Treasures of a Delightful Game

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With a somber tone, I gently tell my young son why there is no baseball this year for our favorite team, the Cleveland Indians. Much that once seemed certain has been stood upon its head in the spring of 2020. I explain that any future games will be distinctly different from prior seasons, with teams playing in empty stadiums, with no one to cheer them on. I mention that our team might not make the playoffs (if there even were a playoffs). He considers this information for a moment with an intense yet innocent gaze, then replies, "Well at least they would be playing baseball."

Silence… In eight words, a boy of 5 has gently reminded a grown man of what is important, and set in motion a period of deep introspection on the roots of my love for the game.

Baseball has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The earliest memories, like disordered splashes of paint on a canvas, come in fleeting yet vivid bursts. I remember the smell of my dad’s glove, that musty leather smell. His glove felt rough, due to age and a lack of oil. In my young mind, it reminded me of the scratchiness of his face (maybe all dad things were scratchy..?). As I linger in this inward archive, I discover singular images, mental snapshots long forgotten. The green outer expanse and dusty infield during a ball game, viewed from a child’s angle, face pressed against a chain-link fence. I can almost feel the chalky dust in my mouth. I see my tiny hands, resting against my stomach, maneuvering to hold a ball with three fingers, as I had seen my dad do.

Rolling forward quickly through time, the images become vignettes. Playing wiffle ball with neighborhood kids. Fence posts for first and second base, the corner of a garage for third, and a well-worn patch of dirt in an otherwise healthy yard serving as home plate. My tongue flits over the familiar groove in my upper cuspid as I recall hastily spitting that tiny flake of enamel in the dugout between innings of a little league game after a bad hop at shortstop. I can still hear the clang of a foul ball on the roof of the old Toledo Mud Hens stadium, then a brief pause, followed by a frenzy of motion as the ball shoots into the crowd from one of the shallow troughs in the corrugated metal.

I remember travelling I-80 to a game at Jacobs field in 1995, age 11, reciting aloud the names of the starting lineup. Alomar, Sorrento, Baerga, Thome, Vizquel, Belle, Lofton, Ramirez, Murray. Just recently, I retired the souvenir cups we acquired at that game, now faded and yellowing. Guided by an Indians schedule clipped from the local paper and taped to my bedroom wall, I tuned in daily during the lazy summer months to hear the voice of Tom Hamilton calling games at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

The summer I spent as a bat boy for the Mud Hens is rich with memories. The Tigers were dreadful, which meant exciting players were scarce, but highlights included an autograph from Deion Sanders as he passed through with the AAA Reds, seeing John Rocker heckled when Richmond came to town, and witnessing the extra security during a visit by vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. When the Indians affiliate (Buffalo) came to town, a player crouched next to my chair beside the dugout as we watched a Russel Branyan at-bat. "This guy hits the ball further than anyone I have ever seen, but when he misses, you can feel the wind from here", he quipped.

I remember my first visit to Fenway park, in the summer of 2014, my wife pregnant with our first child. Mike Napoli and Big Papi launched back-to-back homers in extra innings to win the game against Minnesota in dramatic fashion. I arranged my photos, accompanied by my descriptions of the game, into a collage, which I forwarded to my dad on his birthday. The final note read, "hopefully someday I will share baseball memories with my son".

We moved to Chicago and rooted for the Tribe through their exhilarating 2016 playoff run. A rush of euphoria, followed rapidly by a crushing wave of defeat.

That Thursday morning, I trudged to work, weary from the assault of late-night fireworks outside my bedroom window, and with a shadow over my heart. I took a very long lunch that day, and as I perused the comment section of my favorite Indians blog, the entries describing personal season highlights and pictures with friends helped me regain focus. As I read, a text from my wife arrived with a picture of my son dressed in Indians garb and a winter hat and scarf, with the caption, "ready for spring training".

That moment was a precious salve to my aching soul, reminding me of why I love baseball. It is the shared familial bonds amongst kith, kin, and friendly strangers who irrationally follow their favorite team, eternally hoping for next year, and enjoying the simple pleasures along the way. My appreciation for these comforts is only further heightened during earth-rattling times like these.

I will welcome the normalcy of typical fandom soon enough. Evaluating players, commiserating about small market woes, weighing lineup options, arguing about the situational value of the bunt. But not yet.

This is a time to treasure the intangible elements of our favorite pastime: the deliberative gaze of a crouched pitcher, determining his next offering, a group of players, arrayed along a dugout bench, joking and spitting sunflower seeds in the sun, the slow cadence of pitchers warming in the pen, the crack of a bat as a ball is launched into the air, the effortless glide of outfielders converging through the long shadows to the spot where physics has carried this magical floating orb. A delightful game, given meaning by those who play it and those who follow it.

If you, like me, have a few moments to reflect, perhaps you will find that your heart, in this winter of the world, is ready for spring. Until then, warmly hug someone you love (either in person, or virtually), and keep your chin up. We’ll see you again soon, baseball fans.

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