It started with my dad and a television on Tholozan.
Baseball was on and I wanted to know what, why, and how. My dad, Rich, explained the integral parts of the game to me: 27 outs, nine players on the field, a pitcher and batter-and the duration of the game.
"You mean it can keep going and going," I asked. My dad nodded, and I was hooked. How can you not love a game where a clock doesn't play a part in its finale. The players decide the fate every time. January may mean the dead of winter to many St. Louis folks, but for me, it's the first hint of baseball's return. It's like a wonderful TV spot for a big budget spring movie release.
The Winter Warm-up brings players and media together, and February features the first crack of the bat. The red practice jerseys, the lumber, the unharmed baseballs, and the smiles. The signature blend of spring training are the smiles on the faces of players, coaches, and the manager. Everyone is happy, because the records are even and the World Series isn't a pipe dream just yet. As Lloyd Christmas would say, "so you're saying there's a chance."
Please don't take this as a shot at hockey. I love the Blues and they have their way with my heart and mind for 4-6 months every season. A goal ringing off a post or an overtime victory will stir my body around like a well-made pull of espresso. I get fired up over Blues wins and scream awful things into the South City air after a defeat. It's just different than baseball.
The Cardinals control my mood, blood pressure, and general well-being 365 days a year. If they lose, I feel it for an entire day and only find comfort in the bottom of a whiskey bottle. If they win, I love my neighbors and their loud dog. When they win, my wife knows that she can watch HGTV or The Food Network and I won't mind. If they lose, she knows the post-game and replay will be watched or at least recorded. When we got married, my wife knew she was marrying the Cardinals too in a way. It's not sappy; it's practical.
I remember watching the Cardinals in 1989 and becoming a huge fan of Pedro Guerrero. A former Los Angeles Dodger and the master tosser of a baseball glove after a playoff defeat, the man played first base and drove in a cool 117 runners that year. He smiled brightly, produced under the radar, and it felt like a push to root for him, because he wasn't a star.
After Pete retired, it was Ray Lankford, another guy who did so well under wraps that it took Cardinals Hall of Fame voters three tries to put him on the ballot. Lankford swung like Griffey Jr. and put a dent in the late Darren Daulton's mind with a homeplate collision that even Michael Bay mistakes for an explosion. When Lankford departed, it was Jason Isringhausen, the last closer for the Cardinals who did his job for more than three seasons, yet made saves high risk, so people forget about the consistency.
Once Izzy's hip broke down, it was Chris Carpenter, the meanest guy on a pitching mound. If there was a sequel to Bob Gibson, it was Carp. He treated every fifth day like a general with only one battle to win the war. He screamed at opposing players, chewed out his own teammates, and pitched with hot oil coursing through his veins. I miss watching him pitch.
I love everything about baseball. The little things that make the biggest factors seem miniscule. The way a pitcher steps off the mound to run some dirt into his hands and straighten his cap. The glare from a catcher up at the hitter, trying to catch him stealing signs. The way an outfielder moves right after a flyball is hit into the outfield. The pace of play that doesn't need a remake in 2018.
Baseball moves at its own pace, unfolding like a three episode arc of a television series instead of a 90 minute action film. A team has to get 27 outs or they don't win a thing. A pitcher can be horrible for a couple innings and then turn it all around. Lankford struck out four times in a game once, and then collected the game winning hit in extra innings. The closer can blow the save and preserve the tie until a lead run is scored. There are so many tiny comebacks in one baseball game.
I love the way a baseball game can shut down all the other noise in my life, allowing me to focus on this wonderful game and all its intricate details. I am one of those people who leans up in their seat at a live game, as if I need to smell the grass and pine tar for the reality of competition to completely formulate in my mind. I need this game in my life. Writing the story in my head as the final three innings play out, like a chess player planning his first few moves.
Without baseball, I'm Ryan Gosling for the better part of The Notebook.
Without baseball, I'm John Cusack without a stereo in Say Anything.
Without baseball, I'm Don Draper without bourbon in his office.
Without baseball, I'm Chuck Norris without his kicks.
The game drives me nuts many nights. When I can see a move playing out badly, and the manager continues his ineptitude. When I turn on a game and it's 4-0 already, only to have the team storm back to make it 7-6 later, and a called strike three ending the game. You can't love something without allowing it to hurt you first.
It's late February and baseball is back in my life, so I'm happy. Spring training games are meaningless in the standings and can provide bittersweet glimpses, but carry relevance in the easy going joys of the game. The chance to grab a sneak preview of coming attractions, aka talents like Jordan Hicks or Austin Gomber, a pair of kids making baseball do naughty things. The cracks of the bat, popping of the mitt, and long fly balls to the warning track. It's like your favorite song playing continuously until Halloween, when you put on the mask that makes others think you are okay without the game.
With no offense to hockey or boxing, baseball is my favorite sport and something I need in my life. As the great James Earl Jones once said, it reminds me that every nasty thing in the world can be good again sometime in the future. I think a mad mind can be cured with a baseball game, because it requires love and patience each time you watch it.
It reminds you that anything is possible, even something as far-fetched as an Adam Wainwright comeback or as miraculous as a potent Yadier Molina staring down father time. A pair of 36 year olds trying to make the invincible seem human. That's baseball.
I remember explaining the game to my late grandmother, Henrietta, who I often referred to as "Meme". We were sitting in the field box at the old Busch Stadium, and a home run was hit by Jim Edmonds. The crowd suddenly flew off their seats and started to roar. Meme knew little about the game, which explained why she was the only person still sitting in the crowd as Edmonds rounded third base.
"What happened, Daniel?"
"Baseball happened, grandma."
Without any further confusion, Meme smiled and asked more questions. I gladly answered every one of them.
The last thing Meme told me before she died came on a voicemail. It was December of 2011, and Albert Pujols just signed with the Los Angeles Angels, collectively breaking the hearts of Cardinal nation.
"It's okay, Daniel. The Cardinals will be fine without Pu-jo-les (it's how she said it). You will be fine, too."
It was a game she hardly knew years before, but something that brought us even closer together before she died. I taught my wiser than wine grandmother about a game she knew nothing about. Baseball connects any age groups together seamlessly.
That's baseball. Something you can't quit once it gets its arms around you. An addiction that doesn't hurt you, yet feeds off your rebellious desire to know what happens next.
Cardinals baseball is back, ladies and gentlemen, and I couldn't be happier to have my heart warmed, broken, re-attached, and broken again. How many things can you watch knowing your heart will be broken, yet stand unable to take your eyes off of it?
Play ball, please.