When I was five years old I struck out during my first at bat at my first t-ball game. Though I swung with all the might my little arms could muster, I missed the unmoving ball by seven feet. I dropped the bat and stomped back to the bench, head hung low. A little ginger-haired, snot-nosed boy called Steve booed loudly as I returned to my team. I looked at him in all his red-headed meanness and walked right past the bench to the bleachers. With that, my career in team sports ended.
For some time thereafter, all I knew about sports was that baseball made me cry, basketball was played by giants with squeaky shoes, and football was the sport where the men wore spandex and patted each other on the butt. Though I’m from Minnesota where the teams are (mostly) cherished and often talked about, I’ve always felt idiotic when it came to sports.
When I was little and my family went to baseball games I'd bring my book to read, looking up from the pages of the Babysitter's Club long enough to grab a handful of popcorn or sip my soda. My family accepted this about me, but God love em' they kept taking me along. As I got older I began leaving my book behind as I discovered that baseball was played by athletic young men in perfectly tight uniforms. I especially enjoyed watching the game in the luxury of my aunt's company's box. There I'd sit and "watch" the game which meant eating delicious food and discussing the merits of each ballplayer's butt.
But one game, things changed. I overheard my uncle and dad discussing a Yankees/Twins matchup earlier that season. My ears perked up when I heard the word "jockstrap." This was a departure from their usual game discussion and I listened intently. Apparently as pitcher Scott Baker faced Jorge Posada with a 3-2 count at the bottom of the inning he suddenly motioned Mauer to the mound. Baker told Mauer, "my cup's down by my knee." Mauer asked, "Well, what do you want me to do about it?" Mauer called a time-out, Baker walked to the dugout, removed the cup and returned to the mound, where he proceeded to sit Posada down and end the inning.
I was sold. This was theatre in sports form. Costumes malfunctioning mid-performance. Tete-a-tetes between players in the middle of a big scene. New game plans improvised last minute. Sold. I declared baseball my new thing in the way only someone with a "like it, love it, want more of it" personality such as mine could do.
I began asking my aunt and uncle, long time baseball fans, about the game. Sure, I was looking for all the personal details and stories about the players, but when little bits of game logistics, rules and history slipped in, I listened. My family, in all their patience with me nurtured this wholesome, normal hobby. For my 25th birthday I opened a Morneau jersey which was later autographed at batting practice before a game. I learned how to keep score, listened to the games on the radio for color commentary and devoured player facts, listening carefully when seasoned fans talked about the team. I was fascinated by all the rules, the theatricality of the game, the secret language passed back and forth between dugout to field. Before too long, it looked as though this was not a fleeting whim, but something that might have snuck in to my heart when I wasn't watching.
While Morneau was the name on the back of my jersey, this was early in his career (when he was still #27) before the M and M boy craze blew up. I liked Justin early on cause he always looked a little uncertain and nervous, anxiously cleaning first base in all his OCD-ness but then he stepped up to bat and WHAM, there was no questioning the power behind that ripped Canadian body. Okay, and maybe his dopey handsomeness had a little to do with it.
The same can't be said for my other favorite player, however.
Mr. Lew Ford wasn’t anything to look at- in fact he kind of resembled one of the seven dwarfs. And no, he wasn't a great ballplayer--looking a little like a drunk monkey as he scrambled around the outfield--but the stories about him? You couldn't make this stuff up. There was the one about the bad burns he had on his stomach due to ironing a shirt--while wearing it. And the time that he mistook Portland, Maine for Portland, Oregon when told about a minor league assignment. Or the time he ran out of the clubhouse-the wrong way-when directed to pinch hit. But this guy? A Rhodes scholar, known for fixing his teammate’s computers and playing hours of World of Warcraft. Lew Ford was an enigma wrapped in a conundrum served with a side of bacon. And I loved him.
What Lew Ford had, besides weird little pockets of talent, was spirit and personality. And not just him. Boof Bonser, Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Jacques Jones---the whole lot of em’ during the Mike Redmond/Nick Punto “smell em!” era were an incredible team. Sure, they were a little rag-tag, no, they were not always consistent and yes, you often found yourself biting your nails at the bottom of the ninth, especially when Joe Nathan puffed his cheeks and shook his head, but they had spirit in droves and it showed.
I knew from the grumblings around me in the stands that the MN Twins were considered small ball compared to many other teams and that only made me love them more. Knowing that our entire payroll wouldn't pay the salary of one Yankee player made any victory all the sweeter. In my blissful naiveté I believed our team was playing the game the way it was intended to be played--not for a million dollar paycheck but for love. These guys looked like what I imagined every team should look like out there, a group of guys together to play ball, not compete for the highest salary. There was an electricity to that team, tangible to anyone in the stadium and man, those games were fun to watch.
The more games I went to the more I realized what baseball represented to a community, to it’s group of fans and to the people who counted down to opening day each spring. In a world driven by technology, where face to face interaction is slowly becoming a thing of the past and true connection seems hard to find, baseball gathers up thousands of people in one fell swoop and brings them together for a common goal. Families, friends, couples and strangers alike make their way out of doors for the singular purpose of rooting their team on to victory. In the course of a game strangers become allies and perhaps even friends, riding out the highs and lows of the season together and finding commonalities in the vernacular of the sport.
It’s hard not to be happy at a baseball game. I mean, come on--peanuts, popcorn, cracker-jacks, beer. The buzz in the air before the first pitch is thrown, where anything is possible in the night to come. The mass sing along and group stretch in the seventh inning. The free pass to scream like a banshee in public. The glimmer of hope that remains even in the bottom of the 9th when a loss seems inevitable. The rally caps and homer hankies, the fans unwilling to leave in order to beat the traffic, staying in support for the entire game. The loss that sometimes comes--but bringing with it, as my dad always says "a chance to win next time."
And there is. Baseball is a game of next times. Of second chances. Of hope even at the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and two strikes and you’re trailing by one. There’s always the chance that your luck will shift, and you’ll surprise the hell out of everyone, and with one pitch, one swing, find yourself racing towards home plate, winning the game.
Baseball is also a bridge. It's one of the only activities that I know, across the board, any of my friends and family members will happily go to with me. It's the only connection, the only safe subject to be found between a grad school professor and myself. It's an ice breaker on a blind date. It's seeing a Twins hat on the island of Oahu and for a brief moment feeling a little less lonely. These days at games you see everyone: the young, the old, the in-between- the bike-riding artsy hipsters and business men in suits and die hard fans decked out in Twins gear. It's not a game just for sports fans, there's something in it for everyone. There's salty popcorn and cotton candy for my mom to snack on in between taking pictures of the players with her fancy camera. There's the $10 craft beer for my brother to drink with his buddies as they talk sports. And there's the $1 scorecard for me and my best friend for us to document every second of the experience, now a longstanding tradition.
So when people dog on the Twins and their comparatively small payroll, or the current state of baseball with all it's controversies and politics and focus on money, I think back to 2006 when I was blissfully ignorant of those things. I remember watching a group of guys, varied in talent and experience but common in their love for the sport play their hearts out each time the stadium lights came on. I remember discovering the game and all it's history, and falling in love with something I'd previously written off. I remember 30,000 fans staying behind after the last game of the 2006 season to watch, alongside the players, the Royals beat the Tigers and help our team clinch the AL Central Division title. I remember feeling the ground vibrate with excitement as fans jumped up and down, screaming at the top of their lungs in pure, unadulterated joy. I remember that baseball has always and will continue to bring people together and that, that is something to cheer for.