(Please) Take Me Out to the Ballgame

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Baseball Heaven

I’m going to come out and say it…I miss baseball. It’s incredibly strange to be moving along through the month of April and not have a baseball game to look forward to every single day. I miss tuning in to Fox Sports Midwest to see my favorite team, the Cardinals, take on a division rival. I miss checking the box score after each game to see how my favorite players performed. I miss looking over the standings to see if the Cardinals gained or lost ground. I miss scouring websites to see what the trade rumors are looking like. I miss baseball. You see, baseball is more than just a game to me. Baseball is in my blood. It’s tradition. It’s memories. Ever since I was young baseball was a part of my life, so now it feels like a piece of me is missing. Although I know it will eventually return, I can’t help but miss it. In the meantime, I’m going to appreciate the game I love.

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A star in the making

Like most children I grew up playing baseball, starting with T-Ball alongside my classmates. But baseball meant a little bit more in my household. My mom is a die-hard Cardinals fan, having inherited her love for the Birds on the Bat from her dad. Even when we lived in Springfield it was expected that we would watch the Cardinals on TV. I’ll never forget visiting my grandparents and listening to my grandma say that she didn’t like Jim Edmonds because he was too showboaty. Names like Ray Lankford, Matt Morris, and Fernando Vina are forever seared in my brain. Baseball (specifically Cardinals baseball) was unavoidable in my family. And I couldn’t have been happier about that.

I idolized these players, pining to someday join them in the big leagues. I had literal dreams of hitting a walkoff grand slam in Game 7 of the World Series. I played on teams all throughout my childhood, both real and imaginary (I may have had an imaginary baseball team. You can read all about it a previous post: https://idrewahill.com/2018/03/20/saurus-rex-dino/). I’d watch these players on TV make incredible plays and envision myself doing the same in my next game, trying to emulate them in every way. It didn’t take me long to develop favorite players. My first ever favorite athlete was an obvious one: JD Drew. I mean, come on. I’ll never forget the day I got my life sized JD Drew poster autographed at Winter Warmup. I’ll also never forget the day he was traded. I was absolutely distraught. My poor parents had the unfortunate job of trying to console me. “He’s just a baseball player!” He wasn’t just a baseball player, though. To my 10 year old self he was a hero. I think looking back that was the moment I went from being a casual fan to a die-hard. I would be hooked to the game of baseball the rest of my life.

I just couldn’t get enough. My video games of choice were Backyard Baseball, Frank Thomas Big League Baseball, and MLB the Show – not quite the shooting games or racing games that my peers played. I would spend hours at a time playing these games. I was a little weird about it, too. As I grew older I wanted these games to be as realistic as possible, and not just in terms of graphics. I would agonize over which team I wanted to be in Franchise Mode. Once I finally settled on a team I had to have the exact roster as the real life team. Once I finally got around to actually playing the games even then I wanted it be as realistic as the actual games. Sure, I could have thrown every pitch over the plate and avoided ever walking a batter. But that’s not realistic! I could have set it to easy mode and won every game 10-0. But that would never happen! I would get 30 games into the season without having made a single error or without a single player sustaining an injury. That’s when I would quit. It just wasn’t realistic enough. So then I’d go through the whole the process again, but with a renewed determination.

From 10-14 years old my whole life was pretty much consumed by baseball. I was either watching the Cardinals play, playing a baseball video, actually playing in a game, or dragging my parents outside for a game of catch. When they couldn’t play I’d find alternatives in the form of a tennis ball and the brick wall outside. Most summers I found myself on two teams, one a bit more competitive and the other quite a bit more recreational. I loved every minute of it.

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What I lacked in skill I more than made up for with intimidation

Then when I entered high school the actual joy of playing changed a little. There was now pressure to perform because I was being faced with the prospects of being cut. I was a decent player but definitely not to the level where I thought I was a shoe-in for my high school’s freshman team. I wound up making quite the impression during tryouts – but not in a good way. I got the yips. Call it nerves, stress, pressure, whatever you want, but I somehow lost the ability to throw accurately. For most of the week it was raining and the fields were unplayable, so we were confined to the small mezzanine above the gym. It felt like we were right on top of each other and I was terrified of hitting someone with an errant throw. My poor throwing partner, Matt, had to chase down every horrible throw all week. Once we got outside things started to get better, as I was able to stretch my arm out a bit. It also helped that when the coach asked who played first base no one else stepped up. I had played there a few times in previous years and enjoyed it enough, so I volunteered. “Well, I can’t screw up too many throws if I only need to toss the ball back to the pitcher.” Long story short, I made the freshman team and would go on to play competitive baseball for the next year before calling it quits. I had discovered that I didn’t have that internal drive to be a great player and didn’t want to put myself through the stress of trying to make a team. Looking back I made the right decision. I believe that decision helped preserve my love of the game. I was able to “quit” on my terms. I put that in quotes because I was certainly not quitting the game in every aspect. Far from it.

