Washington Senators vs. White Sox, circa 1909.  Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

Washington Senators vs. White Sox, circa 1909. Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

“Baseball is about going home, and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need. It tells us how good home is. Its wisdom says you can go home again but you cannot stay. The journey must always start once more, the bat an oar over the shoulder, until there is an end to all journeying. Nostos; the going home; the game of nostalgia, so apt an image for our hunger that it hurts.”

Bart Giamatti

It’s the end of February. We want the ice to melt, the trees to bud, and to smell the wet new life of spring. It’s the time of the year when anticipation builds, waiting for the time of Via Transformativa when we move from restless, creative dormancy to animation.

I am waiting, too, to hear the crack of the bat and the “thub” of the ball hitting the mitt. I can already imagine walking up the tunnel and seeing the green grass for the first time of the season. Each year it brings me a chill and a smile as wide as Bagwell in the batter’s box. Another beginning, another cycle of hoping.

I played baseball competitively from the ages of seven until eighteen. As kids, my brother and I played stickball in the street, practiced hitting bottlecaps with broomsticks, and eventually built a backstop in our back yard out of railroad ties and chicken wire. Neighbor kids would show up on Saturday afternoons for pickup games. I collected, traded, and sold baseball cards. I was paid $15 a game to umpire little league. From April until October, I was reading box scores in the newspaper, watching This Week in Baseball, thumbing through Charlie Lau’s guide to hitting, and working on my circle change. Some kids played with a hacky sack. We played pepper.

I used to mark time by who won the World Series. We moved onto Leonard Street the year Ozzie Smith and the Cardinals won it. Oh yes, 1985. I remember our family roadtrips to ballparks in a mustard colored Westy (no, they were not hippies), hitting five or six games in different cities within a week, arriving early at each for autographs and batting practice. I’ve watched a game in 28 major league parks.

I remember being invited into the clubhouse during the 1983 Chicago White Sox “winning ugly” season where I met Scott Fletcher and Harold Baines, and stared at Pudge and Ron Kittle. Thanks, Dad, for pulling that one off.

I fell in love with the White Sox that day and have loved them ever since. I remember jumping up and down in my living room screaming when Konerko hit his grand slam in the 2005 World Series. I savor the memory of my dad and I at the ALCS game a week before, where AJ ran to first on the “trapped” third strike. I listened to the end of Mark Buerhle’s perfect game in the alley with a homeless man who had heard the lefty was three outs from perfection and was looking for a radio.

After my playing days were over, I drifted away from the game for a few short years. Then, like a catchy Motown tune, it gently nudged it’s way back into my consciousness. We reunited in the spring and I appreciated her more fully.

What do I love this great and glorious game?

Season & Senses

As our most literate former commissioner, Bart Giamatti writes,

“The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”

It’s a game of sun and warmth, beckoning me onto the field after a winter of captivity. To see and smell the natural materials of baseball – leather, wood, pine tar, grass, dirt – calls me playfully into nature and childhood. It’s a sensual game.

Pace & Rhythm

I’ve heard the complaints countless times: “Baseball is boring.” “Baseball is so slow.” “The season is so long.”

Why does it need to move quickly? Don’t we deserve a sport that does not demand all of our attention? A game that invites us to slow down and enjoy the field, pauses, and a pace of leisure?

Baseball’s most thrilling moments — an inside-the-park home run, triple play, or stealing home — are rare. We go to a game never expecting to see them. We don’t need to because thrill is not an essential part of the game.

A stolen base, diving stop, outfield assist at home, or double play is grace in action. Being a second baseman and pitcher as a kid, I love the 6-4-3 double play, watching the second baseman catch the ball from the shortstop,spin in midair, avoid the sliding runner, and throw to first in what seems like one continuous motion. No wasted energy, no time lost. It’s beautiful.

With 162 games in a season, baseball is not designed as a spectacle. Unlike football in which every week builds up to a single game, professional baseball teams play six or seven games per week. I know that on any given evening while I’m preparing the grill for a cookout, I can most likely listen to a ballgame. The sum of these games create a rhythm that matches the pace of summer. I’m not riveted to the radio. I’m in conversation, or in thought, just enjoying the soundtrack.

The Mythology

Baseball is meant to be discussed. Because of this truth, we have a litany of writers who have anthologized the game to enhance all of our discussion. Then we have statisticians, who are more popular than ever. But most  baseball fans are also historians. We hand down the mythologies generation to generation. We compare Hank and Miggy. We tell tales of bloody socks and fried chicken. We stretch when we’re supposed to. We read Roger Angell and even George Will.

When my son was riding the bus to summer camp at the age of nine, his camp counselor on the bus played a game every day. With baseball cards in hand, he would flip two over on the bus seat, and ask the boys to vote for the better player. Gwynn vs. Ichiro. Mays vs. Junior. The counselor declared the winner. The education begins and the tradition continues.

“Baseball has a bizarre effect on writers: it turns them romantic,” as Eric Nusbaum writes. With the dawn of spring training, I know baseball is about to gracefully flow into the background for it’s share of the year. Hope is in full swing. The radio is on. I’m slowing down to relish it.