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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The Long Slow Ride to the End of the Trolley Line

The Mariners are bad and depressing and there’s just no way around it, not enough sugar for the coating required to make it any less so.

I have a tough time with the fans preaching optimism and decrying the cynicism that so naturally erupts from the Mariner faithful. I don’t get it. How can they not want to punch walls in frustration, being stuck on this treadmill of fandom, barren of scenery, rolling on and on?

Non-sports people wonder why I’m a fan. “Why do you care when they’re so bad?”, they ask, shaking their heads in confusion. I just sigh and tell them that they don’t understand.

But the truth is, I don’t understand.

I’ve run through the explanations ad nauseum. I’m masochistic and love the pain. I’m an eternal optimist and think that someday this will turn around and all be worth it. I’m naturally cynical and pessimistic and the Mariners justify my world view.

Each of these explanations is true, but none gives a satisfying answer.

I have even less an explanation for why I stopped watching. I do know that on a cold April evening at Safeco Field the scoreless innings piled up and I reached a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wearily closed my scorebook, despite having started a new page for the double-digit inning that was beginning. I left the stadium and I haven’t seen a full game since.

I hate not watching. I sneak a peek every now and then because I miss my stupid team. Yet, I find that it is physically painful to watch. I observed Mike Zunino’s first Major League at bat with a gnawing in my stomach that warned me not to get attached and an ache that told me not to let hope twist the blade already bleeding my heart. I glance at Twitter and read that another game has unraveled.

Maybe this new batch of sprouting prospects will grow into superstars. Maybe Jack Z’s 7-Year – nee 5-Year – Plan will work. Maybe it’s true the team will never improve until Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln are gone, and a new owner takes charge. Maybe they’ll never be good again and the beautiful 1995 run and 2001 dream season are the best we’re going to see.

But the Red Sox were cursed for 86 years before they won the World Series. The Mariners have only been around for a fraction of that time. As stupid as it feels, I still believe it can happen.

I haven’t given up or abandoned my team; I’m just clinging to the little sanity I have left.

That Feeling That You Get

Your bladder is burning. Under any other circumstance, you would have high tailed it to the bathroom.

You are out of beer. Under any other circumstance, you’d be grabbing one from your fridge or braving the line at the stadium.

But your seat is firmly planted in a seat. You are not getting up. You are not taking your eyes off the field or the tv.

One of those players is up.

As I write this, I’m sitting through MLB Extra Innings’ commercial break because Bryce Harper is up next. He has hit a homerun in each of his at bats so far today and despite the 3 cups of coffee I’ve had since the game began, I’m not going anywhere.

For so many years, it was Ken Griffey Jr. He is, to me, the very personification of those types of players. You never, ever, not for a nuclear war, got up when he was due up. No matter how commonplace it became, you never missed a chance to see him cut loose that achingly beautiful swing.

Old time baseball scouts love to say that you just know when a player is special.  You feel it in your gut.

With all due respect to baseball wisdom, I say you feel it in your bladder.

Happy Opening Day!

Like You Imagined When You Were Young

I’ve always felt like the players I watched when I became a baseball fan were better than ones who play today. Memories put a soft hue on the past and the moments that were so monumental, because there were so few to compare them with, stood as towering accomplishments, whether they actually were or not.

(Of course, I became a Mariners fan in the 90s, and it’s tough, nay impossible, to argue the Mariners of the 90s actually weren’t better than they are now.)

The first no hitter I saw was Chris Bosio’s. I had already gone to bed and my Dad woke me up to see the end. The specialness of that moment has always branded Bos as a better pitcher in my mind than he was. I’ve never cared that Randy Johnson’s career was defined on teams other than the Mariners. My childhood worship of the fastballs he slung through the strike zone and the way Mr. Snappy made batters look like over matched fools are no match for reality

We view things differently when they are new and fresh and perspective hasn’t tainted our wide eyed wonder. I’d long accepted that I would never see the moments and players of my adult fandom with the same reverence and awe that I did when I was young.

