I love baseball. I have loved baseball ever since I was a little kid... and I still do.
I love everything about it -- the symmetry of the diamond, the formality of the uniforms, the complexity of the strategy, the significance of every millimeter, broiling July afternoon games, cool September night games, second-guessing every hit and run play and pitching change, the scent of the grass and the crack of the bats.
Baseball may just be the last unhurried spectacle on this planet. I am going to miss it.
Many complain that the game is just too slow. The pace is interminable, the action is...well…not very, and the intervals between the good stuff far outlive the good stuff. I don’t agree. In fact, to me the allure is precisely that. Everything in life is like a lightning bolt on steroids. But baseball has no clock. It may just be the last unhurried spectacle on this planet. Yes. I sure do love baseball.
I am going to miss it.
Very few of you remember, or have heard of, Carl Furillo. He is actually the answer to a personal trivia question of mine. “What is your very first baseball memory?” Better than average, but not a player of Hall of Fame caliber, Furillo mostly roamed the confining patch of grass, otherwise known as Right Field in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field -- home of the Dodgers -- in the 1950’s. I can still see him scooping up a scorching one-hopper and rifling the ball to first base before the startled batter arrived there. Stan Musial he wasn’t, but no outfielder ever threw the cowhide with more accuracy and velocity than Carl. (He ended up owning a butcher store in Queens.)
When the Dodgers fled to the greener pastures of the West Coast, I was forced to pledge my allegiance to the Yankees -- they being the "only game in town.” But when the Mets were born in 1962, this nine-year-old was love-struck. Who cares if they lost a lusty 120 games -- more than any team since 1899 -- that first season? The Mets were mine and nothing could tear us apart.
Languishing in last place in the National League each year, they became, as later described in Wikipedia, a byword for ineptitude. They were truly laughable and lovable and I was hooked. Since we expected them to always lose, each rare victory became an opportunity for a full blown celebration. And when, out of nowhere, Tom Seaver led them to victory in the World Series in 1969, me, my friends, all of New York, and losers from every walk of life became…winners. We were intoxicated and signed lifetime contracts to be fanatical fans forever.
But forever is a big word, you know.
The years went by and the Mets, like all sports teams, ebbed and flowed. Lots of frustration (we now expected them to win) with occasional moments of joy and elation sprinkled in. So it goes for followers of professional sports teams. The magic of the game, however, never waned or fluctuated.
I became a better than average ballplayer myself (did someone say Carl Furillo?), playing on several teams in summer camp, city spring leagues, and summer bungalow competition. For many years it was hard to keep me away from a softball game. Waking at 6 A.M., traveling for hours, or 35 degree April Sunday mornings were never obstacles to nine innings of beauty and perfection. Like most kids, I loved playing and I loved watching.
But this kid was also growing up. Baseball was truly a great escape -- harmless, fun, and mesmerizing -- but I began to consider that perhaps, just maybe, there was more to life than Jerry Koosman, Lee Mazzilli, and Rico Brogna.
Along the way, God blessed me in abundance -- an exceptional wife, eight unbelievable children, a growing psychotherapy practice, a love of Torah learning, exceptional friends and family, several books to write, speeches to give, films to produce and direct, and many, many bills to pay. This impressive array of activity meant that baseball would, upon occasion, not be able to totally dominate my life.
But, all too often, dominate, it did. Staying up too late, listening to the West Coast games became a near-necessity. My time in the car -- a potentially valuable commodity -- was wasted with incessant SportsTalk prattle. Meaningful conversations, especially with my sons and with friends, were overshadowed by statistical debates and mindless trivia. I convinced myself that I was bonding with them, and perhaps I was, but I knew deep down that more substantive bonding agents would work too.
Like it is with any addiction, there is no middle ground. I needed to go cold turkey.
And so, about ten years ago, I walked away from my favorite pastime. I continued my active, on-the-field competition, but I stopped watching, listening, reading, following, discussing, analyzing, and, above all, caring about my heroes of swat. Because like it is with any addiction, there is no middle ground. I could not become an occasional fan with a passing interest. It just wouldn’t work. I needed to go cold turkey. And so I did.
There was just one problem -- that didn’t work either.
I guess I just missed it too much, or needed it more than I thought. Maybe I just wasn’t ready, I don’t know. But before too long I was swept back in -- counting the days to Spring Training, questioning the choice of the split-finger fastball over the slow curve, and dissecting the stats of next week’s opponents. I can’t deny it -- it was fun. It made me feel young.
Of course I knew that the emotional investment I was making in every victory or defeat wasn’t real. If I stopped to pinch myself I would, naturally, realize that some total stranger named Gary or Jose or Carlos hitting a ball, 2 7/8 inches in diameter, over a fence 345 feet away was not of any cosmic or personal significance. But there is something enjoyable about pretending to care about something that, in truth, is pointless. It is the essence of every great motion picture and every novel. It helps us to safely touch feelings that long to be experienced without the fear of exposing them to authentic suffering.
But two years ago I tried again.
It was the final day of the 2008 campaign. After 161 gut-wrenching games, my beloveds needed a win over Florida to tie Milwaukee for the last playoff berth. And after 2007’s historic collapse, most Mets’ fans held their hearts in their throats and prayed for providential intervention. I may have skipped the Heavenly beseeching, but the pulse was definitely up a notch or three.
I won’t belabor the point. With two outs and a runner on in the ninth inning, the Mets were down 4-2. The season hung in the balance. Ryan Church was the batter. I liked Church. He was steady. He was talented. I watched him stride to the plate with confidence. The capacity crowd of 50,000 plus stood as one and held their collective breath. Before me sat my lonely bowl of cashews… unaffected. I was way too nervous for food. Church cocked his lumber with determination and intensity. The pitch was delivered. The contact was true and mighty. The ball flew far and deep into center field…right into the glove of the enemy.
It was over -- the game, the season, the hopes, and my passion.
I remember sitting stunned for a few minutes. I am ashamed to admit I felt pangs of sadness. More than that, I felt sad that I felt sad. But I seized the moment. I would never let Ryan… or Gary or Jose or Carlos… hurt me again. I lifted a handful of cashews into my palm and said a blessing. Then I rose from my seat and I said goodbye. Forever.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Forever is a big word. That is true. But I have not watched, listened, read, followed, discussed, analyzed, and, above all, cared about my heroes of swat for a single moment since that fateful day. And if that sentence also sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
But this time it feels different. Sometimes you just know.
Please don’t misunderstand. Baseball is great – the symmetry, the scent, the timelessness etc. And if the time comes when I am healthy enough to enjoy that occasional lazy August afternoon jaunt or that passing glance at the box score without caring at all, I might just taste a morsel or two.
But until then, I have some wonderful memories.
Was I addicted to baseball? It’s hard to say. And even if I was, it sure is a lot healthier than the addictions we most commonly relate to. But if we define addiction as allowing something to control you instead of the other way around, the term may actually fit. And even if I wasn’t addicted, I just felt that my time could better be invested elsewhere.
So thanks Carl… and Tom, Darryl, Doc, Mike, Keith, Cleon, Jesse, Tug, and Mookie. It’s been great. But I have to move on. I hope you understand.
Life is waiting and I just need the space.