The Twenty Sixteeniest World Series

It’s the question without an answer. What are we rooting for when we root for a team? Is it the logo? Is it the players themselves? Is it civic pride? We pour our souls into the amorphous idea of a team.

We feel a sense of ownership. They are ours. These are our guys. They become part of our identity. “Hello, my name is Bob and I’m a fan.”

For a long time, that was what mattered. The team, the logo, the players. Along the way it changed. Players leave of their own free will. Teams leave their cities behind. They get new uniforms and change their branding.

But we still cling to our guys.

It’s an expression of old-fashioned values that may or may not have actually existed. Loyalty, commitment, and unwavering dedication. Because sports exist in modern times, newfangled ideas encroach on this blind devotion. Ideas like players shouldn’t be criminals, racism is still persistent, and supporting a bad person is worse than supporting a bad team.

Those ideas didn’t originate in sports. We like to think that sports are separate from the political realm. They should be our escape from everyday life because they don’t really matter. It’s just a game. Keep it light. Keep it fun.

Tonight is Game 7 of the World Series between two teams who have a considerable number a years since their last championship. Cleveland and Chicago’s long suffering fans (although Cleveland has been in two World Series that I remember; the Mariners have been in none, so I don’t really buy into their “suffering”) were able to celebrate a Pennant, and tonight, one city will celebrate a long-awaited championship.

This is exciting! This is a great baseball story. So, yes, it’s disappointing that it’s marred. It’s tempting to ignore the controversy and just enjoy the baseball.

This World Series is a perfect a representation of the current state of American politics. You have the team with the blatantly racist name and logo. They have taken cursory steps to “phase it out”, but it’s easy to see there’s not much motivation there. They play the team that traded for a player who choked his girlfriend. Allegedly. Eye roll. Several teams decided he wasn’t the representative they wanted, but the Cubs went for it, and he’s a reason they are playing for their first championship in 108 years.

If baseball is a reflection of American life, well, there you have it.

In this Internet Age of ours there has been quite a bit of chatter about these issues, and rightly so. The discussions are as frustrating as Internet Age discussions are, but what’s important is that the discussion is happening and these things aren’t being ignored.

It’s been mentioned that if we think we all haven’t rooted for some bad dudes before, we are sorely mistaken. I agree, but it’s different to knowingly root for a bad dude. It’s different when our perceptions of racism change and evolve. It’s human nature to cling to what has always been, which is why people get ridiculously angry over the criticism of Cleveland’s logo. It’s why some Penn State fans had no problem honoring Joe Paterno.

It’s been argued that fans shouldn’t root for their team if they represent racism or domestic violence. Take a stand! Don’t let this be acceptable! But, you know, if you’re a fan who has never seen your team win the World Series, if you’ve never seen your team in the World Series, that’s not an easy experience to give up.

We’ve also got an obsession with redemption stories. But we don’t give people a chance to redeem themselves; we want it right away. There was a pretty vocal group of Mariners fans cheering on Milton Bradley, despite no reason to believe he had changed. I don’t think that’s bad in and of itself. People should be given second chances, but there needs to be some act that clearly says, “This isn’t right. This isn’t acceptable.” first.

There is a candidate for President who spews hatred with every sentence he speaks. Most condemn him for this, but enough people cheer for it that he got the nomination. A player sits during the National Anthem and all manner of racist garbage fills our social media feeds. There is so much information about sexual assault and domestic violence out there. Anyone with questions can learn why victims behave the way they do, how abusers act, and how the legal system functions. But we still have people saying it must not have happened because the victim didn’t come forward/didn’t get a rape kit/wants to stay anonymous/just wants attention.

It’s exhausting. It would be nice if politics would stay out of our sports. But they never have. Ignoring problems societally only makes it feel like those problems aren’t part of sports.

Political issues that affect us as employees, consumers, and citizens will always imbue sports. Because sports acts as an employer, a governing body, and will always be a commentary on and a reflection of society.

