25 May 2010

one more time

And so it ends again.

Trailing by 3 with two men on, a 9-year old strikes out, an umpire says "BALLGAME!", and we clear the dugout, trudge to meet beneath the big oak tree near the third base field gate, and I again tell the kids "I'm proud of you, you played hard, it was a tough game..."

Blah blah blah.

I'm not minimizing the message or even the delivery, but after a point -- after so many seasons and so many end of the year final post-game speeches -- it all starts to seem... anticlimactic.

We gathered into a circle to call out the team name, as per tradition, and as we all had our hands in the circle, I found myself just pausing. Hesitating. Refusing to pull the trigger on that last gesture which would, officially, end our season.

Some of the guys looked up me, noticing in their own minds the odd delay, the hiccup in the normal sequence and timing of the ceremony. All I could do was force out a half smile.

"OK, guys -- this is the last time we will ever be us. This is the last moment that this team will ever exist. Any of you guys who decide to come back and play again next season, I will do what I can to get you back on my team, but there are no guarantees, and the chances of this same group of twelve ever suiting up as teammates again is basically zero. So if you have any desire to tell the world what team you are on this season, here it is: your one last and final chance. Tell those bums who they just beat."

One, two three... a shout, and we're dissolved.


I make a point to go to each player and shake their hands, say "I love you, man" and "thank you for playing for me," and thank the parents for all their time and effort. I pour the equipment bag out onto the grass and do one more final inventory to make sure I have all the proper gear stowed and ready to turn in. I fart around and pick up a few stray pieces of trash -- gum wrappers, a drink cup, an empty bottle of Gatorade -- but then chuckle at myself as I recognize what I am doing: stalling. Delaying that inevitable next step, where I carry the equipment bag back to the storage barn, open the door, and add my team's bag to the pile of other team bags already growing in the corner, bags from teams like mine who have now completed their season and played every game on the schedule and every game allowed by the playoff structure and who have now come to... the end.

I toss the bag onto the pile and look around the room. Dusty old catcher's masks which only a few short months ago were shiny and new and still sporting their tags from the warehouse. Some leftover uniforms from Opening Day which were extras and never issued. A few sponsor and manager "thank you" plaques waiting to be handed out. Racks of trophies which will be distributed to some of the teams whose bags are not yet in this pile, whose seasons have not yet crashed to earth, who still cling to that delicious thing known as Hope.

I sigh, turn and walk out, making sure the door is well secured behind me, and I hear a burst of insane screaming of the sort that I laugh to recognize as unique to parents of 5-year old tee-ballers. I look to the tee-ball field to my right and see what look like large toddlers in oversized uniforms -- the Cubs and the Cardinals, blue versus red -- as a ball rolls somewhere towards a centerfielder who is watching an adjacent field, as a runner waddles as fast as he can manage toward second base. Surely one of the best hit balls of the entire season in that age group, as it actually left the infield. Dugouts are screeching. Parents are going wild. Kids are running around in what seems the earliest onset of panic. Coaches are bellowing "GO! GO GO!" or "THROW THE BALL! THROW THE BALL!"

I laugh and clap for the play, then turn and head back to my wagon full of gear: extra bats and buckets of practice balls and wiffle balls and scorebooks and folder of schedules and waivers and rosters. I pat my son on the head and say "let's get going -- it's a school night" and we walk past the next 9-year old game, already in progress after ours.

Past the 8-year olds where this is the season where they learn just how much anguish a scoreboard can deliver.

Past the Majors field where the 11s and 12s are suddenly starting to look and play like the young men we will see on high school fields, college fields, pro fields. In each case, on every field, one set of fans is always screaming, the other always pleading with uncaring gods to somehow deliver some impossible redemption.

We head to the van, and I notice how we've left the silver-white glare of the vapor lamps and are now heading deeper into the gloom of the parking lot, and how our shadows grow darker and longer out in front of us as the field lights fall farther and farther behind us with each step, and I laugh to myself for noting the drama of "leaving baseball." And I again remember my favorite baseball message:

That is why it breaks my heart, that game--not because [they] they could win because [we] lost; in that, there is a rough justice, and a reminder to [the other team] of how slight and fragile are the circumstances that exalt one group of human beings over another. It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.

-- A. Bartlett Giamatti, "The Green Fields of the Mind"

By that measure, I guess this season was a success, as I find myself heading home, broken hearted yet longing to do it all again, just one more time. Please. Just one more time.
simple creature B