I am fond of irrationally loving things. I get a little too giddy about game 121 of a long baseball season. You would have no idea it was a game that hardly mattered by the way I am yelling obscenities at a single missed strike call by an umpire who is deciding within fractions of an inch whether the little white ball flying in at 90 MPH went over the plate or not. I cannot rationally defend why I love baseball or college football or Texas or Dr. Pepper, but I will fight with every breath in me to love them all the same. There is something in me which desperately needs the rousing breath of unreasoned, childlike passions.
I was at a baseball game a few years ago with my dad. We were sitting in the third deck in the midst of one those late summer Texas evenings where cirrus clouds hang high like streaks of vanilla in an otherwise sherbet colored sky. You can put on Explosions in the Sky and get a feeling of how I feel about these kinds of evenings. Next to us was a father with his 5 year old son. The son was falling in love with the game; the father was there to watch. The son knew the players, he knew the rules, and he knew that the only way to watch the game was standing up on the tip of his toes leaning against the rail ready for the suddenness of something grand in the midst of the mundane rituals of a summertime game.
Irrational passions like baseball fandom demand our hearts be ready to be broken and spoken to in a way completely counter to most realities in our lives. Life tends towards the typical, but our hearts restlessly ask to be reconciled to and even wrecked upon something more. One of my favorite quotes about baseball from one of its great living chroniclers, Joe Posnanski, reminds me of this: “I never argue with people who say that baseball is boring, because baseball is boring. And then, suddenly, it isn’t. And that’s what makes it great.”
The boy waited on his tiptoes. He was calling out the players’ names as they ran out onto the field. His favorite player was every boy’s favorite. His activities were the accents of love as love. He could not explain why the game grabbed him, but it did. At some point I loved the game the same way. We have videos of me with a bat bigger than me swinging and hitting whiffle balls at the age of three. I’ll never forget the triple play I made in tee ball, or the perfect game I went to at the Ballpark in Arlington when I was in first grade. Those were moments of magic. When I was a teenager, the magic died. I felt nothing when I watched the game.
In the recent movie Boyhood the most poignant scene of the movie for me comes when an adolescent boy asks his vagabond father:
“Dad, there’s no real magic in the world, right?”
Right. We all answer the question the same way at some point. There is a death for all our irrational loves. A death held in their inability to sustain against the pervasive banality of our lives.
When I came home for the summer in 2008 after a very bad year in college, I decided to start going back to a few Texas Rangers games. There was some hope that year for the team I grew up loving more than any other team. The Rangers had just traded for this guy named Josh Hamilton. He was a drug addict who had just made it back to baseball the year before after a 5 year hiatus, and he was looking for a second chance at the game. The probability of Hamilton picking up a bat after five years and hitting a baseball well was very low, much less so because he had spent those five years blowing almost 2 million dollars on drugs. But something truly magical happened that year. Within the first month, it became evident that Hamilton was a player with transcendent talent. I went to one game after another and by the All-Star break I had attended over 20 games, more than I had gone to in the previous five years combined.
The crescendo of the year came when Hamilton hit in the Home Run Derby at the Mecca of baseball, old Yankee Stadium. His first trip to the plate in the derby was the most extraordinary display of baseball prowess I have ever witnessed. He hit 28 home runs, and at one point, he hit 14 in a row without recording an out. Each home run seemed to go farther than the last until he was hitting 500 ft home runs like they were routine. His performance was so remarkable that the usually surly New York faithful rained down a chant which I still get chills recalling in my head: “Hamilton! Hamilton! Hamilton! Hamilton.” There was magic in the air that night in New York, and baseball had romanced my heart once again.
The truth is there was always magic in the game, magic in the rituals of the game, in the batters’ gimmicks, pitchers’ grimaces, summer evening skies, and well broken leather. I don’t always catch it, but after losing and re-finding my love for baseball, I find a fullness in even the smallest of details. It’s something like finding life in the breaking of bread and forgiveness in the bitterness of wine.
When the fifth inning of the game came, the boy’s focus suddenly shifted towards his father. And with the absolute confidence of a child he said: “Fifth inning is ice cream inning!”
Dutifully, the father took his son down the aisle and out to the concessions while I sat there grinning like I had not grinned in a long time.