What do you do when it’s your team breaking that World Series drought? You buy the merchandise that has the alternate logo, despite the low production, and hope demand informs supply. You donate to domestic violence charities whenever that pitcher records a save and hope a victim can be helped.

You embrace your team and your sport as the imperfect reflection of human society while vocally, monetarily, and morally pushing it to change.

Yesterday, news broke that another baseball player has been arrested for domestic violence. And of course we hear that it’s so sad and so disappointing for his team and his fans. But it’s really awful for his victim. That’s who the victim is here.

People in the world won’t just stop doing bad things. Athletes and sports teams are no different. We can’t make them be good. We can stop ignoring it though. We can stop brushing it aside and refusing to address it.

If your team is playing in the World Series tonight, I won’t tell you not to root for them. I can say I’d still be rooting for my team, albeit with my conscience nagging me in the background. I’ll just tell you not to ignore it.

I’m glad the perception on these things is changing. We shouldn’t be elevating and celebrating people who need help. We shouldn’t look the other way when something needs to change.

We want instant change when we see something wrong, but society moves slowly sometimes. Let’s keep talking about this. Let’s keep making it an issue. Don’t ignore the political in the sport. It’s depressing and frustrating, and it does take the fun out of it.

Remember that it is important. It will change. These issues will always be subtext in the history of this World Series.

Tonight, a championship drought will be broken. We can happily celebrate that too.

In Which I Complain About a Thing That is an Odd Thing About Which to Complain

Did you die? No? You’re still alive?

You don’t deserve this award.

Oh, you do community service. You have some foundations. You speak at elementary schools.

Were you ever so concerned that a dictatorship wasn’t allowing aid to reach earthquake victims that you hopped aboard a suspect plane to ensure help got to the people who needed it?

Didn’t think so.

This may seem like strange ground for driving in a stake and setting up a soap box, but you see, the night before the last day of second grade I sat in my bedroom and sobbed.

I was on my floor, clutching our school-issued reading book that I would be forced to turn in the next day. It was a thick, square shaped, unwieldly hardcover book.  I can still see the brown and yellow color scheme plastered throughout pages that smelled the way textbooks do. Inside was a story that had grabbed me and compelled me to read it repeatedly throughout the school year.

I cried every time I reached the end of that story, but that night with each reading (and there must have been at least 5) I sobbed plainful cries as I mourned the pending loss of this book and the beautiful story it held.

I had fallen in love with Roberto Clemente.

The story in the book was an uncomplicated version of his life, how he came from Puerto Rico to become a great baseball player. How his greatest desire was to help people, and how he died in a plane crash doing just that.

I hear Latin American players express their admiration for him and I want to yell, “Yes, yes, I agree!” He isn’t a national hero to me. He isn’t my guiding spirit as I try to follow in his baseball footsteps. It’s the humanity with which he lived his life that struck me in second grade, and has remained something I highly revere.

The idea of the Roberto Clemente Award is beautiful. Many players give back and it’s a nice thing to recognize. But Clemente was so driven to make sure the supplies were delivered to the victims of the earthquake in Nicaragua that he got on a plane, despite many warning signs, and died because he had to help.

His story only became more meaningful to me as I grew up. I understood it on a basic level in second grade, and it struck a part of me that was still innocent. I’ve grown cynical in my old age and to realize that a great player willing to risk his life the way he did seems all the more remarkable. His death isn’t a tragedy because we lost an incredible ball player. It’s a deeply sad loss because he was an amazing human.

I can’t help but look bitterly on the award as diminishing his immense contributions.

The announcement came of this year’s winner, and like all the years before I heard it and thought, did you die? No? You don’t deserve it.

No one deserves the award named after him, except the man himself.

I can, however, see it as a tribute to someone we should never forget.

I wish I still had that old school book with the story that made me fall in love with a remarkable human being who happened to be baseball player. The simplicity. The innocence. A story about wanting to do good things in the world.

We all need that school book.

