I used to think baseball fields should be shaped like tears instead of diamonds.
One time when I was a little right fielder my grandparents came to watch me play. It wasn’t the ONLY time they came but this particular night felt special. With the game on the line in the final inning, the ball came my way as the potential winning run rounded third base to touch home plate and send us to a loss.
I stepped toward the catcher and whipped my skinny left arm like a fly swatter. Eyeballs all over the place popped like corks. The ball beat the runner. My catcher held on. The game was saved. We went into extra innings. I felt like a hero.
An inning or two later, a routine fly ball came my way. It came to me, the kid with the amazing arm who had saved the game like Roberto Clemente would have. The little white orb seemed to soar through the night forever. I had time to think, and that was not good. By the time the lazy fly ball reached me its red stitches looked like eyebrows on a dragon.
I dropped the ball. We lost. I felt like a goat. I wasn’t the only one who cried and tried to mask the tears from my grandparents even as they smeared into the dirt on my face. Tom Hanks wasn’t there to tell me how there’s no crying in baseball. I remember my grandma smiling and my grandfather offering some reassuring words but knew I had failed them and everybody else.
One night in 1992, my Pittsburgh Pirates played a playoff game against the Atlanta Braves. The winner would go to the World Series. My team led 2-0 in the bottom of the 9th inning.
A guy named Terry Pendleton hit a double. Then some other guys got on base. Then an unknown player named Francisco Cabrera hit a stupid ground ball to my favorite player Barry Bonds who couldn’t throw out one of the slowest men in baseball. We lost. I cried myself to sleep that night. The Pirates then proceeded to become the worst franchise in American sports for the next two decades.
Sometimes a diamond shape looks a lot like a tear.
Disappointment is a part of life. We all come into awareness of failure in different ways. For me, baseball taught me more about the agony of defeat than most other things. Funny how certain big moments stick with you like that.
I quit playing baseball–the great passion of my childhood–around age 12 because I was afraid. I could tell you that faster pitching scared me but public failure was the real nightmare.
When you step away from something you love, what you do becomes what you did. You become a spectator, vicariously living through those who are still trying or are at least able to try. I believe baseball, and probably any sport, is about us more than it is about people on a field of grass and dirt and chalk who we have probably never met and will likely never know.
I do not just watch my team play; I am looking for myself out there.
Maybe that’s why I felt like a kid last night as I watched the Pirates in their first playoff game in 21 years. In the grand scheme of existence it’s just a game. But there’s this personal attachment to my city and my childhood as silly as it sounds. I was a happy kid for the most part, but I feel bad for little me who turned his face towards the wall and sobbed in the moonlight glaring at his bed. He just wanted to be a winner, wanted some guys he admired to come through for him. And last night when a baseball team won a simple game I felt like that little kid version of myself–the innocent, vulnerable person we never cease to be–was smiling through.
Good or bad, memories matter, and last night I got to add a happy one, a diamond in the ruff of my mind.