Every year around Opening Day, 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, what it comes to signify affords us a deeper 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 memories born on the old neighborhood Wiffle Ball field.
Memories of when my spring, summer, and fall days were spent outside with a plastic ball and bat, a great group of friends, and our Wiffle Ball field—with gloves or pieces of paper or corn stalk leaves as bases, and a gravel road as our fence.
We played until the first cold snap, and by then there were noticeable basepaths stomped into the field from months and months of us enjoying the game.
But nothing lasts forever.
As I have gone back to the old neighborhood since moving away, the large field of grass where our “diamond” was is no longer there. It has been sliced down to a third of what it used to be to make way for more crops space—corn or soy beans or wheat.
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 on a specific date an historic event occurred or a player becomes a part of history, the past is always at the forefront of the game.
But they say there are no such things as time machines. They say that those are simply vessels of science fiction, left for dreams and the 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, learning as he demonstrated 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 takes me back to one of my tee-ball games 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. My coach telling me I did not need to slide into every base, then sliding into home anyway: check.
It brings me back 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 ever dreamed about.
It takes me to the years I played first base in rookie league; when I would regularly do the splits, stretching to make the out 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).
Baseball 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 (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 over. 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 "Easton Lightning" 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 practice my pitching.
Courageously—or stupidly, depending on how you want to look at it—he never once wore equipment (not even a cup) when serving as my catcher.
And being as ingenious as every man of his generation is, for some reason he never drew up any homemade remedies 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, or the occasional pitch that would hit the ground a little short of his glove and careen 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 and have created some of the best memories.
And the lessons my Mom taught me of hard work and dedication being the necessity for success, stick with me to this day.
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.
**This is an altered re-posting of a similar piece from last July.