As I retire from the Majors holding the all-time record for being hit by pitches, only one thing is certain:
Simply hearing the word causes me to reminisce about my life in the game. Sometimes only parts of the word will dredge up memories, like “aseb” or “seball.” Other times, unrelated words, like “rhubarb” and “early-onset-dementia,” will shoot my mind on a line drive down memory alley. I suppose that’s just the mystical power of baseball.
Like Billy Beane once told me, it’s impossible not to feel romantic about baseball. He’s right. As our society becomes more interconnected with soulless technology like calculator watches and singing big mouth bass, it’s nice to know we can still seek refuge in a timeless sport. A sport passed unchanged from one generation to the next, like a brain disorder.
I can still remember the details of the first game I ever attended: The gentle whisper of fans marking scorecards. The organ, diddling the joyful rhythm of life. The milky-soft hands of the pitcher. Uncle Sam in full regalia, tipping his hat and pointing at a cancer-stricken child seated in the upper decks, a granite promise to shoot a home run in his direction. The vacuum thunk of a hot dog shot from a potato cannon by the Philly Phanatic, as a hungry child, stricken with terminal cancer, really a completely hopeless case, returns a thumbs-up.
Over the years I’ve rubbed elbows with some of the greats. You may have heard of a few, like persnickety pinch hitter Jimmy “The Spade” Dean, toothsome third baseman Duncan “Tin Chunks” Hines, or lightning-whipped closer Wally “Famous” Amos. Once, I even altered history, when I convinced Jackie Robinson to quit the Negro League and build a stadium deep in a cornfield, to force his dead father’s ghost to play one final, integrated game. That night, Robinson hit a homer that shattered the stadium’s floodlights. As he rounded the bases under a shower of slow-motion sparks, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.
The lesser-known folks are also important. I’ll especially miss the congenial groundskeeper Chet Boyardee, and surly head of security, Korean War veteran Phillip Barringer. Sure, he tasers fans for even the smallest of infractions, but whether it’s protecting our baseball field, or some muddy ridge in Kyongju, damn it, he gets results.
Some cynical sportswriters say this baseball “romance” is just pointless nostalgia for a bygone era that never was. That professional sports are a brackish money grubbing machine fueled by a Faustian bargain with bloated corporate overlords and performance enhancing drugs. But this is the Big Show we’re talking about.
It can’t be empty nostalgia to happily remember things like devouring a second helping of Jose Canseco’s famous rhubarb pie, after spending a lazy afternoon fishing for tadpoles down by Greasy Lake with him and your childhood crush Dottie Hinson; or when Kevin Youkilis takes you on a lap of the outfield on Wally’s ATV, and you wrap your hands around his belly just a little tighter and lean into his shoulder, which smells woodsy like your grandfather’s cologne; or when Alex Rodriguez steals a crate of Zima from the press box and leads you high into the upper decks, where earlier that day they had to cart away some poor sick kid, and all the lights suddenly pop off, and you tell him you’re scared, that you lost a flip-flop somewhere on the climb, and that maybe you should head back before Old Man Barringer gets all taser-crazy.
But he holds you and tells you it’s alright, and kisses you on the soft spot of your head, the target of so many errant fastballs. And it is alright.
Remembering moments like these, you don’t care that your doctor claims your condition is “deteriorating,” or that Billy Beane claims he’s “night manager at Shop Rite.” When you’re talkin’ baseball, you don’t even mind that a ruthless war veteran is dragging you from the frozen food aisle. As you wander out into a deserted parking lot at sunrise, you quietly sob, because you truly appreciate the romance of baseball.