, or down to the family room.  It just hit middle kid this year that he was being asked for autographs when we stood outside his hotel in San Diego. We discussed plans to meet up at the game for a few minutes (third baseline, right after BP, always) while boys with sharpies in their hands shyly murmured requests for a signature.  He couldn’t say no. My kids like the cotton candy and peanuts, they don’t love Suntrust Park, it’s too hot. They like PNC Park and Federal Street, they’re over long scoreless innings. They like wearing team tshirts, backward caps, and foam fingers. They say “oh cool” when I tell them to “look at the TV, your uncle is on it!”  Then they usually keep on walking out of the room. Yet sometimes, like last night, one of them will sit next to me and route for their uncle’s team for a few innings. They’ll talk about the plays and the calls, they know all the basics of the game but wonder about the intricacies. They’ll ask about players, some of whom I’ve known since we were only a little older than the kids are now.  Others I’ve met over the years at games, restaurants, and hotels. The rookies now look like babies to me, when did that happen? I remember always thinking how the players on TV all looked so old. I sit with them and talk, about the game, the people, and my memories for as long as they’ll listen. Eventually a commercial break will come on and they’ll wander away.

My kids may never have as much to say about baseball as I do, and that’s probably a good thing.  I have realized that I don’t want the family baseball book to close after me. I want them to remember warm summer evenings and “flossing” on the jumbotron.  I hope they someday realize how cool it is to have a player who always meets you at the third base line with a ball to toss your way. I hope they come to understand that in this rewritten version of our family this game has found a way to morph itself into a tie that binds us together, not push us apart.   It’s ten o’clock and the top of the ninth. Middle kid just sat down and asked who’s winning. Her uncle just came into the game, she’s gonna watch him close this thing down.

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