THE SPORTING LIFE.

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WHEN HEART- AND LIFE-ACHE STRIKES, AN OLD FRIEND ASKS ME TO COME BACK OUTSIDE AND PLAY
[posted 06.07.2002]
by andy cline

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Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.
— Wes Westrum

KATHERINE TAYLOR McDONALD. For two reasons, that name will never escape me. She was the girl who broke my heart, and she was the girl who indirectly led me to an institution that would mend it again.

In the spring of 1999, I wasn’t the happiest camper in the world. Just one year earlier, I was living in a big house with four of my good friends. I worked as a manager at an independent record store. Between the record store and raging parties at the house, life was pretty fun. One year later I was living in a poorly lit apartment and working an entry-level job at a large corporation. My typical weeknight was spent inside the apartment with my roommate, Bones. After work we’d head to Prestige Liquors to pick up our usual supply of Strohs. Then we’d head home and drink it all down to the low drone of Springsteen’s Ghost of Tom Joad crackling on the turntable. I wasn’t passionate about anything anymore. Then, along came Kate.

I first saw her the previous summer. She would stop by Record Swap once or twice each week to buy a Snapple. (I later found out she didn’t even like Snapple.) The days she came in were always better than the days she didn’t. I eventually realized she worked across the street, so I would make my way over there whenever I could. I never had much of a problem talking to girls, but I just couldn’t get up the nerve to talk to this girl. After enough “random” visits, we would make feeble attempts to start up a conversation, but it always ended quickly with: “Forty-two cents is your change. Thank you.”

This went on through the fall and into the winter, until one cold January night when I closed and locked up the store for the last time. The new Barnes & Noble that had been erected kitty corner from us swiftly put our humble shop out of business. I assumed that I would probably never see her again. After six weeks of delivering mattresses to people’s homes, I landed a decent-paying job in Downers Grove and moved out of the house. Months later I was talking with my friend Joe. Joe had worked for me at the store and we had become pretty good friends, due to a mutual guilty pleasure known as Cheap Trick. Joe was going to stop by for a few cold ones with his friend Kate. He told me Kate knew who I was and that she was excited to see me. I was curious to find out who this Kate was. As it turns out, it was her. Kate was the girl who I thought I’d never see again, and now she was in my living room.

I don’t think I paid any attention to Joe the entire night. Kate and I talked and never took our eyes off each other. I was in love. She was young, smart, beautiful and shared my love for Fletch. She was the perfect girl. She had a boyfriend, which to most people would be the first warning sign that this might not work out, but I was blinded. (I should mention I’m kind of stupid to begin with.) Before she left, we made plans to rent Fletch and watch it together. She came over a couple of days later and she had a brand new copy of Fletch, which she bought for me. She told me that I shouldn’t live without my own copy. (Was this girl great or what?) That night, while Fletch tried to figure out what Alan Stanwyk was up to, I kissed Kate for the first time.

The next day when I came home, I was feeling really good. I’d felt good all day. I was thinking of what Kate and I would do on our next date. I figured I should probably think of something besides watching Fletch Lives in my apartment. It was a little after 7 p.m., Bones wasn’t home, and I didn’t want to get into my normal drinking routine. I sat down and started surfing channels on the idiot box. Nothing was catching my eye — I don’t watch much television. Then, I came across something that would soon change my life: a baseball game. I really liked baseball when I was a kid, but it had been years since I watched my last game. I remembered going to old Comiskey Park a bunch of times when I was a kid. I followed the Chicago White Sox into my teen years. But by the time I graduated high school, I had drifted away from baseball. Dreams of rock stardom and hipster tendencies came between us. But as I sat in front of the television that night, I found myself getting really wrapped up in the game. Baseball will do that to you. And I now knew where I was taking Kate on our next date. Besides — even if she didn’t like baseball — anyone can have fun at the ballpark. Right?

Kate and I went to Comiskey Park the very next night. During the first two months of baseball season, the weather in Chicago always feels more suited for football. It was so cold that night I could barely feel my toes, but we had a good time anyway. We cuddled in our cold blue seats and watched grown men play a kids game. It was glorious. I became hooked. It’s a good thing that things worked out with baseball and me, because things with Kate didn’t. I’m sure some people would prefer to hear about how Kate broke my heart, but I’d rather talk about baseball.

I find a lot of comfort in baseball. It’s one of the few constants in American culture. Sure, the business of baseball has mutated throughout the last century, but the game itself is the same as it was when my father was a young boy, and when his father was a young boy. While most of the population seems preoccupied with whatever the next big thing will be in culture or politics or celebrity each week, the ballpark is one of the last places where the heart and soul of America can be felt anymore.