Last Games, First Games, and the Meaning of Baseball

img_7385The first game in his scorebook is the last game at the Kingdome.

I bought tickets as a Father’s Day present. Taking cash I had saved from high school babysitting gigs to the Bellevue Square Mariners Team Store the day tickets went on sale, I secured two 300-level seats behind the left field foul pole. I presented them in a homemade card, poking fun at wanting to say goodbye even though the Kingdome wasn’t a “real” baseball stadium. He grew up outside Boston, going to games at Fenway Park. I only had the Kingdome, which may not have been “real”, but I loved it for the childhood baseball memories it gave me.

I found that card in the top drawer of his dresser after he died. The scorebook was in his office, never finished. If you’re keeping score at home as he often did his last year, the final game he kept was Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the game we thought would be his last. A game he was too sick to stay awake to finish. In between is the first season Opening Day at Safeco Field, continuing our tradition of skipping school and work for the first toothsome taste of baseball. There are my brother’s Little League games, which only identify the players by their first name. I scored a handful of Mariners games in my tiny high school writing, dating them using the European style because that was my thing then.

I finished Game 6 in his scorebook, my light, swirly writing contrasting with his assertive, bold script. He taught me to keep score, an inning here an inning there, so that I’d be able to keep up the game when he needed a bathroom break. Eventually, I started scoring games I went to with friends. He taught me his method of scoring, but I rebelled as every teenager does and developed my own techniques (my brother once took a glance at my scorebook and told me I was doing it wrong). A scorebook became as essential to me as a ticket for attending a baseball game.

The season after he died, I started taking his scorebook to games with me, abandoning my own. It documents a miserable Mariners era. The names in the lineups include Chone Figgins, Justin Smoak, and Miguel Olivo (oh, the humanity!). But there are also University of Washington games and Tacoma Rainiers games. Even that awful Mariners lineup yielded one great entry. I was in Dallas visiting family and witnessed Figgins and Co. score 22 runs at the Ballpark in Arlington with my non-baseball fan sister. It’s unlikely that our loved ones above really have an influence on sporting events, but helping his adopted team humiliate his youngest brother’s adopted team while I was in town to rub it in is definitely something my dad would do.

I had a dream about him shortly after we returned from Dallas. I filled him in on my life in the months since he died. The first thing I told him about was the game against the Rangers, being there with my sister, and giving his youngest brother a good ribbing over the score. I told him about recording it in his scorebook.

I toted that scorebook to games until I found myself with one page left.

The last game taunted me. It couldn’t be just a regular Mariners game. It had to be special. I thought about inviting my brother to a game for that final page. He was a big part of my baseball childhood and a fellow inheritor of our father’s fandom. I thought about bringing it to a game against his Red Sox. I thought about waiting until something really great happened, and copying it into the scorebook.

I almost brought it to a game last year when I was pregnant. King Felix versus the Yankees. I declared publicly (on Facebook, so it’s canon) that if Felix threw a no-hitter or beaned Alex Rodriguez in the face, my unborn child, boy or girl, would be named Felix. It started out well. Felix was throwing a very good game. Then, the rains came. The grounds crew danced between innings while the roof closed, and the pitcher’s mound was neglected. Sticky mud clung to Felix’s cleats as he lost his command and his very good game. A-Rod’s pretty face remains unmarred, and I won’t have to send my daughter to therapy for her name (there will be other reasons, I’m sure).

That last game.

Maybe I would leave it blank forever, a symbol that although he was gone my dad’s baseball fandom wasn’t over; it was still living through me.

His death was the most challenging thing I had faced. The stages of grief-the anger, the bargaining, the denial-all started the day I learned he’d had an abnormal colonoscopy. You don’t move smoothly through the stages; when you think you’ve reached acceptance, the anger rears up again.

It’s been almost five years. I have come to accept almost everything. The cancer. My mom losing the love of her life. Never watching another game with him. Not having him see me get my life together. It’s all okay. But the one thing I haven’t been able to accept is not knowing him as a grandfather to my children. I don’t know if I ever will.

