A Child’s Game, A Man’s Game
Like winter, summer reaches a point of deadness. The heat is uncompromising, oppressive; cookouts are stale, the menu overgrazed: hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, slaw, potato salad. About this time, after the 4th of July, we begin to look forward to fall, the promise of cooler days when things somehow come alive again even as the world dies around us. But even then there is baseball just as in spring and summer, and even then the wind invites us: Come, play.
As a child it was reasonable for me to assume that baseball was actually responsible for the turning of seasons, that the earth graciously chose to spin and tilt with the precision needed to give man the maximum amount of playing time and the red clay a well-deserved provision of fallow healing. I would learn in time that my throwing arm agreed with this need for rest, and I would come to regard the earth as fair in its proportioned judgment: eight months for play, four months for rest. And though a few of us tried to cheat this mandate on the chance of a warm winter day, we submitted to nature’s two seasons, with few exceptions.
But at the age of five when a jack-ass peer carelessly told me that most the world did not play baseball, indeed that the nations preferred other sports, I took off my cap, and for perhaps the first time in my life, scratched my head in bewilderment. That baseball could only drive human recreation, not earth’s orbital abeyance, was revolutionary and set me to questioning at an early age. What causes the earth to move? And why do we play, if not to keep the worlds in motion?
It was my parents’ Christian orthodoxy that opened my mind to the first. I began to soak up the clues gathered in nightly prayer with my father, and on Sundays at church. Baseball was a game, I was told, but a person actually moves the heavens. This person is God, and you can know him through Jesus Christ.
Now it must be said that no matter a man’s station or age in life, such abstractions are difficult to fit into the particulars of one’s daily reality, a kindergartener notwithstanding. Because my parents told me this I had to respect it, but for the same reason I had to test it, and at the time I could think of no better logic than the language of baseball.
Even my most rudimentary analogies of the Trinitarian faith hold up well today, twenty years later. It followed for a five-year old boy growing up in the 1990’s that Ken Griffey Jr. was to baseball what Jesus Christ was to God: the word made flesh, the human form, and the exact imprint of his invisible nature. When I later learned to confess that there was a third person to this eternal relationship, it sufficed for me that Holy Ghost was something akin to the tidal paradox of batting averages: apart from the drilled mechanics, discipline, and muscle memory that a hitter develops over years of play, every ball player learns early on to fear The Slump. A whispered word among players, always spoken askance, The Slump moves steadily to and fro showing mercy to whom it chooses, as does the Spirit of God. And while scripture has debunked my theology of the Holy Spirit many times since the age of five, it stands true that both are immune to human manipulation.
Whether it was baseball or the Christian faith my syllogisms proved I didn’t think to ask as a boy. I only found that they affirmed each other and so assumed they would make a great axis in puzzling out the remaining mystery: why do we play?
One of my favorite authors wrote, “If boyhood questions aren’t answered by a certain point, they can’t be raised again.” I like to think that this question is not one of those. To me, it’s not a question boys can answer. While play is for boys, discovering its purpose is a man’s game.
I spent fifteen years playing baseball, searching for this purpose in the dirt, reading it, sliding headlong in it, and clapping it between my hands. But it gave no answer. It was just dirt after all. For years I made my way around the edges of diamonds from Richmond to Minneapolis, learning the curves and riding out the rhythms of the game, enacting its every demand with at least some measure of grace. Baseball was in me, and I in it, and not since has love in any form been so intuitive. At the time I didn’t think about why I liked baseball but just enjoyed the fact that I did.
I left baseball for seven years when I went to college after my final season of playing high school ball. I hung up my cleats and put it behind me, effectively estranging myself from the chief activity of my life. And while I still can name the entire lineup and pitching staff of the 1995 Atlanta Braves, I couldn’t tell you who has won a World Series in this century.
Why I left baseball altogether is still unclear to me. One reason, perhaps, is that my mind was opened as I began to discover books and tune in to the frequencies of language, things which had to that point been unwanted static cutting into the pleasure of play. But new things are exciting. And so, in the spirit of a young convert, I traded what I had for something new, thinking that was the right way to live my life and that from then on it would be smooth sailing on the boundless seas of imagination and inquiry. And it was in that spirit that I traded calloused hands for poetry, sprints for cigarettes and beer. But I had never considered that the mind was truly an open space, difficult to navigate, easy to drift upon and get lost in, a vacuous expanse, and greedy.
As much as man loves to believe he was created for boundlessness, he will always build a wall. He knows instinctively that he is more comfortable and happy admitting his limits. Boundaries grant him sanity. Perhaps this is why I came back to baseball, because it keeps me sane while still satisfying something else. In baseball I find a sufficient union of the infinite and the limited. When I look at a diamond stretched out under the sun’s light, with dirt and grass and lime lines and clear endings, I begin to perceive a shape eternity takes. But I also can see the direction my play is heading, fair or foul.
Now a coach in the dugout with clipboard and pencil and raw cheeks salted from eating too many sunflower seeds, I am part of the game once again, a teacher of it, and, with any luck, a little closer to understanding why we play.
But I feel unlucky.
Until now I have never had to explain it to anyone or bring words to the instincts that guided me. And though the game is still in me in memories, it’s difficult. Coach, what’s wrong with my swing? Coach, where do we play when it’s the bottom of the 7th, runners on second and third, one out, and the go ahead run at the plate? I’m blank, overwhelmed. I have no idea. My players stare. Sweat rolls into my eyes. I sense respect slipping away. I rock back and forth on my toes, my overturned bucket swaying under me, its edges bending and stamping Venn diagrams in the dry red dust. I remember a game years ago: seventeen years old, all body, pure reaction. I remember how this feels. And then I find the words: Infield in on the grass, get the man at home; if you can’t, make sure of an out at first. Outfield, play deep. Watch the gaps. Nothing gets behind you.
They listen. They play.
I watch. I remember what it was to play. But this I cannot find the words for it. Playing never prepared me for not playing.
Everyday I see the game I used to know, and it’s not that I don’t know it anymore but it’s a different kind of knowing. “We’re all told at some point we can no longer play the children’s game. We just don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but we’re all told.” I was told at 17. But the truth of what I was told didn’t touch me until years later. It didn’t hurt until now.
I am straddling worlds.