I used to hate baseball.
I mean, really, who wanted to watch a game with nine guys standing around spitting the shells from sunflower seeds while constantly adjusting their cups for more than three hours? Meanwhile, another fiddled around with his batting gloves, kicked up a bunch of dirt trying to find the perfect stance and fouled off, oh, say, 20 pitches while some dude stood behind him calling strikes and balls? B-O-R-I-N-G.
To make matters worse, a guy I dated on and off for 10 years played high school and college baseball. He was a pitcher who also happened to be pretty handy with a bat. And yet, I still couldn’t have given a flying frig at the time. During his brief stint at Calhoun Community Junior College in Decatur, Ala., one of his teammates was the now-retired Jorge Posada, who played all 17 of his Major League Baseball seasons with the – and let me preface this with a heartfelt UGH – New York Yankees.
Being the football snob that I was, I was unimpressed. However, I started going to high school games under the pretense of doing a story on – I suppose it’s OK to reveal his first name – James, when in reality, I had a huge crush on him and jumped at any excuse to be around him. I was the editor of our high school newspaper, so no one ever questioned my motives, sly gal that I fancied myself.
Anyway, James would babble constantly about baseball, his statistics, how the team was doing, the Atlanta Braves – anything related to the sport. I pretended to care, but all I ever got out of it was “blah blah blah” this and “yada yada yada” that. In reality, I was insanely jealous of baseball because it was his first love, and he made no secret about it.
So, one of the many times we were on the outs, I discovered on my own exactly WHY he loved the game the way he did. And I fell immediately in love, myself.
I was working at Kroger and kept hearing customers talk about the Braves with so much excitement and hope that I had to see for myself what the fuss was all about. So, one October night in 1991, I finally gave the game an honest chance with an open mind and welcoming heart. It didn’t disappoint.
And so began my love affair with baseball. And the Braves.
Maybe it was because of the dramatic fashion in which Atlanta came back from a 3-2 deficit to beat the hated Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3 in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series. Maybe it was because they went from worst in the NL the year before to first in ’91 in storybook fashion. Maybe it was because of their dominant pitching staff. And maybe, just maybe, it was because I was experiencing childlike wonder for the very first time.
It’s a feeling that has remained with me in the 22 years since.
I finally GOT it. I watched as many games as I could the following year, including another thrilling 4-3 NLCS win over the Pirates. But it didn’t matter who was playing; I watched every team I could on television. I wanted to see as much as I could, learn as much as possible, take it all in at once.
I didn’t do it to please James. I did it because it was something I wanted to do, was compelled to do to feed my newfound passion for a sport I once scorned. And, admittedly, it DID help me understand James a little bit better. It was such a big part of who he was.
WAS. Such a sad word, sometimes.
I hadn’t spoken to or seen James in six years, when, out of the blue, his youngest sister contacted me in late 2008 to tell me he had succumbed to cancer. He died Oct. 26, exactly four months after his 36th birthday. He went to sleep and never woke up, leaving behind a wife and two young sons.
It seemed almost fitting that the World Series played on that same day, with the Philadelphia Phillies handing a 10-2 whooping to the Tampa Bay Rays to take a commanding 3-1 lead. Then, as if on cue, the Series was suspended due to rain with the score tied at 2-all after 5 1/2 innings the following night and postponed the next because of bad weather before the Phillies wrapped it up with a 4-3 win in Game 5 on Oct. 29, two days shy of James’ sixth wedding anniversary. It was almost like they were waiting for him to get where he needed to be to watch the game’s climatic finale, silly though that may sound.
But I’m just as sure he’s somewhere with his dad – whose name also was James – watching the best-of-five NL Division Series between our beloved Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers. And I know they’re cheering just as loud – if not louder – than me. With the same childlike wonder.