Saturday, August 27, 2016

Memories of Summer

When I was young and still played the game myself, when I dreamed of someday playing in a big league ballpark; when the heroes of my youth were men named Gibson, Brock, Cepeda, and Shannon, the Cardinals came to life in the box scores of the morning paper, in the statistical nuances of each year’s Strat-O-Matic cards, and in locally televised games against the Phillies and Mets. Although my family ventured into Philadelphia or New York to see a major league game only once or twice a summer, I cherish those memories. I recall still the smell of fresh peanuts and hot dogs, popcorn and cigar smoke as we walked from our car towards the grand old cathedrals of baseball, those round conglomerations of brick and concrete that, once inside, opened into a vast expanse of green turf and perfectly placed white lines, unblemished outfield grass, and a diamond shaped infield; the dirt mound patiently awaiting the start of play as an unused rosin bag and lone white baseball lay idly by the pitching rubber. It was a beautiful sight.

This past weekend, the Cardinals arrived for a mid-August series against the Phillies. Perhaps in part to make up for the lost games of my youth, I bought tickets to all three games. I cannot explain my continued need to soak in new baseball experiences year-after-year. But with each game are memories formed that mark the passage of time and progress of life.

On Friday night, Andrea and I were seated near the third-base dugout amidst an impressive contingent of Cardinals enthusiasts, a pleasant deviation from my usual experience at Citizens Bank Park, where I feel like an intruder crossing enemy lines. Directly in front of us was a wholesome looking collection of girls and boys who danced and laughed and cheered every Cardinals hit and Phillies out while donning bright red-and-white jerseys bearing the names Wainwright, Molina, Carpenter, and Wong, and an out-of-date Beltran for good measure.

But despite a second inning home run from Randal Grichuk, the Cardinals looked lifeless at the plate for much of the game. I suffered silently as the Cardinals swung and missed at slow changeups and sliders offered by Phillies starter Adam Morgan. Despite the indignity of it all, my loyalty was rewarded in the top of the ninth when, down 3-1, Yadier Molina singled to right and, one out later, as if an answer to a prayer, Jedd Gyorko belted a long, towering, home run deep into the Philadelphia night. As Gyorko rounded the bases, the game now tied, I envied these young Cardinals fans dancing in their seats, exuding a joyful glee that bespoke their youthful innocence. Even more, they reminded me of the ever present cycle of life and repeated rhythms of baseball, the heartbreak and occasional sweet rewards of caring about the same team summer-after-summer.

Two extra innings later, with the score tied 3-3, Jhonny Peralta doubled and Grichuk rocketed a 405-foot drive off the wall in the deepest part of the ballpark to put the Cards ahead. Our new young friends became euphoric as Section 129 erupted into spirited celebrations, improvisational dances, jubilation and delight. I almost felt sorry for the few Phillies fans scattered among these happy interlopers who had taken over their ballpark.

In the bottom of the 11th inning, Cards rookie and future star Alex Reyes, a big-framed flamethrower who hit the 100 miles-per-hour mark on three pitches, took the mound with the hope of securing the final three outs and a Cardinals victory. Reyes looked unfazed by this inherited responsibility and mounting tension. When he retired the first two batters, I mistakenly allowed myself to relax and exhale, for it appeared a Cardinals win was at hand. But then a ground ball just beyond the reach of Peralta, followed by a walk, put the tying and winning runs on base. The few Phillies fans left in the stands suddenly regained life. My palms began to sweat and insides turned somersaults, a wonderful evening at risk of a tragic ending. Why do I put myself through this? Why does any fan enjoy this? Anyone who believes baseball is a boring game is not paying attention. The stress almost unbearable – a ball, a strike, a foul ball – until finally, mercifully, Freddie Galvis hit a sharp ground ball to first base that was scooped by Matt Carpenter, who touched the bag for the final out. And a collective sigh of relief from Section 129.

Andrea and I watched from ten rows back as the Cardinals finished their on-field handshakes and congratulatory hugs before disappearing into the dugout like Shoeless Joe into an Iowa cornfield. As we walked contentedly from our seats to the parking lot, we left with a momentary sense of peace and another baseball memory.

