play ball

I was vaguely aware of baseball growing up. Didn’t watch it on television, didn’t hear it on the radio, didn’t play it other than an electronic baseball game (and at first I thought three strikes was out but four strikes was a walk somehow) and wasn’t really aware of it in the wider world. I remember hearing that Fernandomania was a thing, I remember hearing that the 1985 World Series was an all-Missouri affair, I knew of the Barons – but as late as high school I didn’t glom on to why the baseball highlights appeared in two different segments on the late news (AL and NL) or know why it was such a big deal that the Red Sox blew that game against the Mets.

I say all that to say this: I came to baseball late in life, and not through the traditional fathers-and-sons route. The first time I remember swinging a bat at a live ball was in a batting cage with some high school friends, and the first time I put bat on ball in a competitive game was grad school softball. My dad was far more into Alabama football than any amount of baseball, and while I came to the NBA first in pro sports in the late 80s (through the finals, obviously) and then the NFL my first year of undergrad, it was the summer of 1991 before I latched onto the National Pastime.

Part of it was my gradual discovery of Sports As A Thing, this whole area of life that I’d not really been aware of until late in high school. Part of it was an attempt to connect to the soul of my deceased paternal grandfather, supposedly a huge fan of all baseball. And part of it was just the reliable promise of something to watch every night for six months. Owing to a weird fluke of circumstance, my first college girlfriend immediately adopted the Braves as well, and so it became the one sports thing I could be assured of consuming without the kind of hassle that went with wanting to attend our own school’s basketball games or watch Bama on the weekend.

Ironically enough, baseball went on the back burner when I was at Vanderbilt, because the other college girlfriend wasn’t into it and it felt like I’d sort of discharged my family duties when the Braves finally broke through and won a World Series. It was still flitting around the corners of my consciousness, and I still attended every Barons game I could with my old high school buddies through most of the 1990s, but I didn’t plug back in until I started dating a girl with a serious baseball fixation – which led to attending one World Series game, one ALCS game, and increasing my total of “major league parks visited” from 1 to 7.

When I started dating the girl I would marry, I remember visiting her group house in Silicon Valley and seeing the A’s on TV, that year when they actually showed OPS and other moneyball numbers on the lower-third instead of batting average and HR and RBI. And then we toured Pac Bell Park (as it then was) and I decided that between the two teams in the Bay Area, I would lean Giants, and bought a batting practice hat and hung around outside the stadium with her during the World Series in 2002, and picked up occasional games in person the years to come. But I wasn’t watching it on TV much, except for the occasional novelty of a game on local TV on Friday night – something that felt different and special because it meant I was in a real baseball town. This wasn’t Washington making do with the Orioles on HTS or Birmingham tuning into the Braves on TBS, this was the local team on channel 11.

Honestly, what brought me back was two things. One was Vanderbilt baseball – suddenly #1 for most of the year in 2007, then finally reaching the College World Series in 2011, which opened the promise of Vandy guys reaching the major leagues. And the other was being re-introduced to minor league baseball through the San Jose Giants, as laid back and easygoing and small-town baseball experience as you could ask from America’s tenth-largest city. Three victories in the World Series in five years for the Giants were cool, but they led me to adopt the A’s as my preferred team for the better part of four years, even after the Giants brought up Tyler Beede for an abortive stint in April of 2018 (and screwed up his throwing motion so badly with “instruction” that he dropped twenty-two spots down the prospect list).

And now, two things have brought me back to the Giants. One is the Ballpark Pass – a flat fee every month for access to the part for any home game. No seat, just a spot on the rail or in the bar or along the back side of the yard to hang out and catch some baseball. And the other was Ken Burns’ Baseball, the landmark 18-hour documentary from 1994 tracing the history of the game from the pre-1840s to the eve of the strike – something that threw into sharp relief the fact that when the NFL’s oldest team was founded, the Giants had already been playing in the National League for thirty-six years. Professional baseball is 150 years old this season – no other American sport comes close.

And so I’m hoping that catching Caltrain up to the ballpark on random days after work will become a thing, that regular National League attendance (in what is likely to be a ghastly season) will bring back those halcyon days of “methadone New York” that the city felt like fifteen years ago, that I might even learn to tolerate a little bit of orange around the interlocking SF of a ball cap. That having aged into a space where I need a nice leisurely pace and the knowledge that any given night is just one of 162, baseball is right there when I need it.

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