Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Enduring Lessons of Baseball

Where we love is home,
Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.
--Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

There is wisdom to youth; an ability to perceive essential truths in life’s many dimensions. I reflected upon this sentiment Sunday while we drove Hannah to Washington, D.C., for her college orientation and the start of her freshman year. A warm, cloudy day, it began to rain shortly after we arrived, a small reminder from God that life at American University faces the same obstacles and pitfalls as all other destinations. As Hannah unpacked her belongings and arranged her dorm room, I experienced a moment of melancholy; a recognition that my youngest child has reached the end of an era and is about to embark on a new stage in life’s journey. I am proud of Hannah as she takes another step toward independence; and yet, hopeful optimism is tempered by a sense of loss that the little girl who so depended on me for 18 years may now find her way without me.

Sometimes it is the little things one notices on days like this, the photographs, posters, and possessions Hannah brought with her to school and which she now places on her shelf, desk, and wall. As she unpacks and puts on display the varied pieces of her brief history, I am comforted by the realization that it is these seemingly insignificant objects and symbols which document meaningful attachments and bonds between us. Whatever the future holds, there is a father-daughter connection that will endure for a lifetime.

On the shelf above her desk is a copy of Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing, 2011), a collection of my past essays, dedicated to Hannah and Jennifer, which provides a permanent record of my thoughts on life, baseball, faith, and the world around us. Near the window on Hannah’s side of the room, on a small section of the wall, is a St. Louis Cardinals pennant, accompanied by a picture of David Eckstein, Hannah’s favorite player from years past. In the photograph, Eckstein is sliding into home plate, the red-and-white birds on the bat and familiar number 22 adorning his uniform. The picture is from the 2006 season, when Eckstein was World Series MVP. It was during that magical season Hannah and I forever bonded over the Cardinals, when she fully embraced the team as her own, sharing in my inexplicable, irrational, and lifelong passion. Angled on her desk is a picture of Hannah and me at the entrance to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, each dressed in bright red Cardinals’ shirts and hats, smiling confidently, if a bit apprehensively, before entering the lion’s den on a warm summer evening.

There are certain topics Hannah and I do not much discuss – boys, the general anxieties of being a girl in the 21st century, and other areas of which I am of little help – but through our mutual love of the Cardinals we have developed a language and system of communication all our own: the combination high-five-fist-pump when the Cardinals get a hit or Yadier Molina throws out a base runner; the diagonal crisscross-hand-slap and double-fist-pump when Freese, Holliday, Beltran, or any other Cardinal player hits a home run. It is the soulful and emotional side of baseball.

Hannah is, of course, far more sane and rational in her love of the Cardinals, more selective in her expenditure of emotions for what is, after all, something over which she has no control. But she knows the heartache of the game; she understands the spiritual transcendence of connecting to a team, the joys of a winning season, and the disappointments, pain and repeated sufferings that accompany large segments of every season. She understands that baseball is a lot like life, mostly a game of failure and, in the end, often a collection of unfulfilled promises. “Baseball is the only field of endeavor,” Ted Williams often reminded us, “where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.”

Baseball endures for reasons that transcend the game. To fall in love with the game as a child and to commit one’s heart to a team requires a dedication to the romance of life, a search for meaning and purpose in something larger than the game itself. When I was twelve years old, I was the best player on my little league team. I batted cleanup, pitched, and played first base. The other kids looked up to me. The coaches relied on me to give our team a chance. There was nothing in my life as important as baseball. I looked forward to each game with exuberant anticipation. And yet, whenever I stood in the on deck circle awaiting my turn at bat, my stomach filled with butterflies and anxiety lingered quietly in the batter’s box. On most occasions, I used the nervousness to my advantage. It helped me to concentrate, to focus on the ball as it left the pitcher’s hand; to decide in a split second whether to swing, or not, as I attempted to reach base and advance the cause of my team; to hit a fast-moving round ball with a long, smooth, rounded stick.

Of the many lessons I learned from baseball, perhaps the most important is that, to achieve anything worthwhile in life, we must be willing to fail more than we succeed. The game teaches that when we strike out or make an error, we will have another chance in the batter’s box, an opportunity for redemption. “God gets you to the plate,” said Williams, “but once you’re there you’re on your own.”

