by Joshua Smith
Even if you're not a baseball fan, I think you'll appreciate this
|"Drop the bat!"
That's my T-Ball coach yelling to me when I was 5 years old. I had this habit of running the bases while holding my bat. Even when you don't understand the rules, you love the game. But, I wasn't head over heels until I was 7 years old. That's when it happened.
My mother, hell, my whole family were Yankee fans. But my mom had an opportunity to take me to a ball game and she jumped at it, despite that it was being played in Queens. The details 16 years later still seem so vivid to me. I remember getting on the bus to the city with the glove on my hand. My heart was beating so fast, it could have leapt from my chest. I remember the agonizing hours sitting on the bus waiting get there - playing hangman and other games with my mom. I probably asked her a hundred times, "How much longer?" or "Are we there yet?". To which, she always smiled and replied, "Soon" or "Almost".
Then, I saw it, a building more impressive than any in New York; Shea Stadium. It was so big, I couldn't wait to go inside. I wanted to climb to the top of this steeple and join all those lucky enough to enter this sanctuary and pity the unlucky who couldn't join the club. And climb to the top we did. We sat in the upper deck and baked in the afternoon sun, while the athletes got ready for the game ahead.
I don't remember every out, or, even, every inning. However, I remember Darryl Strawberry hitting 2 home runs, and Darryl Boston and Kevin McReynolds hitting 1 apiece. I remember that giant red apple with the Mets logo painted on it coming out of that top hot behind the center-field fence all four times. I remember yelling, "CHARGE!!" with the crowd and cheering and screaming with them every time the Mets got a hit or an Astro struck out. I remember Darryl Strawberry hitting a foul ball so hard that it went just beyond my outstretched glove and into the hands of the man sitting behind me. And, I remember my mom forcing me to eat a hot dog I didn't want, because, as she said, "You have to eat a hot dog at your first game."
The Mets beat the Astros that day, 12-0. That's not all they won. They won a young boy's heart, along with baseball. From then on, it was baseball and, despite my parent's valiant efforts to make me a Yankee fan, it was the Mets. I remember the sadness I felt when Darryl and Doc left. I remember Eddie Murray becoming my favorite player during his short stint with the Mets. I remember booing Bobby Bo with the rest of New York. Most of all, I remember how heart-breaking those standings were year after year.
That one game changed my life. I wanted to know more about baseball than any person on the planet. I bought almanacs and studied the stats. Names like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Cy Young, became more familiar to me than most of my aunts and uncles. I knew every player with 500 or more home runs. I knew Ty Cobb's batting average and Cy Young's win total by heart. I read Babe Ruth's autobiography when I was 8. I watched "Pride of the Yankees" before my tenth birthday. I read Carl Yastrzemski's book, and Mickey Mantle's, and Willie Mays's and Hank Aaron's. I was astonished by the Black Sox, horrified by the Negro leagues' reason for existence, disappointed by Pete Rose. I was in awe of everything baseball.
The Yankees were finally in first place again and so were the Expos. I was excited by the Expos. Matt Williams looked like he was going to break Roger Maris's record, Tony Gwynn was going to hit .400 for the first time since Ted Williams, and Randy Johnson was striking so many people out some thought he could take Nolan Ryan's 383. My family and I were taking a 3-week road trip out west. It was absolutely amazing, until something happened. It was worse than a last-place finish for the Mets. I can't remember any woman being more heart-breaking. We were at the Grand Canyon and I couldn't enjoy it. I remember saying, "What's the big deal? It's just a big hole." I saw the majesty of the sun setting over the canyon; the oranges and the reds splashing from the sky against the stone. My memory doesn't do it justice, because I didn't appreciate it. I didn't appreciate it because the players had gone on strike. With every passing day I felt a new knife in my back. I couldn't understand why the players, especially the Mets would turn their backs on me. I couldn't fathom why they wouldn't want to play a game for as much money as they made. A game I would've played for free. There wasn't even a World Series. It was the first time since 1904. The game made it 90 years. Not even two world wars and a great depression had stopped it. Nothing; until a few hundred players decided they didn't make enough money. Even Eddie Cicotte rolled in his grave.
The time between the end of the 1994 and the beginning of the 1995 seasons felt like an abyss. I could actually feel the loss of baseball and, to this day, I still wonder how that season would have turned out. But, no matter how mad or heart-broken or betrayed I felt; I was ready with open arms for baseball to come back. Baseball wasn't just a game to me, it was my release; my crutch. Everything in life that ever brought me sadness was wiped away by baseball. My first female heart-break came in the midst of the 1999 season. It was as if the Mets were playing for me. They won the wild card and then the divisional series. They went to the NLCS against the Braves (a team that's not very well-liked in the realm of Shea Stadium). They were down 3 games to none and they came back. It was some of the most exciting baseball I have ever seen. And, after all that, Kenny Rogers walked in the winning run in game 6 to put the Braves in the World Series. I remember that pain more vividly than my first female heart-break.
After the terrorists attacked on September 11, 2001, the whole nation, myself included, fixed their tired, tear-stained eyes on the hope that is baseball. Almost an entire nation was behind the New York Yankees and then the unthinkable happened. The Yankees lost. They lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks of all teams. It was as if baseball was telling us, "Life isn't a fairy tale, wake up, live, love, and enjoy!" Baseball, the fantasy, brought us reality and all we could do was wait for next season.
The older I got, the more I changed. But, baseball was always my answer. I failed one of the most important tests of my life by one question. I was living in Monterey, California at the time. So, I spent the next two weeks going to San Francisco and Oakland watching Giants and A's games. I saw Barry Bonds steal his 500th base. Not long after that I moved to Texas and on my road trip I stopped at Dodger Stadium. I was 20 years old at this point and the Dodgers were playing the Rockies. I went in during batting practice and I had a seat next to the field down the right field line. Soon after I sat down one of the Rockies hit a batting practice ball to right field. Larry Walker strolled over and picked it up. He turned and started jogging away and flipped the ball over his head and right to me. Ten years and dozens of games and I finally had a ball. A little boy, probably no more than 9, looked up at me and asked, "Can I have the ball?"
I looked back at him, smiled and said in a soft, sweet voice, "Hell, no."
The little boy tried to appeal to me some more, but I still have that ball.
Just when I thought 1994 had numbed all baseball pain; in came steroids. Many people, and "true fans", will tell you that it may have ruined the game. And when all that news first started to break, I felt the same. I began thinking, how could baseball do this to me again? Why can't the players just love the game the way I do? What do we do with all those padded stats? But, soon, it hit me; the steroid scandal ruin the game, it just ruined some statistics. I still love the game.
A baseball diamond, any baseball diamond, is still the "field of dreams". When I stand on a field I can still feel the ball, smell the glove, glide my feet through the blades of grass all neatly trimmed, slide into home with excitement breathing down my neck and raspberries adorning my thigh in some sweet pain of triumph. When I'm in a ballpark, I'm not thinking about the players or if they're "juiced"; I'm feeling the crowd, I'm keeping score and I'm watching those little men beneath me play the game I love. I used to think baseball and I were in an abusive relationship. Baseball abused me, but I loved it too much to leave. That's not it, though. There isn't a relationship. There's simply no difference between us.