I love baseball. You heard me right. I love it. Maybe not as much as I love a fresh vanilla Charleston Chew or a jukebox containing three or more Night Ranger songs, but definitely more than having my testicles lightly seared in canola oil while still encased in my scrotum. Yes, I love baseball way more than that.
It is a game of deeply-rooted traditions, each of which is embraced by players and fans with the same passion today as in years and generations past. Whether it is legging out a triple, turning a crisp 6-4-3 double play, or throwing a full-count breaking ball, baseball is a game of instincts, reaction, and careful decision-making. It is a game that can be mastered equally by the best of athletes and the most well-versed of students. It is, in a word, heaven.
My addiction to baseball’s wondrous history and unpolished pageantry began at the age of eight, when a balding, 52-year-old stranger named Gary drove through my neighborhood in his navy blue conversion van and asked if I’d like to accompany him on a three-month Major League Baseball tour. Um, hell yeah I would!
Over the course of the next three months, Gary taught me everything I know about the game today, and then some. For him, it wasn’t just about the rules of the game or the wide array of statistical measurements by which so many gauge the game. Sure, those were important pieces of the overall picture for Gary, but so were the unwritten rules and traditions. The rituals, superstitions, and uniquely personal beliefs that inhabit the soul of every true fan of the sport.
My education (or indoctrination) began at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where Gary taught me all about the time-honored tradition of rubbing the roll of quarters he kept in his front pocket every time an out was recorded. It continued in St. Louis, where I learned how giving underwear-only hugs in the van before the game helped ward off rain delays. And who can forget the time I drank my first Triple Play—a concoction made up of cough syrup, crushed-up muscle relaxers, and Dr. Pepper—during the seventh-inning stretch of the Cincinnati Reds game. Well, actually, I kind of forget about that at first, but Gary told me all about it the next morning when I was giving him his daily thigh massage.
Of all the stadiums we visited on our trip, I fell most in love with Yankee Stadium. From the moment we pulled into the parking lot, I could feel myself being enveloped by the ghosts of the legendary players who pushed their cleats into the dirt and grass of the famous stadium. As we walked to our seats in our matching cut-off jean shorts, I imagined myself among the crowds who were lucky enough to witness Mantle, Ruth, Maris, Berra, and Gehrig in their primes. Sitting on Gary’s lap in that stadium, I was transported to another time. And it felt like home.
As great as the baseball smorgasbord was, though, it wasn’t without its hiccups. As per usual, my parents tried to take something pure and exhilarating and ruin it. Gary and I were eating breakfast in the van one morning when we heard my parents on the radio talking about how I had been abducted and how they were offering a reward for my safe return. All I could think was “WHAT THE HELL ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT?”
None of my parents’ story made any sense. First, they said I’d been “snatched” from neighborhood, but Gary assured me he had told them all about the trip before he picked me up. Then, they said they hadn’t heard a thing from me in the months since they last saw me, but Gary said he personally mailed the postcards I bought for them at each of our stops. And lastly, they said they were offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to my safe return, but just weeks before the trip they said they didn’t have the money to buy me a new bike.
Regardless, when we arrived in Pittsburgh for a three-game series between the Pirates and the Dodgers, there were cops at every entrance holding flyers with my picture on them (way to overreact, Dad!). Worried that I’d miss my chance to see Orel Herschieser pitch, Gary came up with an ingenious plan to cut and dye my hair so that I wouldn’t resemble the photo on the flyer. To be safe, he also insisted on holding my hand through the entire game. Nine innings later, I was the proud owner of memories that included a Herschieser complete-game shutout, a Steve Sax grand slam, and a post-game Twister contest in the van.
A few weeks later, our trip, much like the MLB season itself, came to an end. Gary and I attended the regular season finale at County Stadium in Milwaukee, where we saw the Brewers defeat the Kansas City Royals on a Robin Yount three-run triple. As the speedy redhead rounded second base, I saw a tear slowly roll down my friend’s cheek. It was at that moment when I realized that I wasn’t the only one whose heart was broken by finality of our trip’s conclusion. And although he didn’t say a word when he climbed into my sleeping bag later that night, I could really feel how strong our relationship had become during this summer of peanuts and Cracker Jack.
The next morning, Gary dropped me off three blocks from my family’s house. As I walked past the cookie-cutter homes of my childhood in nothing but my Keds and a pair of white Hanes briefs, my life somehow felt both newly enriched and unfairly deprived. While I now had the love of baseball permanently tattooed on my soul, it would be months before I could taste its sweet adrenaline in my veins once more.
Of course, my parents made an embarrassing spectacle the moment I set foot in the entryway of our house. But no matter how loudly they cried, how tightly they gripped me, or how many police officers asked for descriptions of my travel companion, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking back to the treasure trove of priceless experiences with which I had been blessed during those wonderful months. And as I rested my head upon my pillow later that night—memories of fastballs, base hits, and tickle fights running through my head—I fell asleep knowing that even better things were waiting for me.
After all, Gary promised me we’d add the playoffs to our trip the next year.