Everything in baseball looks easy, slow and safe. But true fans know better, for the perfection demanded of each player, the full accounting for each pitch, means that one player’s success is balanced by another player’s failure. What is certain is that, in every game, in every at-bat, someone will fail. A 12 year-old little leaguer will look at a called third strike with the bases loaded and two outs in the last inning of a tied game, and then never forgive himself for this errant moment of indecision. Two years later, he will be called out at home plate on a boneheaded running play, ending the game and missing out on a chance at being a hero and reversing the hand of fate, disappointing teammates and coaches. These truths I know from personal experience. “Every day is a new opportunity,” Bob Feller said. “You can build on yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is, with a new game every day, and that's the way baseball is.”

Baseball has likely meant different things to Hannah than to me. She never played the game competitively or dreamed of playing in the Major Leagues. She was ten years old in the spring of 2004, when MLB Extra Innings and satellite television entered my life and Cardinals baseball invaded my kitchen and living room. With the nightly games broadcast on whichever room I occupied, Hannah experienced with me the ups and downs of each season’s team. As she did her homework, brushed her teeth, texted her friends, a Cardinals game was inevitably on in the background, her father inexplicably enmeshed in the outcome of each at bat.

In the summer of 2006, Hannah and I traveled to Pittsburgh to see the Cards play the Pirates. Hoping for a weekend of Albert Pujols home runs and acrobatic defensive plays by Jim Edmonds in the outfield, the season hit a low point as the Cardinals’ offense went mysteriously absent. Swept by the last-place Pirates, it was a long ride home. But as Hannah experienced with me the pain and suffering of loss, we were unexpectedly rewarded in October when the Cardinals made the post-season and, to most everyone’s surprise, won the World Series, a feat they would repeat again last year.

Over the years, Hannah has courageously accompanied me to many Cardinals-Phillies games, enduring the hostile fans of brotherly love fame. To my chagrin, she always insisted that we proudly don Cardinals t-shirts and hats in support of our team. “Stand up for your principles, Dad!” she demanded whenever I would meekly suggest that, in Philadelphia, things can get a little dicey when wearing the colors and logos of the opposition. I breathed many sighs of relief when those games ended and we arrived safely home.

It seems the Cards lost more than they won whenever we saw them in person, usually in slow, torturous fashion. But despite our bad luck, we bonded over these shared experiences. Looking back, I would not exchange the time I shared with Hannah (and Jen when she was not off at college or summer camp) for a Cardinals victory. As a father, it has always been a joy to spend time at the ballpark with my daughters, despite how miserable I become after a Cards loss. I hope to have more such experiences in the years to come, though I know time and distance may sometimes stand in the way.

With Hannah now tucked away at college, it feels a little lonelier, the quiet slightly more permanent and transparent. I find solace in knowing that, as Hannah develops into a young woman and learns to use her newfound wings, we will forever share the experience of baseball and a love of the Cardinals. Together, we will celebrate when they win and commiserate when they lose.

“There is something transformational about connecting with the game at the right time in your life, almost always in youth,” writes former major leaguer and Penn grad Doug Glanville. It is then “when you learn to fully embrace its character and every potential: the patience and endurance required, the long season, the triumph, the forgiveness. When you fall in love with this game, there is no doubt.” Even as childhood fades, we continue to know the wisdom and affection that the game imparts. Baseball endures through life’s many challenges; its appeal and intergenerational bonds remain intact even when the world becomes, as it sometimes does, a lonely, sad and pressure-filled place.

As Hannah finds her way in the world, she will inevitably make her share of errors; like the rest of us, she will strikeout and fail at times, only to wait for her next at bat. I hope that baseball has imparted a degree of wisdom, essential knowledge, and real and metaphorical life lessons that will give her the strength to confront difficulties. I trust that Hannah is, like her older sister Jen, a wiser and steadier person than I. For they understand what I occasionally forget, that in the words of Henry Stanley Haskins, regardless of how the Cardinals perform in any given year, “What lies behind us and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”


  1. Mark,

    Excellent entry. Karen Rosenberg forwarded the entry to me, thinking I would enjoy it. I did. I have a son heading off to college next summer to study journalism. I'm going to have him read this (he also played baseball so I'm thinking this will resonate with him). Thanks for sharing your thoughts to the world and best of luck to Hannah.

    Dwight Jellison

  2. Dwight,

    Thank you for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed it. I wish you and your son all the best. Please say hello to Karen for me.