It was 30-degrees outside Tuesday morning, not a green blade of grass in sight as I stepped outside to survey the day.
News flash: It’s winter. There’s snow everywhere. So can someone explain why all I can think about is baseball?
With pitchers and catchers having reported to major league spring training in sunny spots like Florida and Arizona, all I can think about is sitting in the stands, a cold drink in one hand and a scorecard in the other. Over my shoulder some silly mascot is slapping hands with a group of little kids and posing for pictures. Silently, I hope the mascot doesn’t notice me and meander over. He does. Never fails.
An oasis of hopes and dreams play out on the baseball diamond that the overly excited mascot is now blocking from my view. I smile, slap hands with the creature and go about my business. This is the life, I say. There aren’t many things in this world better than being at the ballpark.
Here I go daydreaming again. It’s all I’ve done for months. I’ve spent time reflecting on everything from evaluations, projections, the good, bad and the ugly of everything I saw in 2012. All of this makes me wonder: What is it that makes us all fans of this great game? Why does it consume the hardcore fan in such a hostile way?
Trust me, I know I’m not alone. This boat I’m in is full of baseball nerds just like me. Every day I encounter 10 or 15 “hurry baseball” tweets on my Twitter timeline. I understand their angst, because I feel it too.
But what is it that makes me feel the way I do about this sport? Where did my bond for this game begin?
Perhaps it’s because baseball has thrown every life lesson at me. It’s taken me to the highest of highs and lowest of lows. It’s made me look foolish and smart. It’s hurt me in some ways, yet helped me heal in others.
Baseball is an amazing game.
For me, my love started on the tee-ball fields in Neosho. Against the wishes of our coaches we’d hit the ball and run like our hair was on fire until someone tagged us out. It’s where I figured if I wanted to slug home runs like one of my buddies I needed to adopt his high leg kick. It never worked.
When the home run thing failed I turned to pitching, and it wasn’t long before I realized I was pretty good at it. Pretty soon mom and dad started framing baseballs from some of my better performances. They were just as into it as I was.
Page 2 of 3 - One ball I never got back, however, came from my first varsity outing. Standing on a field in Oklahoma, the second batter I ever faced was a tall, lanky kid from Midwest City. The Bombers, they were called, and for good reason. The first guy I faced crushed a homer. “Keep the ball down,” my coach, Mike Godfrey, yelled. “Shoot the knees,” he added as the lanky lad stepped to the plate.
So I “shot the knees” and it worked … for a minute. The count goes to 3-2, the kid fouls off a few pitches and then, yep.
I’m sure that ball is still in orbit somewhere. “Dang,” I recall saying to myself as he jogged around the bases, “I’ve got to remember this guy’s name.”
Turns out that lanky Oklahoma kid filled out a bit and kept hitting.
Matt Kemp. I never forgot his name.
Of course, there are tons of other memories that have helped shape my love for this game. There’s my first ever big league game as a nine-year old when my family sat at the very top of Kauffman Stadium and went nuts every time a ball was hit into the air. “IT’S GONE,” we’d shout, as the third baseman would settle under it for an easy catch. That embarrassment is why we hesitated to cheer later that night — Sept. 5, 1995 — when Bob Hamelin hooked a walk-off homer around the right field foul pole in the 10th inning.
A few years later my parents took me to see my childhood idol, Ken Griffey Jr., play in Kansas City. The only thing I remember from that game was Royals right fielder Jermaine Dye robbing him of a home run. It nearly crushed me. I wanted the Royals to win, of course, but I needed to see Griffey homer in my lifetime. It didn’t happen.
Then a few years ago I was invited by a Mariners coach to take part in Seattle’s pregame indoor batting practice in the belly of Kauffman Stadium. There I stood, a journalist tucked against a wall a few feet from Ichiro Suzuki as he took swings. Felix Hernandez was there, and so was Griffey, my idol — albeit briefly.
As I stood there looking at the aging vet, all I could think of was my parents spending their hard-earned money to drive me three hours to see this man, one of the greatest center fielders of all time, play. Now there I was, standing beside the man whose batting stance, swing and backwards ball cap look I spent my entire childhood trying to emulate.
Page 3 of 3 - I never said a word to him. I could only think of my parents.
You see this is much more than a game to some of us. Just like our moms and dads used to pitch us soft toss as kids, this game lobs buckets full of life lessons our way. We can let those lobs pass by or we can swing away. Either way, whether we like it or not, we learn from each pitch.
Throwing too many sliders ravaged my arm and spoiled the dreams I had of playing college ball. While sitting here writing this story my left hand and fingers have already fallen asleep three times. The pain in my shoulder often keeps me awake at night.
That’s a normal day for me, but when I look back on all of the great memories and friendships I’ve forged over the years, it’s been worth it. Without a doubt I’d do it all again.
Baseball has afforded me more than I could ever repay the game. Whether on a finely groomed diamond, or in a pasture where we used rocks and cow pies as bases, I’ve earned a lifetime of friends and memories through this game. It’s taught me so much about life, what’s important, and more importantly, what’s not.
It’s amazing what sports can do and the bonds they create.
I read a column last year where the author called out any fan claiming a sports team and wearing team merchandise as a fool. I found the article sad and disgusting, but that’s beside the point. The author proclaimed that anyone who did such a thing was an “idiot.”
Well, I just went online and ordered a new Royals jersey for anyone who would like to know. Like Johnny Damon — the guy who led off for the Royals on that September night in 1995 — so famously said as a member of the Boston Red Sox, “I’m an idiot.”
So when this idiot goes home tonight, you can bet I’ll be staring out the window, waiting for spring’s arrival. I’ll be daydreaming of stolen bases, backwards K’s and the seventh inning stretch.
And soon, I’ll see you in the stands.
Levi Payton is the sports editor for the Neosho Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @LeviPaytonNDN