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Finding Love For The Game


Image Credit: Baseball Pilgrimages

I didn’t start life as a baseball fan.

My grandfather loves baseball. I love my grandfather but I did not love baseball. Whenever he stopped by, he’d ask what sports I tried out for at school, hoping that baseball made the short list. I disappointed him each time, but he persisted. A baseball glove landed among my Christmas presents. I played catch with my father exactly twice before I set it down and never picked it up again. The neighborhood kids were baseball fanatics and I avoided them often so they wouldn’t ask me questions I couldn’t answer.

One summer, when I was six years old, they drafted me into playing catcher for a game. By now they sensed I wasn’t useful anywhere else but playing catcher was foolproof. Catchers on TV made it look easy! Unfortunately, no one explained that a catcher must squat to do his job.

The aluminum bat to my head reminded everyone. I still hear the other kids blaming each other as they explained the situation to my mother. I don’t remember much of the second grade beyond that but it was my last encounter with baseball.

My aunt Amy was a staunch Oakland Athletics fan and she talked baseball with my grandfather better than most men. When I turned nine, she cajoled me into attending a game with her. My sisters wouldn’t go, my mother worked two jobs, Amy’s sons lived far away, and my younger brother was away from home. As the only man in the house, I felt it was my duty to go with her. I lay in bed that night, barely able to sleep, fighting back tears as I imagined the horrible things that might happen due to my ignorance of the game. What if Amy expected me to know positions and players? What if a ball came our way? I didn’t want to embarrass her by doing something silly.  A nine year-old boy is his own worst enemy.

It never occurred to me that she just wanted to spend time with her introverted nephew or that she’d teach me the rules of the game.

Game day arrived and we shuffled out of the house after a quick breakfast to the bus stop. Three buses and two hours later, Oakland Coliseum devoured my entire field of vision. I learned more about scalpers and tailgate parties in those first five minutes than I knew possible. We stopped at the concession stand where I received my payment  for attending (a hot dog), took our seats, and got comfortable. Amy explained the rules, the bases, and the field layout. Despite the size of the stadium, the game felt small. The action centered around four people with everyone else standing around and hoping for the ball to sail in their direction. I tried not to feign only passing interest in the catcher, my head still ringing from that game over three years ago.

I got ill during the first inning and Amy wasn’t thrilled but we made the long trek back home. She used to remind me that I owed her a baseball game. I never told her that I felt better the instant we left. Over the years, her health failed and I didn’t get out to California again until she passed away last year. I look back at that game and feel like I missed an opportunity to understand a portion of her life that wasn’t involved in caring for others (she’d been a teacher and a registered nurse). She still yelled at the A’s until the very end, loving baseball with a passion that most people reserve for the birth of children or winning the lottery.

I’m sure she’s still yelling at the A’s to get their act together.

I attended other games over the years with friends but I was bored to tears. Baseball became the bane of my existence. Soon it faded into the background as “just another sport” that I could ignore for conversation about the weather, house plants or politics whenever I was in polite company.

The St. Louis Cardinals changed everything.

My girlfriend loves baseball and the Cardinals are her favorite team. She grew up two hours outside of St. Louis and while I can make jokes about St. Louis and Missouri in general, any words against the Cardinals are an act of war. Dinner can and has mystically not arrived after a crack gets made about her Birds. In 2011, I sat in a bar with friends, playing a board game, while the Cardinals played the Texas Rangers in the World Series. I looked up now and again to see that the Cardinals were trailing. My girlfriend, and most of America, believed the Cardinals would lose the World Series that night so she went to bed early. A comeback looked improbable but I found myself rooting for them to win and the game held my attention.

The Cardinals made a stunning comeback and won the game to push the Series to a seventh game where they captured the championship. I called my girlfriend to share the news, thrilled to report that her team won. My view of baseball altered that night. I brushed up on the things Amy taught me and while I still can’t name players on command, I learned about runs, errors and how to count the top and bottom of each inning.

When I moved to Kansas the following year, I adopted the Kansas City Royals as my baseball team. The Cardinals my second favorite team—because red is my other favorite color. The Royals however, struck me with their genuine approach and the connection they’ve made with their city. They play catch with young fans of opposing teams. Hang out in a random Kansas City bar and they might buy you a drink. Ask nicely for a ticket to a playoff game on social media and they may spot you one. Take away all of that and we still have a team of good guys that we can root for and that children can look up to in an age where we’re learning just how human athletes are. Each year, we’re happy just to see our boys do well. We shocked ourselves by making it to the playoffs. We shocked the world by sweeping two talented teams to play in the World Series for the first time in twenty-nine years.

Win or lose, I’m a Royals fan for life. I’ve owned three baseball jerseys in my life and I’ve worn each of them once before “losing” them or simply giving them away to my younger brothers. This year, however, I’m buying my fourth and it’s going with me to Opening Day. I’m looking forward to seeing Kauffman Stadium for the first time with my girlfriend, getting a hot dog, and maybe checking out one of the numerous tailgate parties that helped to put Kansas City on the map.

I’m sure Amy will give the A’s a break to watch the game with us.

I still owe her one.

Go Royals!

Author’s Note: At the time of this article’s publication, the World Series match-up between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals stands at 3-2, with the Giants leading.

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