For Love of the Game

Whitey Ford has died. He was 91. He lived an active life for many years after his retirement. But, today, the Chairman of the Board has adjourned for the last time.

Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Johnny Antonelli…it’s been a sad year for my childhood. These are the men I watched or honored from my place on the bench. These are some of my favorite plaques to visit when at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Increasingly, they are plaques of ghosts.

It happens. It comes with age. I’m not young – my baseball heroes are at the age to pass away. But it’s like baseball itself is dying for me. I don’t watch the way I used to. The salary demands left me disheartened, beginning in the 80s and I slowly stopped believing in the joy of the game. Bit by bit my connection to the ‘old days’ of baseball are fading away.

I grew up in a baseball house. My father was a high school coach. I was keeping his scorebook when I still needed a stepstool to reach the bench in the dugout. I learned math by calculating stats for his players. I asked if Bobby Grich could come to my 4th birthday party (sadly, he could not – though I’m not sure my parents tried very hard). For many years a family joke has held on that I was baptized with diamond dry. There really is something special about baseball dirt – the smell, the feel, the stains left behind by the silt & clay. It’s ‘home’ to me.

The magic of baseball is still there for me, but it’s in the game, and in the numbers, and in the crack of the bat. Ohhhh…..that sound….the deep, thunderous smack of a wood bat making a solid connection with the ball and the way it echoes off the walls on a cool night…..that is like a lullaby to me. The respect and awe I once felt for the players, though, has been lost over the years.

Perhaps it is the loss of the innocence of childhood; a time when adults seemed to be able to perform magic before our eyes. Has the cynicism of life left me with a lackluster feel toward the players in the game? As the years roll on, have I forgotten how to be captivated by another’s abilities? I revel in the joy of a perfect game, but I couldn’t tell you who threw it. I marvel at an 18-inning game, but I won’t remember who played it. I would watch a good DP 6-4-3 on loop without caring who threw or who was out. I no longer follow the players.

I grew up on AAA ball. I cut my teeth on the boys who rode smelly buses to stay in dirty motels and play ball for barely enough to cover rent on the room back home that they don’t get to live in for long. I watched the grit and drive as they tried to be the next one called up. I admired the ceaseless dedication of those who knew there was nothing more for them beyond the minor leagues. They were just happy to be playing, to hear the cheers, to go home dirty at the end of the day. I struggle to find that these days. I find myself traveling to Single-A stadiums, just to fill the ache.

My heroes are disappearing. They are no longer the living legends and their stories are melting away into background noise. Watching these players defy the odds, play hard, (sometimes) play dirty, laugh, argue, celebrate, fight, love all over a game made me believe in fairy tales. Seeing a last-place team stand proudly at the plate showed me that it’s never truly over. There’s always next year. But next year is gone for the boys I cheered. I have over 200 autographs of players that made the game come alive for me. They are displayed joyously in my house. I talk to my son about them, about why I love them, about who they were. But, there is no magic for him. My heroes will die with me.

The smell of glove oil, the feel of worn leather, the slightest hint of red stitching in that unmistakable pattern and my heart quickens. Baseball will always hold magic to me. But I am losing the magicians that showed me my first slight-of-hand curve ball.

There is no one on deck and the game has been called on account of darkness.

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