For game two on Saturday night, Andrea and I were joined by daughter Hannah and long-time friends Mike and Linda Dennehy. As Mike and I talked of old times, it soon became clear that the baseball Gods were less favorably disposed towards me on this night. The Cardinals’ hitters were thrown off stride by Phillies starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson, who struck out eight Cardinals over seven innings en route to a 4-2 Phils win. Hellickson was opposed by Cardinals rookie Luke Weaver, who didn’t look to be a day over 15 as he played in only his second ever big league game. Weaver surrendered a lead-off home run to Caesar Hernandez in the bottom of the first, followed three batters later by a double and then a looping line drive that fell into and out of the outstretched glove of Cardinals left fielder Jeremy Hazelbaker. And just like that, it was 2-0 Phillies.

“What really makes baseball so hard,” Roger Angell has written, “is it’s retributive capacity for disaster if the smallest thing is done wrong, and the invisible presence of defeat that attends every game.” I believed Hazelbaker should have caught the ball, that he did not need to dive and make a heroic attempt; another step or two, an extended stretch of his glove hand, and he could have, probably should have, made the catch. Instinctively, I grumpily exclaimed that “Hazelbaker should have caught the damn ball” and “that damn rookie cost us another run.” When Andrea, in defense of Hazelbaker, said, “I guess it looks easy from the cheap seats,” my rebuttal was limited to mumbled R-rated expletives into my beer. But baseball is a game of redemption and second chances. And when Hazelbaker launched an opposite field two-run home run in the third inning to tie the game at 2-2, all was forgiven.

As the game continued, its gentle cadence allowed me and Mike to take it all in as we talked about life and families, the music we liked as kids, and whatever else came to mind. Baseball is a game that allows for long conversations, interrupted only by a foul ball, a double in the gap, or a pickoff attempt at first. “Baseball’s time is seamless and invisible,” writes Angell, and “players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our father’s youth, and even back then . . . there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped.”

But as I am frequently reminded with each passing day, time cannot be stopped. Life moves forward at an unforgiving pace. Mike and I have been friends since the fourth grade, when my parents moved to Hightstown, New Jersey, and Mike and his family lived on the same block. Now, 48 years later, both of his parents and my father have left us, our children are mostly grown, and the memories of childhood fade as our youthful spirits are betrayed by the bodies of middle-aged men. And yet, on those rare occasions when I see Mike now, it is as if time has indeed stood still. The Cardinals lost on Saturday night, but as we said our goodbyes outside the park, I knew that baseball, for all its nostalgic glory and magnificent history, really is only a game, a temporary respite from the joys, the sadness and disappointments, and the obligations of life.

On Sunday, despite predictions of scattered thunderstorms, Hannah and I returned to the ballpark for the final game of the weekend series. As we watched the pre-game warmups, with the starting pitchers playing long toss in the outfield before throwing warmup pitches in the bullpen and players running wind sprints and stretching, I thought back to my high school days and my own pre-game routines – stretching, a relaxed game of catch, infield drills and batting practice, staying loose. As I watched Cards starting pitcher Mike Leake throw long arcing balls with effortless ease in the outfield, I could envision a younger version of myself in days long past, when I was a teenager and a summer breeze caressed my face as a ball landed comfortably into the webbing of my glove. This imaginary time travel happens whenever I watch baseball in its pre-game form, or between innings, when the players appear loose and the music plays in the background and the sun and sky form a backdrop to my daydreams.

The game that day approached near perfection. The Cardinals slugged four home runs as Leake pitched seven scoreless innings en route to a 9-0 Cardinals win. As Hannah and I talked and absorbed the game, experiencing the luxury of a rare one-sided victory, I felt as if, for three hours on Sunday afternoon, life was a work of art, with baseball a small brushstroke on a large and colorful canvas. But life is not a work of art. The rains fall and nighttime beckons. Three days later, Hannah left to start her post-college life in another city, reminding an anxious dad once again that time cannot be stopped.

I realize now that my feelings for baseball, though childish, are shared by scores of fans just like me, and were best described years ago by Roger Angell:
Our national preoccupation with the images and performances of great athletes is not a simple matter. The obsessive intensity with which we watch their beautiful movements, their careless energy, their noisy, narcissistic joy in their own accomplishments is remarkably close to the emotions we feel when we see very young children at play. While their games last, we smile with pleasure – but not for long, not forever. Rising from the park bench at last, we look at our watch and begin to gather up the scattered toys. That’s enough boys and girls. Time to go in now.

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