Every year around the All-Star break I tend to reflect on what baseball really is. The existential meaning of baseball, if you will.
To each fan, baseball can signify many different things. And for each of us, the things it signifies brings us a deep connection to the game.
For me, baseball has come to represent many things, such as the beginning of spring, chess (but instead of pawns, rooks and knights, there are the players) and dreams born on the old neighborhood Wiffle Ball field.
Yet, above all those, baseball represents time travel.
Baseball is the DeLorean of the sporting world—more so than other sports. During every game, we are reminded of baseball’s history. Whether 60 years ago an historic event occurred that day or a player becomes a part of history, the past is always at the forefront of the game.
But they say there is no such thing as a time machine. They say that those are vessels of science fiction, left for dreams and imagination.
As a baseball fan, though, I can attest that time machines do exist. These “machines” are actually not machines. There is no engine or flux capacitor, and the only 88 mph referenced is from a Greg Maddux fastball or a Randy Johnson slider.
No, this conduit of time travel requires only memory and sentiment.
As I watch baseball, I am transported back in time, to the time of a happy childhood.
When my Grandpa was still alive, I remember sitting by the pool at my aunt’s house one summer afternoon, watching as he demonstrated to me how to properly grip a baseball to throw a curve or a knuckler, and the difference between a four-seam and a two-seam fastball.
It brings me back to one time in a tee-ball game, when I slid into every base. First: check. Second: check. Third, with a teammate right behind me, causing him to have to run back to second: check. Until my coach told me I did not need to slide into every base, then sliding into home: check.
It brings me to when I learned my dad’s extra glove with the Cubs patch on the outside was actually my mom’s glove, and the seldom sessions of catch with her. Back then, she could throw pretty well…for a girl (See Hamilton “The Babe” Porter v. Phillips). She also demanded I take a minimum of 30 swings of the bat every night during my league season—before or after a game as well, no matter what.
It takes me back to a time when dreams were never too big and still had the possibility of reality. When playing first base for the Cubs was all I wanted to do.
It takes me to the years I played first base in rookie league, when I would regularly do the splits stretching to catch balls because I had once seen my favorite player, Mark Grace, do it in a game. And when I made the all-star team only to ride the pine the first one-and-a-half games of a two-game series in favor of the coach’s son’s best friend regardless of being a substantially better hitter and fielder (yes, that one still burns).
It takes me to a time in minor league when I was the most dominant pitcher in the league, and the only average of concern was my batting, not grade point.
And an occasion during one of my minor league games when dozens of carloads full of parents, players and equipment frantically exited the grounds en masse to escape the path of a tornado bearing down on the town. That evening, driving our little Ford minivan home, my dad reached speeds that would put any NASCAR driver to shame.
It takes me back to my one year of a major league career (13 years old) when I played the outfield and could throw out baserunners at will.
Back to when the summer evenings I didn’t have organized baseball practice were not necessarily nights off from practicing baseball. Those nights, wherever I was in the neighborhood, I would be summoned home by the sound of my Mom’s banshee whistling—which, legend has it, could be heard in the next county. Then Dad, after working from 5:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., would trot out to our backyard to practice with me.
But what I remember most is how brave my dad was. Back then, we could not afford protective catcher’s equipment, but even if we could, I doubt he would have thought it to be necessary.
Through the numerous sessions of soft-toss with plastic golf balls, the back of our shed and my bat, he never once showed trepidation of being hit with either a ricocheting ball or my aluminum bat.
Nor did he ever show hesitation of being my catcher when I needed to work on my pitching.
Courageously—or stupidly, depending on how you want to label it—he never once wore equipment (not even a cup) when catching. Being as ingenious as every man of his generation is, he never conjured up ideas on ways to protect himself from being hit by the ball.
As a kid, this always puzzled me.
Even after missing the ball and getting hit in the shoulder or knee cap, or when my pitch would knock his glove back into his face, and the one occasion when a curve hit the ground a little short of his glove and careened into the area a cup would have been protecting, he never ended our practice. He would gather himself—the length of time depending on where he was hit—and we played on.
Those years, those summers of playing baseball with my dad, were some of the best times of my life. As I (and my parents) grow older, I look fondly on those memories with each passing day, knowing they receive new life breathed into them with every game.
So, what does baseball mean to me? Simple: memories.
Memories of my childhood. Memories of my Grandpa teaching me. Memories of my parents’ hard work and sacrifices made for me. Memories of a time passed, still existent in my mind.
That is what baseball is to me.
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