I get a warm feeling every time I see a baseball diamond. I’m passionate about the game, but I try not to romanticize it too much. Some folks do. I live around Chicago, where some fans think that the sunshine on an outfield wall covered with ivy is somehow more important than your hometown team winning the game. To me, baseball isn’t about silly traditions and superstition. It’s about how many games out of first my team is. I don’t believe the ghost of Babe Ruth has cursed the Boston Red Sox, or that a World Series championship has eluded my White Sox because of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. As much as some people love to believe these fairy tales, that’s just not the way this game works.

Quite simply, it’s the stucture of the game that won me over. It’s a beautiful game — other sports cannot compare. And the casual observer misses this. The unattuned eye notices the strikeout by an overpowering pitcher, the home run, or the close play at home plate. But the studied eye sees the full beauty of this game beneath the surface play-by-play. Detractors always complain: Baseball is slow. Baseball is boring. There’s too much downtime between the action, and there’s simply not enough action. What these folks fail to notice is that there really isn’t any downtime in baseball.

Between each batter, each pitch, there are things going on that you won’t notice if you aren’t paying close attention. Before each pitch, there is a complicated combination of possibilities each player must consider. Imagine for a moment you’re the shortstop on the visiting team. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning, the bases are loaded with one out, and your team is ahead by one run. The runner at first was just put there by an intentional walk. Why? Because if the two runners ahead of him score, the game will be over anyway — allowing that batter to take first can’t hurt you. In fact, it helps you because it sets up the chance for an inning-ending double play. Now home team manager calls back the left-handed batter on deck and replaces him with a right-handed pinch hitter. The lefty who was supposed to bat only hits .157 against left-handed pitchers. With your southpaw on the mound, it’s in the home team’s best interest to go with a right-handed hitter.

Before the pitcher deals, you focus on the situation and get prepared. If he hits the ball to the right side of the infield, you have to cover second base, receive the throw for the force out, then throw back to first for the third and final out. Of course, if the ball is hit toward you, the second baseman covers the bag as you field the ball. After you field the ball, throw to second for the force out. However, the ball could also be hit straight back to the pitcher, in which case he throws home for the force out at the plate. The catcher would then likely throw to first to complete the double play. Nevertheless, you will be behind second base backing up a possible throw, just as the left fielder will be backing up third base. There’s always the possibility the batter drives the ball through the gap on the left side for a base hit. The runner from third will score and tie the game. The left fielder will throw the ball back in to stop the runner who was on second from scoring the go-ahead run. In this case, the pitcher will back up home plate and you will act as the cutoff man. These are just a few of the possibilities that run through your head before the first pitch.

Now, that catcher signals for a fastball down the middle. The scouting report on this pinch hitter says he never swings at the first pitch, so it’s pretty safe to throw him the heater and get ahead in the count 0-1. The pitcher deals, strike one. The runners walk back to the bags and everybody gets reset. The catcher goes through the signs again as the whole process is repeated. The pitcher gets in the set position and the runners take their leads. The 0-1 pitch, a sinker, is chopped to the left side of the mound, whizzing right past the pitcher. What’s next? Hey, you’re the shortstop, not me.

I like to refer to baseball more as a game than as a sport. Unlike numerous other sports, you can’t be dumb and play baseball. Players have to rely on brains just as much as their physical abilities. This doesn’t just go for the players on the field, but also for the fans in the stands and next to the radio. The spaces of time between each sequence of the game allow us to reflect on what just happened and to anticipate what should happen next. Baseball requires your attention, which is what makes it the ultimate diversion. I believe we need diversions. Isn’t that what sports, and all forms of entertainment, are all about — to take our minds off of life’s more grueling issues for at least a little while? I wasn’t doing too well when I first started watching baseball. That mid-20s “what am I doing with my life and what does it all mean?” depression was really kicking in.

Baseball healed me in a lot of ways. It’s something that you immerse yourself into. No other sport builds each day throughout the season the way baseball does. Football, for example, isn’t a very good diversion because it isn’t there for you every day. A football fan has to wait all week for that big game on Sunday. And if her/his team drops their first five or six games, they are basically dead in the water. The baseball season is six months long and is played almost every day, which can make for a dramatic season full of hills and valleys. Every team plays 162 games. More than likely, you’ll win 60 and lose 60. It’s what you do with the other 42 that makes the difference. The only thing that a baseball fan really has to worry about, besides where his team is in the standings, is what they are going to do with the other six months.

Most importantly, baseball gave me something to be passionate about. It filled an empty void. In Ken Burns’ PBS documentary Baseball, author Gerald Early said when civilization is studied 2000 years from now, America will be remembered for three things: the Constitution, jazz music and baseball. Early said these three things were the most beautifully constructed things that this culture ever produced. I tend to agree. And Kate? Kate only broke my heart once. I’m not sure where she is today or what she’s doing, but I am grateful for the short time I spent with her. If we hadn’t gone on that date to Comiskey Park, I might still have that empty void inside me. Baseball has broken my heart a thousand times, but we are still together, and I couldn’t be happier.

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andy cline lives and works in the west suburbs of chicago.