It’s late October, and for many folks, it means pumpkins, golden and red tree leaves, sweaters, and hayrides. In south Texas, it just means it’s a high of 88 degrees instead of 98, but not a whole lot changes down here. We keep wearing our flip flops and shorts while envying our neighbors up north who crow about snuggly sweaters and hot chocolate. It’s not even cool enough to enjoy a full-bodied red wine yet, I am still sipping crisp sauvignon blanc. I did hang a wreath on my door this afternoon, it’s of red, yellow, and orange preserved fall leaves from some clime obviously far from here.
For this south Texan, autumn’s arrival means baseball playoffs. And even better this year, the World Series for my beloved Astros.
I love baseball. I know I am not alone in this, it’s America’s pastime, and many of my fellow citizens feel the same- over 70 million fans attended games last year. It’s right up there with hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet as the most American things ever. Even another great American institution, the Broadway musical, has gotten in on the act with Damn Yankees and a fantastic song called “What a Game” in the masterpiece Ragtime.
I think loving the game is in my genes: my dad played when he was a kid. So did my mom, though of course, she played softball; in the 1950s that was the only option. Schools didn’t have teams yet so she played in an outside league. When our family moved to the Dallas area back in 1972, we started going to Texas Rangers games. Jim Sundberg was the team’s star back then, but I had a crush on a player whose name I no longer remember, he had curly hair and bright eyes and reminded me of singer Mac Davis. I kept a photo of him on my wall and sometimes I kissed it with my virginal little six-year-old lips. The only player I have ever since come close to loving like that is Jose Altuve, the current Houston Astros second base player; he’s just my type- short, stocky, and impishly cute. I don’t keep his photo on my wall for kissing, but I do have his card pinned to the corkboard on my desk at work. When the mammoth Texas grocery chain HEB runs ads featuring George Springer, Carlos Correa, and cutie Altuve, I stop whatever I am doing and giggle like a thirteen-year-old ridden with acne and bashfulness. Fortunately, I have a tolerant husband. Altuve is everything great about the sport that so embodies America: an immigrant from Venezuela, he played ball with his dad every evening, honing his love for the game on a shaggy lot in his hometown of Maracay. For Altuve, baseball is rooted deep in his faith, his family, and especially in his love for his dad.
It’s the same for me. Baseball was ever-present in my broken, damaged family. When my poor, drug-addicted and mentally ill mom felt good, we played catch; she gave me one of her old ball gloves, and its leather was soft from years and years of play. The thud of a ball hitting the pocket against my palm is embedded in my sense memory, as is the smell of the leather. I played in my town’s girls softball league, and I tried, just once, to play with my index finger stuck out of the hole just above the logo patch because I’d seen a pro player do it, but it didn’t work for me– I felt awkward and unstable. No, my index finger wanted to be snug inside its finger sleeve.
Daddy coached Little League for both his sons’ teams, and when they outgrew the League, he kept signing on to coach anyway. He lit up at evening games played by the huge halide lamps at Cottonwood Park’s baseball fields, baseball diamonds gave him abundant joy. He and Mom had not had a good marriage, nor a good life, really; and I would go watch his games. When my brothers weren’t on the field or at-bat, it was my dad I watched. It was a joy to see his face brighten, and a gift to observe as his shoulders relaxed amid the chatter of the outfielders.
I grew up, got married, and had three kids, and baseball was the first sport my son Travis signed up for. At the tender age of just five years old, he donned a navy blue shirt with “Minnesota” across the belly in block letters and the Twins’ logo on his cap. We sat in bleachers and watched the boys pick flowers and sit in the dirt of a wee little field, dads standing at each base to teach the kids how to run the circle (hopefully in the right direction) and catch a rolling grounder. That was the start of ten years of spring practices in cool Texas spring evenings, stiff legs and sore butt from sitting in bleachers too long at All Star tournaments, rejoicing at home runs and celebrating with ice cream, and picking up the pieces to rebuild my boy’s confidence when he missed a ball or his team lost.
When seven-year-old Libby told us she wanted to play baseball, we were sure we misunderstood, and corrected her, “Don’t you mean girls’ softball, Sweetpea?” She most certainly did not. The Little League rules allowed for it, so we signed her up. She was “drafted” into a team whose coach refused to take her, but a hero came to the rescue and traded one of his boys for her. Libby excelled, she loved the game, and her team made it to the playoffs. My husband and I loved going to games, we stood in the space between son’s and daughter’s two fields and watched both kids play simultaneously while eldest child Hilary did her homework in the bleachers. Because sometimes the Universe loves to bestow karma, Libby’s team faced the team whose coach refused her in the championship game. Libby’s team won, and the coach presented her the game ball. I have a photo of the exact moment, and my daughter’s face is sweet and proud.
I am lucky enough to have a father-in-law who loves baseball, too. I don’t know that I have ever seen a football game on his television, but I have, many times, seen baseball. I think he loves the strategy of the game– he’s an analytical guy. Me? I love the stillness. There’s a moment at a home game, just before the pitcher winds up, when the crowd holds its breath, collectively waiting to see if the ball will go low or high, outside or in; and will the batter swing? If a fly ball goes to the high infield, we wait again to see if it will be caught or whether it’s safe for the batter to run.
Baseball is Community, for me. I guess all sports are, but for an introverted and quiet soul, the boisterous socializing of a football tailgate is too much. The violence of the sport makes me flinch, to be honest. No, I love a game that has order and moments of hush, when I can feel the love of the game in the fans around me. I join with strangers to sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” and we count our three strikes in the air, we yell “Charge!” at the organ’s cue, we do the wave around the seats of Minute Maid Park. The train conductor, Bobby Dynamite, who sits in the locomotive above center field exhorts us to yell for our team, and the best mascot in the league, Orbit, twerks his giant bum to make the kids laugh.
Recently, my 27-year-old son and I went to a game, just the two of us. The giveaway that night was a replica of the 2017 World Series ring; we had the pleasure of being on the field for batting practice, visited the press box and control room, then bought adult beverages to sit and chat as the stadium slowly filled up. It was a good game, though the Mariners killed us when their pinch hitter slammed a ball over the center-field fence, with bases loaded. Didn’t matter too much, though, because I was too busy being grateful for one-on-one time with my bearded, articulate, generous son. For a middle-aged woman who’s trying to infuse each and every day with little bits of enchantment, that game, with its diving catches, synthesized organ riffs, and mother/son time was absolutely magical. Red infield dirt subbed in for fairy dust.
Baseball just might be the greatest thing about America (well, except the Constitution). I love it. Play ball!