Not sure if I was ever meant to play baseball, but, for a time, if felt perfectly natural. I sometimes wonder if we are assigned dreams before birth, impossible missions never meant for completion, just so we could learn something from the failure.For many years of my life, I carried within my heart the bitter burden of unrequited love. Such a victory for vanity, that a game could mean this much. To me, baseball rose above the transient emblems of victory and defeat. It was always about the process, fragments of tranquility where existence justified itself. The game held freedom, from that grandiose philosophical doubt, those unconscious and unknowable questions haunting us from birth and chasing us into death. I kept my self, alone, standing stoically at first base, tugging on my uniform sleeves, slapping spit into an oversized mitt… I simply was. Few experiences legitimately compare. As a writer, I am creating, transforming emptiness into something meaningful or wasting space with something negligible. As a player, just being was enough.
I’ve become cynical these days, an unavoidable consequence of regret. Hard to recall being anything more than flawed, though playing baseball at a high level, which I did for a short and ultimately meaningless time, made me feel great. The kicker is, I truly believe we were meant for greatness, and all this loathing, all this anger and all this uselessness, is nothing more than amnesia, forgetting what we already are. Perception taunts us, beckoning our disgust. We compare ourselves with other people, and feel jealous, compare ourselves with the world, and feel empty, compare ourselves with animals, and feel similar, all to avoid looking in. Baseball let me look inside myself, a test already answered. All the joy, fear was real, so was the fight, and I understood without having to understand. Maybe it’s easy for other people, those who never needed something so arguably pointless to find their identity. I doubt it. The truth hides in our futile pursuits, and we can’t help but seek.
Nobody really plays a game for money. This comes after the fact. All the advertisements throw love in our faces, to purify their exploitation. Very few people play baseball solely for love of the game. Many players hate the actual game of baseball, as did I toward the end. The game is a drug, no different from chemical counterparts. We’re hooked, high off a perfect moment, trapped inside our own minds. Does a player play because he loves the game? Does a drunk drink because he loves the taste?
We collect success, run and jump for it, throw and swing for it, think and write for it. It’s not the end result fascinating us, the ultimate length of a monstrous home run, the pretty syntax in a perfectly written sentence, we are addicted to the epiphany, quenched by the clarity discovered in our performance. Brett Favre isn’t having doubts, but experiencing withdrawal. He needs to pump fake like a maniac before scrambling outside the pocket, dodging defenders with an insane smile on his face, his vulnerability securing an identity.
Ask Michael Jordan.
Some special ones prefer it taken away.
I have a confession, and would be remiss in failing to mention it. I was a pretty terrible baseball player, when it counted, anyway. In my younger years, which seem a dream at this point, I could really hit, man. I raked in the third grade, ran the bases with abandon, owned the diamond. It’s laughable, thinking back on it, how embarrassingly important it all felt. I faded as the competition level rose, lapped really, eating the dust of better athletes. Reality is the ultimate consequence, a grand scheme resembling a pinball machine. Random the rule, our feelings inconsequential, we bounce blindly into walls before slamming into each other, until the game is mercifully over. In reality, this article is nothing more than an assorted collection of symbols and slashes, filling a gap. We assign the meaning, because life would be empty without it. No matter how much I knew baseball meant to me, I couldn’t manipulate what I meant to it. Competition refuses this flexibility. Baseball did not need from me what it already had inherently.
There were triumphs, occasional and fleeting. Travel teams were made, game-winning hits delivered, false hope fabricated from dust. But I was humbled, more often than not. There was a playoff game when I was 13, where a vicious line drive eluded my glove and resulted in a grand slam. After the inning, my coach apologized, not for the enraged look in his eyes, but for even playing me in left in the first place. That one stung a bit.
I adapted, though, for survival purposes, becoming the jovial bench player. Hell, my spot on the travel team, secure for three years, probably could be attributed to sheer force of personality. I was kind of useful; able to play all three out field positions with a slight degree of competence, drop down a bunt, hit plenty of cheap singles off the handle and into left field. I even, at rare times, played first base and hit leadoff, our friendly manager nodding toward my past, humoring me in meaningless games that didn’t count in the standings. I was a player the stat heads would loathe: A dirty uniform, nothing more.
Well, I could also draw an occasional walk.
And so it went, my dreams never really exploded into nothingness, life rarely works in such broad strokes. The slide was subtle. When I failed to make the freshman baseball team in High School, my heart broke. I was added to the roster after someone flunked off, but my time with the team was a most miserable experience. I never played, was depressed about other upheavals scattering my life, and discovered the true definition of lost. Playing the game helped me see myself. Not playing, among other things, made me completely lose that sight, wonder if it was ever real in the first place. I began to realize baseball didn’t define anyone as a person, and placing belief in something so fickle was tantamount to leaping off a cliff in the dessert, praying for a cactus to break the fall. Misplaced faith. This realization wasn’t enlightening, but maddening. The next summer, I lashed out at the travel team coach about playing time, the indignation finally breaking me. He was tired of my act. Actually, the whole coaching staff had grown weary of my increasingly poisonous attitude. I had stopped hustling.
I was gone, playing in a different uniform the next summer, on a joke team that rarely even fielded nine. One of my fondest memory from that dysfunctional outfit involved a game wherein our catcher attempted to decapitate a runner with a pickoff throw to first, his intent to injure so obvious that it prompted his ejection. We were forced to forfeit. Nobody else knew how to catch. We went home that afternoon, questioning whether our degenerate roster should ever be involved in another organized game of baseball. Through it all, I kept playing. I was no longer chasing an impossible dream, lamenting a lost cause, but simply searching in vain for the tiniest fragment of that youthful assurance, previously conjured in an effortless trance. I came close, one time. Playing first base, my home sweet home, a game three years ago, I noticed a scout ambling toward the field, right behind our dugout. He was hardly covert, stopwatch dangling from his neck, notebook in hand. The thought dawned on me:
So I made eye contact with the scout, kicking the infield dirt, bending my cap, chattering encouragement, adjusting position according to the trajectory of aimless foul balls, appearing professional while savoring the role. I fielded a ground ball that inning, touched the bag, took it myself, noticed the scout was gone. I smiled… distinctly remember being at peace with it all.
It was my last game. The diamonds would survive without me.
-Written by Matt Waters, read by you