I may have hung up the cleats but I was as obsessed with the game as ever. As I’ve talked about, I expressed my joy of baseball in many different ways. One of those ways is through stats. I didn’t just enjoy watching the games, I got a thrill out of checking box scores and looking up stats. A big reason for that is the fact that my grandparents gave me a box of old baseball cards when I was younger. I looked through each of those cards front and back, studying all the numbers on the backside, deciphering what each acronym stood for – HR, RBI, AVG, ERA, etc. As the years passed I added to this collection. The one thing I asked for for Christmas every single year was baseball cards in my stocking (that’s not a joke). An easy gift for me was a gift certificate to a baseball card shop. Every so often I would rearrange the cards in a binder, sometimes organizing them by team, sometimes organizing them alphabetically. One time I decided to organize them by career home runs. That one took quite a while.

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Organizing cards with Grandpa!

Beyond the card collection and stat memorizing, there’s one element of baseball that takes the cake. There is simply nothing better than seeing a game live in person. Now, there are people out there that say that baseball is boring, whether in person or on TV. Admittedly, baseball doesn’t offer the same level of action as other sports. But what it may lack in high level intensity it more than makes up for with strategy and competition. Plus, you’re still guaranteed some high level skill, whether it be a diving play in the field or a monstrous homerun.

As I’ve gotten older my game experience has changed. When I was a kid I sat in my seat in complete awe. I was getting to see my idols live in person. It truly was heaven. I also had dreams of catching a foul ball. As silly as it may seem, my viewpoint on fly balls has evolved as well. I have now reached the age where I instinctively check the seats around me to see if there’s a little kid I would be obligated to give the ball to. My viewpoint has mostly been that you must earn your foul ball. I have waited my whole life to catch one, why should I give it to that kid four seats over? Fun fact, my dad once caught a Willie McGee homerun ball. And when I say caught, I mean it practically landed in his lap. I then proceeded to play with and lose that ball. Oops!

As I entered my teens I was all about the stats, like I said. If he gets a homerun that’ll give him 30 on the season, putting him only four back of the league leader. If he wins this game it’ll be his fourth straight season with at least 16 wins. Now, going to a game means something a little different. Sure, I’m there to enjoy the actual game on the field. But now it’s more about getting a stadium hot dog, drinking a cold beer, and enjoying time with family and friends.

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That, to me, is one of the greatest things about baseball. It’s an event that brings people together. When I look at the most important relationships in my life just about all of them involve baseball, especially with my family. To this day it’s common for my mom and I to exchange texts about the previous night’s game. How about that play by Wong! Did you see that Goldschmidt home run?! Do you think Yadi will ever retire?  Most of our vacations growing up revolved around seeing the Cardinals play in a different city, including Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Philadelphia.

 

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Seeing the Cards in Philadelphia!

On one vacation we even went to Cooperstown, a lifelong dream for any baseball fan. After the two World Series championships in my lifetime I went to the parade with my parents and my sister. We’ve been to dozens of games over the years, home and away, regular season and postseason. Seeing my all time favorite player, Adam Wainwright, spin a complete game gem to send the Cardinals to the NLCS in 2013 with my sister Laura is a memory I will cherish forever.

 

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Game 5 of the 2013 NLDS

Baseball has also been what’s bonded me with so many friends over the years. It obviously begins with friendships formed on the field and in the dugout. One of the highlights of my entire childhood was when one of my best friends, Kevin, got to throw out the first pitch at a game. I got to tag along for the game, which just so happened to be picture day at the game. Before the game the players walked all around the field, taking pictures with the fans. When they got to our spot they slowed down and took time to sign autographs. That’s all an 11 year old wants in life. I wound up with over 20 autographs from my heroes, role models, and idols. That hat is still one of my most prized possessions. 

 

 

Today baseball is at the center of many friendships. Every summer I can count on going to a handful of games with friends, both old and new. Most weekends I find myself over at Matt and Julie’s house, grilling and playing yard games with the Cardinals game on in the background. During the 2011 postseason I watched just about every game with people in my dorm, including Game 6 (you know I had to mention it).

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I’m now entering a new phase in my fandom, a strange one, might I add. I have to admit, it’s a little unsettling to not only be the same age as some players, but also quite a few years older than those now entering the league. In fact, a player my age (26) might be considered to be a veteran (fun fact, I’m exactly a month older than Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong). I’m no longer admiring older role models – I’m admiring peers. While I might not be out in the backyard pretending to be Jack Flaherty or Harrison Bader, that doesn’t take away from how much I admire or appreciate them. It’s just a different type of admiration. One thing that has become more clear as I’ve gotten older is that the players aren’t these bigger-than-life idols, they’re real people just like me. They have lives outside of baseball – families, hobbies, interests – things that make them human. I also find it very cool that I get to see these players’ careers from start to finish and can see how their legacies take shape.

My fandom will continue to evolve as I age. I’m already looking forward to teaching my future children how to throw and hit. I can’t wait to cheer them on at their games. It’ll be a very special day when I take them to their first game at Busch Stadium. As I mentioned at the beginning, Cardinals baseball is in my blood, and I expect it to be the same for my children. Until then, I just want baseball to be back. Someday soon I will again receive the notifications on my phone reminding me that there’s a game that day. I’ll be able to tune in to FSM to see Matt Carpenter digging into the batter’s box. Eventually I’ll be able to say the words every Cardinals fan understands: “I’ll meet you at Stan.”

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