He always knew the right words and as I battled to cope with a newborn that wouldn’t sleep, I needed those words. As I worked to find my footing with a baby, I needed him to tell me about his mistakes. When I was hit with the magnitude of what it meant to be a parent, I needed him to assure me it was going to be okay. Those waves of grief hit me all over again as I struggled with not having him there.

Before my daughter was born, I thought often about her first baseball game. I didn’t know if I wanted to take her as a baby, or when she was old enough to remember. It would be fun to have pictures of her at a game as a baby, to tell her she had been a fan her whole life. There’s also a compelling specialness to waiting until she was old enough to remember, for her to have both a special moment and a special memory.

Then, on the day of the game, we were offered great tickets to see the Mariners retire Ken Griffey Jr.’s number. We packed up the baby and brought her to her first game. We took pictures and we got the commemorative First Game certificate. I cut out and saved the game story from the newspaper the next morning.

She liked the airplanes flying overhead. She enjoyed entertaining the people sitting behind us. She took a short nap while the grownups relived childhood memories and watched through misty eyes as the number of the greatest player we may ever see was retired.

This baby has no idea she is going to hear endless stories about Ken Griffey Jr. and other Mariners as she grows up, the same way I heard about Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, and Pumpsie Green, the first player my dad had me look up in the Baseball Encyclopedia he gave me for Christmas.

She has no idea she will be back to the ballpark many times. She will hear our stories and our memories, and she’ll make her own. The players of her childhood will be special in a way that only childhood players can be.

Maybe she’ll fall in obsessive love with baseball like I did, maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll learn to score and keep her own scorebooks. Maybe she’ll think it’s boring and spend her future baseball games in the ‘Pen (please, dear God, no, but of course I’ll love her anyway). Maybe she’ll have a younger sister or brother who will be far more into baseball. Maybe they’ll all hate it.

So many things for kids are really for parents. Birthday parties, Christmas, and first baseball games among them.

Taking her to that game means far more to me than it could ever mean to her. It’s a small connection between my dad, me, and the granddaughter I know he would have loved incalculably.

That’s the essence of baseball right there. The past is alive in the present. Games end, seasons fade into the next, players retire, and fans grow up, have kids, and die. But it all remains and it all matters. My dad is there in my memories. He is present in the rituals of baseball and the emotion that surrounds it. The best thing I inherited from him may not be my baseball fandom after all; it may be the understanding that the past matters.

There are no endings. There are only beginnings.

The last game in his scorebook is his granddaughter’s first game.

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Feelings, Oh, Oh, Feelings

“Well, actually…”

That’s how it begins. You make a statement like, “I love this player” or “I think such and such player is really fun to watch in the outfield” or “It’s so great how so and so fights during at bats.”

Then, they gotta come at you with the stats and analysis, and reasons why you are so wrong and so naïve and how dare you even have an opinion on baseball that doesn’t involve spray charts and pitch locations and a paper and a pencil for the calculations. We can do math problems to find out so much about baseball now, and I actually think that’s pretty great. For the most part. I tend more toward the emotional than the rational when it comes to baseball though.

That’s part of the reason I thought the heartbreaking end to the Mariners’ season was actually pretty great.

It was all feeling, all emotion. There were no stats, no analytics, nothing to tell us why it was so different. And it was so different.

I listened to Saturday night’s Mariners game on a drive back from Portland. I’ve been following as closely as I could in a way that I haven’t in years.

Two years ago, the Mariners post-season fate came down to the final game. They played 162 meaningful games. This year, only 161. So it’s probably strange that I’m saying things like, “I haven’t felt this way in 15 years” and “I love the pain because it’s been so long since I’ve felt it.”

Because, it should have been like this two years ago, right?

But it wasn’t. We all know it wasn’t.

