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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Baseball Musings - A fan's Perspective

You can be a kid for as long as you play baseball - Cal Ripken
As another baseball season winds down – far too early for many Blue Jays fans - I find myself once again reflecting on the great game and why it draws me like a moth to a flame each season.  I confess that for me it’s an addiction bordering on clinical.  I also admit that my addiction can be, as it was this season, a painful one.  That said it’s also one I hope I never overcome.
On some level these mental musings are an annual recurrence, but these days they are also the result of a change in perspective that often comes with age.  Whatever the root, I’ve reached a point where, like others before me, I am convinced that referring to baseball simply as a sport is to do it a grave and unforgivable injustice.
Baseball isn’t just a sport or a game, nor is it simply a pass time or even a welcome diversion from the daily grind.  Yes it’s all of those things, but for anyone fortunate enough to see below the surface, baseball, at its finest, is far, far more than that.
This conviction renewed itself for me as I watched another so called “meaningless” game this past weekend.  It happened unexpectedly, as things often do in baseball, when second baseman Ryan Goins pull off the hidden ball trick.  While some observers viewed the move as childish, I instinctively knew that they had completely missed the point.  Not a surprise.
For me it wasn’t childish at all, it was childlike and there’s a huge difference. 
It was one more example of how, even as adults, we can sometimes channel our inner child.  If a major league player, with all that the job entails these days, can still have fun and can still play the game like a kid then there’s hope for all of us. 
From my perspective it was a beautiful moment, one of those gems that baseball so often presents.  It was a simple act yet it served to remind me that even when things seem at their most bleak, something positive and uplifting, even fun, can still happen, just as it can in life.
That play has been a favorite of kids on sandlots and community ball fields since the beginning of time but how often have we actually seen a major league player, an adult, do it?
In a flash, as I watched this play out on TV, I was transported back to my own childhood for one brief shining moment.  Once again I was standing in the warm sun.  I saw myself at the plate awaiting a pitch that I was convinced I would, but probably wouldn’t, make solid contact with.  In that moment I was reminded of going to my right to backhand a short hop and fire across the diamond to first.  What a feeling.
All this revealed itself to me as I watched a “childish” play unfold.  Suddenly I was reminded of the ability of baseball to keep us all young at heart even as we plod through the responsibilities and difficulties of daily life.
Other memories came back as well.  Memories of a time when, as a handful of 30 or 40 somethings, we decided one day that we wanted to whip together a local ball league and give the game one more whirl.  No amount of time was spent planning this adventure or worrying about details.  We felt like kids again and just like kids we simply wanted to play ball.  That was all that mattered.  A few phone calls later and we were running the bases again.
At the field balls and bats appeared from countless duffle bags and backpacks as if by magic, and here’s the kicker, everyone, every single person, younger and older, male and female alike, all had their own gloves at the ready.  Think about that, people who had not played ball in years, decades in some cases and many who had never played any sort of organized ball, still had their trusty old gloves ready to go.  It was that easy to get a game going and it was amazing.
The importance of that little peak into the human psyche didn’t register with me at the time, but it does today.  It whispers to me about the magic of this game.  How special it really is.
Anyone fortunate enough to have ever played, ask yourself, who throws out their baseball glove when they stop playing?  I still have mine.  I haven’t run the bases in over 20 years but I know exactly where it is in my closet.  I know I’m not alone.
At ballparks across North America fans can been seen in the stands wearing their glove in the hope of catching a foul ball or homerun.  By and large those aren’t newly purchased gloves fans are wearing, they are cherished memories stitched from leather.  Our gloves are special to us because the game is so special.  At some level, whether consciously or subconsciously, we all know this to be true. 
We know instinctively that for every ball that old glove has trapped in the past, or missed for that matter, the most important thing it caught and still holds safely in its pocket is something far more important.  It serves as a reminder of our youth and of a game that was, and is, much more than just a game. That worn old piece of leather is a tangible, physical reminder of so many things.
Baseball keeps us young at heart.  It’s also one of life’s great teachers and in many ways it truly is a metaphor for life.
Baseball, by its nature, teaches us about success and failure.  It teaches us about pride, humility, frustration, joy and sadness.  It allows us to experience, if only fleetingly, unbelievable happiness or crushing defeat.  We learn all of this in a way that permits us to experience these valuable life lessons safely within the confines of a ballpark on a warm summer day.
Consider that even the best hitters in the game fail far more often than they succeed.  Consider as well that the best pitchers can dominate a game one day only to be rocked and sent to the showers the next time out. We’ve all seen it.  Some of us have lived it.
What other game is so fundamentally an individual sport wrapped inside a team sport?  You win or lose as a team without a doubt, but more often than not the game exists and is played on an individual level.
Baseball teaches us the importance of working as a team while understanding that more often than not we have only ourselves to depend on when it matters most.  It teaches us that we are largely responsible for our own success or failure, all the while carrying a certain responsibility of our role in the success or failure of those around us.  Baseball teaches us these lessons with every missed catch, with every strikeout and with a little luck every crack of the bat when one is perfectly squared up.
Baseball also teaches us to think.  The game is as much about what’s between the ears as it is about pure skill or athleticism on the field.  Baseball differs from most other sports in both pace and design of the game.  While other sports tend to move past at the speed of a runaway freight train baseball unfolds in a far more contemplative fashion.
Every advance in play lends itself to re-calculation and planning.  It allows the time to unveil new opportunities and to present a wealth of options for both the offense and defense to alter their future fate.  It also allows, thankfully, for the mental machinations of countless “managers” relishing every moment from the bleachers.
While most other sports are akin to checkers, baseball, as has been said by others, is far more comparable to a masterful game of chess.  A chess game played out on soft green grass and under a bright blue sky.
Consider how many times during a game we are reminded that even if the odds are stacked against us we can, if we persevere, find a way to come out on top.  We learn that lesson each time a batter steps to the plate, badly outnumbered and staring down 9 opponents hoping to stand between him and success.
Baseball is a place where even the least likely individual can be a hero on any given day and where the best in the game can fall far short of expectation.
A place where failure is commonplace but success and victory can, and sometimes is, snatched directly from the jaws of defeat.
We all participate in this game, either actively on the field or passively in our seats, without ever knowing how long it will last.  The game itself, as it is with life, carries us on a journey for as long as is necessary to come to its inevitable yet unknown conclusion.  It isn’t governed by arbitrary deadlines.  It doesn’t suddenly stop at a predetermined point in time or with a predetermined result.  The game is far too important for that.
Baseball is a place where hope lives for as long as that final out has yet to be recorded in the books and for as long at the grass continues to grow beneath a player’s feet.  Just as in life.