The first memory I have of hitting a baseball is fuzzy. I remember Mom throwing me wiffleballs out in the backyard; I must have been five or six, just big enough to do my best right-handed impression of Junior. He was one of the only baseball players I knew at the time and unfortunately, he was also the reason I knew what a hamstring was. The two things I do remember from that particular moment are quite vivid however. In the second part of the memory, I recall the wiffleball smacking my older cousin in the head as she talked to my sister, an unfortunate consequence of my already prodigious opposite field power. While a batted ball to the face is always good for a chuckle, its the first part of that memory that is much more important to me now.
You may have heard a golfer try to explain his affinity with the game by describing the first drive he hit on the nose, a perfect shot right down the center of the fairway. As an avid golfer myself, I can relate. There is no feeling quite like the soft vibration that moves up the club shaft in the wake of a perfect swing. In many ways, it's the perfect high. Once you have achieved that first ping, every swing you take from there on out is a search for that same perfection, that same indescribable emotion of discontented success, that same wonderful notion of the sublime. Looking inward, perhaps this is an apt reflection of a basic human condition; in every sense, life is a search for this same feeling of pure bliss.
This brings me back to my memory. Of course, the first part that I am describing is that impact of bat and ball. Granted, it was the impact of bat and wiffleball, but the difference is moot. From that first thunk, I fell in complete and utter love with the game, a love that has grown stronger with each passing day. And as I have grown with the game, my knowledge has grown in accordance to the point where I now view the game completely different from my childhood.
As a kid, it was not so much about wins and losses. It was not at all about money or fan attendance. Batting average, slugging percentage, and god forbid, a low on-base percentage from the second baseman had no part in my baseball equation. When I was a kid, baseball had no reason to make me frown. The game was ethereal, it was pure joy. To watch was to sate that yet undiscovered yearning for a feeling of euphoria. To play was to experience each of the game's most deep-rooted qualities such as its timelessness, its hit-it-if-you-can machismo. To me, baseball then was a moment perfectly suitable to be encapsulated, to be preserved forever.
Yet here I am today, still a great fan of the game, but in a markedly different way. It seems that I no longer can associate myself with these idyllic views. Whereas I once walked into Great American Ballpark in awe of the unblemished grass, of the towering scoreboard, now the first sight I see are the signs that direct fans to their seats.
Unfortunately, growing up is a biological fact. It is not possible now to view the game the same way I once did, nor is it something I necessarily want. However, as I write this on the anniversary of 9/11, thoughts of the past are inevitable and I find myself reflecting on what it means to live, to seek that feeling of perfection, those goosebump moments that we all strive for. We as humans often have the tendency to live in the moment, to think in concrete thoughts. When we watch baseball game, we see the physical action, the strikeout, the groundout to short, and as these occurrences are far from rare, we have a tendency to think nothing of them.
But I believe that once in a while, it is important as a fan to extract ourselves from the moment and think about baseball in a much more abstract manner.
We need to think of lush, green grass and the smack of bat and ball. We need to think of cool night air that descends off the river and the salty smell of peanuts and hot dogs in the ballyard. We need to remember that game in which a high five and a mutual love of the team on the field was enough to make a friend in the row behind us. We need to remember the sight of a high infield fly as it hovers lackadaisically for a moment in the sky and then succumbs to gravity. We need to remember those few moments when something incredible happens, when lightning strikes with a walk-off homer, we need to remember the sheer joy in our hearts. But most importantly, as Joe DiMaggio reminds us all, we need to remember when baseball ceases to be fun, when it becomes a chore, its no longer a game, it is no longer that ethereal, sublime institution that drew us in in the first place.
So the next time I walk into a ballpark, I might just pause and gather my thoughts, take the time to appreciate the many intricacies of the game, gaze at the perfect grass in the outfield, and then look for my seat. Its so easy to forget with all the time we spend diving into baseball that the game is not a job, it is not another thing to get upset at. As much as we might disagree in the heat of the moment, we watch baseball because it is fun, it brings us back to our childhood, it brings us back to those fleeting memories of perfection that we all seek.
Because in baseball, just as in life, its not about the destination, its about how much you enjoyed getting there.