I didn’t like that 2014 team. I didn’t enjoy watching them. They weren’t fun.
This team is fun. The players are likeable. I enjoy rooting for them. There was real passion in the way they played. Real wanting. Real desire. I watched them play and I wanted that Wild Card so bad. I knew, I felt, that they wanted it to.

Maybe the craziest thing is that actually making the playoffs matters so much less to me than having a team I enjoy watching the whole 162 game season. It’s tough to enjoy a team if it isn’t a playoff contender, so of course that’s part of it. It’s just not the only part of it.

The spray charts and pitch counts and paper and pencil for calculations are important. Nerdy stats have always been and will always be a fixture of baseball.

How it makes us feel is baseball’s heart and core. I haven’t felt this way in 15 years. I hope I feel this way next season.

I want it so bad.

Pitch, Please

Sure, it will appeal to baseball fans. But, will it appeal to women?

Women don’t like baseball the sport. We like reality TV, and we need story lines that are delicately tailored to our simple woman brains.

How could we like baseball the sport? We don’t get to dream the dream where you play center field for the Yankees and hit a walk-off home run to win the World Series. That’s not our dream. That’s a boy dream.

Girl dreams are weddings and babies and falling in love. Not sports.

I knew the only appropriate dreams were girl dreams, but there I was, a girl kid, working on my control by throwing a tennis ball against the garage door (sorry, neighbors), and practicing diving outfield catches in the backyard. I also wrote stories. My favorite character was Lisa Marquette, an opinionated, smart, athletic girl who happened to love baseball. I had played t-ball on a boys’ team in second grade. I was the only girl and stuck out in the team picture with my pink corduroy pants. Alas, my baseball career ended at the t-ball level because I have no athletic talent. This has nothing to do with my femaleness; I just inherited terrible athletic genes. So, I dreamed vicariously through the stories I wrote about Lisa.

She was a pitcher because I was obsessed with the way Greg Maddux studied and toyed with batters and because I couldn’t get over Jamie Moyer soft-tossing his way through Major League lineups. Lisa played on boys’ teams through Little League and became a starting pitcher on her high school team, throwing fastballs and changeups, and later in high school, a devastating 12 to 6 curveball (I was responsible with my fictional character’s arm and didn’t give her a breaking pitch until later, even though she didn’t have a Major League career to protect). She wasn’t a power hitter, but she could make contact, and she was fast. An Ichiro before I’d ever heard of him.

But, of course, I’m not really a baseball fan for I am a woman. Those stories must have been all about the drama and trying to fall in love (She plays against her future husband in high school. When she strikes him out 3 times in a game, he tips his cap to her).

That’s why it’s odd that while I watched the Pitch pilot, I felt it in the same place those stories came from. That dream of doing what people say can’t be done. Of succeeding where you aren’t wanted and aren’t supposed to be.

That dream of just being able to have that dream.

So, yes. Pitch does appeal to women. Because women are baseball fans. Because we saw our brothers and male friends have “realistic” Major League dreams and knew we were left out. Because we don’t just dig the long ball. A well-pitched game and a sharply turned double play resonate with us too.

Pitch appeals to female baseball fans more than it could ever appeal to “real” male fans. Because men had permission to dream that dream. Even though few have a realistic shot at making it, it’s still a valid dream if you’re born a boy.

A firestorm erupted when a review of Pitch suggested that women may not like it because it was about baseball. Internet readers become irate when a writer called the show’s premise science fiction. A wonderful Twitter hashtag full of pictures of women at the ballpark, #ThisIsWhatABaseballFanLooksLike, started trending. It’s only proof that, well, actually, women are baseball fans.

And we want that dream too.

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Me, during my illustrious t-ball career with the Hazelwood Athletic Club

The Redemption of a Red Head

Ron Fairly was right. About everything.

It’s not that I ever thought he was wrong, really, just vociferously repetitious. He used to drive me up the wall with those maxims that he repeated over and over and over.

“The hardest play an outfielder has to make is on a ball hit right at him.”