Felix Hernandez came along at a time when I was mad at baseball for tarnishing my unblemished memories with steroids, and I was disappointed with the Mariners for squandering the chance to become a real team. I watched him with curiosity and appreciation, but I didn’t let myself get attached.

Then, during a tough part of my life, baseball was there. Felix was becoming Felix. Happy Felix Day was a thing, and I relished watching him develop and channel his cocky swagger of talent into the most entertaining pitching I’ve ever seen. I started to feel like he was special and I could be excited about the Mariners again.

But, he still didn’t feel like the fuzzy memory players.

Then, at 3:00 this afternoon, I was shut in my boss’s vacant office, clutching my phone like it was the source of life, listening to the game through its tiny speakers. Every time Felix set to throw the ball, my heart thumped like I had murdered and buried someone below the floorboards. My head was dizzy, my body was numb.

He did it.

Felix threw the perfect game he had been building towards his entire career.

I felt a feeling that I hadn’t felt since the Indians were defeated in the final game of the 2001 ALDS.

That moment, that pitcher. I am going to love them forever and they will live forever in that part of my brain devoted to sacred baseball memories.

I Miss You Most at Baseball Time

Not many people burst into tears when they hear Glenallen Hill is in charge of outfield instruction for the Colorado Rockies. Laugh, shake their heads in disbelief maybe, but rarely do they cry.

Let me explain.

The exact details are a little fuzzy, but I do know the Mariners were playing a game sometime in 1998. Glennallen Hill, hitter extraordinaire that he was, wore special shoes that help you grip the dirt in the batter’s box better. Incidentally, they are terrible for roaming the outfield. He was going back on a fly ball, his cleats got caught in the turf, and a tumbling down he went.

This led my Dad to nickname him “Glenallen Asshole”. (It was a catchall nickname; he’d referred to the pitcher as Bobby Ayala Asshole for years.)

If I had heard about his outfield coaching gig a season ago, I would have immediately texted my Dad. We would have bantered and had a good laugh.

But the thing is, St. Peter has a strict No Cell Phones policy.

It’s not just the silly nicknames that I miss. Although, we did have some great ones. There was Fat Ass, a portly pitcher Ron Fairly described as being “built like a pitcher, thick through the middle”. And I’ll never forget Scott Brosiusaurus, bestowed when I mentioned that Scott Brosius’ face reminded me of a dinosaur.

There’s too many things I miss to mention them all. It’s skipping school to go to Opening Day games. It’s the blue bag with homemade hot dogs, peanuts, Diet Pepsi, scorebooks, and mechanical pencils we brought to every game. It’s sarcastically quoting Ron Fairly and genuflecting to Dave Niehaus. Groaning at errors and cheering magnificent pitching performances. He may be the only person who agreed with my impression that Game 6 of last year’s World Series was a terrible display of professional baseball, not the exciting game everyone says it was.

That’s the last game in his scorebook. I finished the last couple innings when he was too tired. At the time, he and I both thought that was going to be the last game he saw; the last game we watched together. Then that jerk David Freese ruined it with his stupid home run and we had a Game 7 that felt anticlimactic.

Opening Day was tough this season. Not the game. I’ve gotten used to watching games without him. It was hard the rest of the day because he wasn’t here to talk to about the game. He wouldn’t have gotten up that early, but he would have asked how it went. We would have talked about Ichiro and Figgins, and he’d ask how Olivo did behind the plate. We’d talk about Carp in the outfield and Montero’s first at bats. And we’d talk about the season as a whole, our viewpoints speckled with sarcastic cynicism, awash in love for baseball.

We didn’t get to talk about those things. My favorite part of baseball isn’t here.

It’s not just the silly nicknames I miss.

It’s everything.

Trading Heroes For Ghosts

It seems natural to just blame the internet. Or the media or the American public for being so invested in this TMZ culture that exposes every ugly ounce of humanity.

