Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opening Day. Amen.

I'm one of those persons who feels a little religious on the opening day of baseball. It wasn't my best sport as a kid. I cared much more passionately about basketball. But baseball holds a reverence in my heart unrivaled by any other sport. It feels ancient and substantial, and I think this is in part because it is so ritually enacted. It has to be ancient to have developed such ritual drama. The way a batter prepares for each pitch. The way a pitcher looks in for a sign, while a base coach crosses himself. The dance between base runner and pitcher. The way the ump calls out strikes. The agreed upon ways a manager and ump argue calls. There are a thousand gestures in baseball and they all bear significance. For the initiated, they bespeak reverence. This is not to mention the high church aspects: first pitch, national anthem, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Sweet Caroline.

Some of my thickest memories of life are connected to baseball. I love David James Duncan's short story, "The Mickey Mantle Koan." It beautifully describes Duncan's experience of playing long toss with his brother who died young from cancer. It is a moving, moving story, and the connection made between ball, gloves, and brothers is a big part of all of that.

In a similar way, baseball is attached to big memories I have of life with my dad. When I was 11, dad was working on a doctorate at a seminary in the San Francisco area. His program required residencies only every other summer. So, our family of four lived in a 15 foot trailer in a nearby trailer park during these summers, our permanent home being in Portland, OR. We went to Giants and A's games as we could. The Giants had Willie Mays, McCovey, Bobby Bonds, Juan Marichal. The A's featured Reggie Jackson, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bert Campenaris, and a rookie flamethrower who won 27 games, Vida Blue.

But the best part of that summer was the afternoons when my dad would come home from classes or the library. He would grab the bat and ball and I would grab by Dick McAullife autographed fielder's glove (which means more now that I live in Detroit), and he would hit me fly balls. He'd hit some in front of me. He'd hit some over my head. I would catch everything he hit. The ball, bat, and glove tied us together. My dad and I connect on several levels in life, but none more viscerally real than the time he spent hitting me fly balls. I know guys whose relationship with their fathers is less ideal. But playing catch or chasing fungos could cover a multitude of sins. Or make priceless what was already rich.

I played my last year of Little League in the Skyline league in Wilshire Park in Portland, Oregon. I walked the diamond a few years ago when I was visiting Portland. Such thick, thick memories. I played for Frederick's Grain. I played mostly center field and shortstop when the coach's son wasn't there. I could go get the ball, but I couldn't hit much.

So, one of the greatest memories of my life is the day I hit one over the fence against a red headed lefty named David Nelson. I can still feel the connection in my hands when the ball connected with my 32 oz wooden Louisville Slugger. There is no feeling like that. No vibration. Sweet spot. Like the bat gave into the ball before it trampolined it into space. You don't even have to look. You know you tagged it. The ball sailed over the fence the moment my foot hit the first base bag. My legs turned to rubber. I had hit the ball over the fence! No one else was needed on that play. Just the pitcher and me. And now the singular moment of being the only one playing as I touched each base. I didn't need the fireworks or the playing of the music from The Natural to feel that way as I rounded for home. Pure euphoria. And my teammates, stunned by this unlikely event, were waiting to mob me at home plate. I can still feel the sun on my neck as I ran down the third base line, and the stings on my back as my teammates pounded me with congratulations. For the next few games I hit fifth in our order until reality dropped me back into the eight hole.

If I could choose a moment of my life to relive, that one would be high on the list of candidates.

So, opening day is a religious day, steeped in the ritual thickness of the game itself, and heightened by the mythological experience of dad and son, of wood and leather, of teammates and achievement. Play ball!


Redlefty said...

Amen is right!

JamesBrett said...

you may not even remember this. but i do. last year at the east africa men's missionary retreat, i hit a bomb that should surely have been a homerun. but you one-hand snagged it, looking over your shoulder on the run.

it was definitely the espn play of the game.

Mark Love said...

Brett, I didn't remember that you hit it, but I certainly remember the catch. And so, I'm thrilled you mentioned it here so that the whole world (all 15 who read the blog)can know that at 50 I can still go get it. Muscle memory from the summer of my 12th year.