“You gotta keep the ball down. You know why I say keep the ball down? Well, when was the last time you saw a 400 foot ground ball?”

“Those lead off base on balls will come around to kill you.”

(Turns out Ron Fairly was a moneyballer before we even knew about moneyball.)

Once you’ve got a grasp on the game, these maxims become annoying and you roll your eyes at the sheer obviousness. In hindsight, I’m realizing that Ron Fairly saw right to the heart of baseball and was able to talk about it in such a simplistic, straight to the point, way that it became easy to dismiss.

But all those years of listening to Ron must have drilled his baseball proverbs into my skull because they get loose and rattle around in there from time to time.

Whenever an infielder bobbled a ball, he would talk about how important it was to stay with the play and not give up after the bobble. The words that seeped into my brain on summer evenings in front of a televised game tap me on my shoulder on a sunny spring afternoon while watching a high school game.

We often forget how easy major leaguers make baseball look. Even the errors aren’t all that egregious. Because I forget this, high school baseball was eye opening in a way I hadn’t expected.

First of all, these kids are good. A little league game, this was not. They made acrobatic plays and hit the ball hard and ran out ground balls (so, it wasn’t exactly a Major League game either).

Then, they’d mess up and I’d be reminded that I wasn’t watching professionals, I was watching high school kids. (Also, they don’t sell beer at the games. Lame.)

I watched a shortstop struggle to get a handle on a ground ball and I’d remember that Ron liked when players stuck with the play. I finally saw the whys and the hows behind everything he said.

I was watching the building blocks of baseball. The players were good enough to make it look easy, but not so seasoned that they didn’t trip over the fundamentals from time to time. Each time they tripped I understood baseball a little better. Each bobbled play I got a little closer to baseball’s soul.

The beauty of baseball is in its easy simplicity. I was surprised to learn that Ron Fairly understood that better than I did.

While pondering Ron, I found that this still exists on the internet, a relic of my Anglefire site. Please forgive the comic sans font. It was the early 2000s and that sort of thing was acceptable then.

I Like That Old Time Rock And Roll

I decided to go to Safeco Field for Opening Night, hoping it would trigger something in me the way it used to.

It didn’t.

I thought I had a few years left before I reached this point. I thought it wouldn’t happen so fast, but last night it did.

I have reached the point in my life where, maybe, perhaps, attending major sporting events just isn’t for me.

It seems like a crazy conclusion for me to draw. I love sports, I breathe sports, I don’t know what I’d do with my time if it wasn’t for sports. And baseball? Baseball is my soul.

The whole experience of attending a baseball game is a tonic. Drinking a beer (if it’s a night game, my day drinking days have long been over), chatting with the person next to me, soaking in the soothing pace and frenzied bursts of action.

Last night, Safeco Field felt more like a nightclub than a baseball game to me.

I get that the Mariners need to attract fans that want more than baseball and this is no knock on that. It’s just not for me. I don’t like loud, pounding, popular music being blasted into my eardrums and vibrating my skull with the force of their booming bass. I don’t want to feel like I need to be drunk to enjoy my time at a game, which the frat party atmosphere seems to require. It seems that those are the things (arguably) that attract an audience to the games. I get it, I really do. It’s just not for me.

I like to read about baseball in the early 20th Century. The players were paid peanuts in the pros and amateurs were everywhere. Towns put together their own teams and played other towns in front of enthusiastic local fans.

My Dad was always a big fan of reverting back to this system for baseball entertainment. I was horrified; I wouldn’t be able to watch games on tv! But, now I get it.

The whole set up sounds amazing. I’d love to cheer on my Hometime Nine in a stadium lacking the frills and popular music of the Major Leagues. A bunch of rabble scrabble players, shucking off the work day. Fans cheering away their life stress. A fight for bragging rights against the next town over.

It sounds like baseball.

It sounds like nostalgia.

And I should probably be careful with it because this sort of baseball just doesn’t exist anymore.