By now, it should be easy to watch the people we admire crumble and crack into tragic rubble.

Philandering politicians, corrupt corporations, Ponzi schemes. Legendary college football coaches who positively impacted so many kids ending their careers with the scandal of hurting so many kids.

But it’s not easy, and even if it has become expected, it still generates the kind of shock that boosts tv ratings and tabloid sales.

It’s sad that it’s so rare when someone lives up to hero status.

A year ago yesterday, the most admired man in the Northwest died. The voice of our childhoods, our summers, our innocence. When Dave Niehaus died there was an incredible amount of emotion and sadness at losing such an important part of every Mariner fans’ life.

And a strange thing happened during all the remembrances.

No one had a single negative thing to say about him.

I have to admit I’d always wondered what he was like when he wasn’t behind the microphone. Most public figures have different public and private personnas.  To hear from his family and friends, through all the stories they told, that he was exactly the same in real life as he was on tv, made losing him all the more poignant.

In the midst of all this news about admired people losing their hero status, I’m taking comfort in knowing that there are ordinary human beings who positively impact countless people and never lose their luster.

Thank you, Dave.  Thank you for not only being the voice that you were, but for being the genuine person we all thought you were.

Life Things, Baseball Things

There is a collection of books at my parent’s house that belonged to my grandfather. They are classic novels, bound in a classic way. Whenever I pick up one of these books, feeling the scuffed covers, smelling the yellowed pages, and seeing the bookplate inside reading Lawrence J. Lane, I can see my grandfather with his grandfather smile, regaling my second grade class on Grandparents Day with stories of taking a boat to school when his hometown of Winthrop, MA flooded.

As my Dad got older, I could see my grandfather in him too. Mostly when he coughed or yelled (oh, that famous Irish temper). Or when he wore one of the sweaters that I can’t picture my grandfather without.

He died in February, 2000. A year before his beloved Patriots won the Super Bowl. Four years before the Red Sox won their first World Series since he was two years old.

He’s still there in those old books, in my Dad’s face, in the stories and pictures and memories where he always seems so vividly alive.

I’ve written before how baseball has connected me with my own father. I can’t watch a baseball game without his presence being there. Something always happens that reminds me of something we saw together. I can’t keep score at a game without remembering learning to keep score in that book we toted to every game. The simple rituals of packing his blue bag with his scorecard, pencils, homemade hot dogs, and Diet Pepsi; getting to the games early to watch batting practice from our seats so we could accurately judge homeruns and not be the fans cheering a pop up to the shortstop.

Rituals I want to repeat with my own kids someday. Rituals that will feel so comfortingly familiar it will be like he’s right there with me.

So when he casually mentions that this year’s may be his last World Series and that he’d like the Red Sox to be in it, my head doesn’t want to let those words sink in. When he makes the decision to discontinue the chemo treatments, I refuse to think it through to the conclusion.

I can’t even say the words out loud. I don’t want to talk about it. I can only mention it in vague euphemisms when I’m sure I won’t collapse on the ground in tears.

In a way, it was fitting that the Red Sox blew it in the last game of the regular season. My Dad scoffed at their slide and said he wanted them put out of their misery. When they lost it was another of those Red Sox heartbreaks that were oh, so familiar.

Everything seemed normal again for a few minutes.

Then I noticed how tired his face looked. How he goes to bed before games are over and sometimes barely has the energy to make it through a few precious innings. I feel exactly how not normal everything is.

Sometimes it’s like he’s gone already.

I don’t want to think about it, so I stop. And leave the house and watch a game somewhere else.

But every pitch, every play, every ridiculous broadcaster comment, he is there. Every tick I make on my scorecard, he is there.

I’m going to have to abandon this denial eventually and feel the things you’re supposed to feel when stuff like this happens. I’m going to have to start doing this soon.

It’s a little easier knowing I’ll never really have to watch a game without him.