(A version of this essay appears in the Fall 2014 Issue of Cobalt Review) http://www.cobaltreview.com/
Born in Detroit in 1892, my grandfather was a Tiger fan all his life. For more than half of the twentieth century, decade after decade, from Cobb to Kaline, he saw the great players. By the late forties, before I was born, he was known to say, “Get me a seat on the third base line. I want to smell George Kell’s sweat.”
I was born in 1954, into the era of transistor radios, when Grandad would sit at the backyard picnic table with his radio and a Drewrys Beer, the one with the Canadian Mountie on the can. I thought the Mountie must be listening too, as the tinny little radio crackled with the play of the game, delivering it into hot, late summer afternoons. I remember Tiger Stadium, the 1968 season and Grandad fighting back tears that same year, when my parents told him he had grown too frail to sit through a game downtown. He died two years later. For several seasons, I continued to commune with him, whispering the results after games and glancing up at the sky, the way we sometimes do with dead people.
From girlhood then, the Detroit Tigers were my team but I did not prove as faithful as my grandfather. I didn’t mean to be unfaithful. It’s just that thirty years ago, I married a Brit and moved from Michigan to London, after which first the Tigers, and gradually baseball itself faded from my thoughts.
At the start of 2012, before the old year’s Christmas decorations had been put away, unfaithfulness finally knocked at my door, bringing my already ailing marriage to a crashing end. Lies, cheating, bitter words. Indoor fireworks to match Fourth of July at the ballpark. Followed by the back and forth of futile phone calls, then when those dwindled, by pacing the kitchen floor late into the night, lights out, pausing only to stare out the back window at our empty yard. Sometimes I sat down beside the dog on her mat, burying my face in her big furry neck, hoping for some kind of comfort there.
Eventually the pacing slowed, giving way to hours on the sofa, silent tears, grief, sleepless nights, wondering, and regret. Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” This may be true of baseball, but in matters of love, sometimes it’s over before it’s over. We got together too young and it has to be said, stayed together too long. And so we parted badly and in pain. In the end, there was no ninth inning rally, no effort, no belief; only the slamming of doors.
But I’m not here to talk about all that. Not really. In time, we may be kinder to one another, but our story will never turn to anything better than sad. No, I’m here to tell you something about baseball, about what happened later, during the spring and summer that followed, as I began to look for respite in the world outside my dead marriage. I concentrated on work. I tried to kindle new friendships and rekindle some old ones. These efforts were tentative at first, and results were uneven. You’re up by a game or two, but then you’re down. It’s a long season.
Some evenings, I came home tipsy on cocktails and fully convinced I was having a ball as a single woman; other evenings, I came home to a cold house, played old Sinatra ballads about broken hearts and sat down beside the dog. She showed concern and licked my face. At one point, I subscribed to an online dating site, but as soon as I began receiving responses from other members, I recoiled in terror and closed the account. “I think the online dating experiment showed me I’m not really interested in a relationship,” I told a friend. “You’re just not ready,” she answered. As though readiness were a natural, expected progression. I tried to believe, but decided any ‘dating’ would have to occur as part of ordinary daily encounters, so when I met a nice fellow at a party, I stepped up bravely. We agreed to meet for dinner a week later. There followed seven days of dread, followed by an evening that had all the charm of a dentist appointment. I dated two or three others after that, less enthusiastically, and well, let’s just say that I really ought to apologize to the guys involved for wasting their time.
It didn’t matter where or how they turned up, clearly there were men out there. All shapes and sizes and characters of men. They were out there, all right. But I began to see that my reaction had little to do with who they were or might be. I realized that I didn’t want them, didn’t need them at all. It reminded me of my best Christmas morning when, aged ten, I sat at the foot of the twinkling tree and unwrapped my first pair of figure skates. Wearing my own skates, soon I would glide across the ice, free and alone. When I was a kid, skating often made me think about baseball. I loved the game, but I wasn’t much good at it. I was good at ice skating. I liked to imagine that the skater, moving down the river or across the pond, was like any player in his fielding position, or on the pitcher’s mound, or at bat. There was a loneliness in baseball that was part of its appeal. Throughout childhood summers, when I watched the Tigers, I sometimes dreamed of snow and my dad freezing the backyard to make a rink for me. In winter, practicing my spins on the ice, I dreamed of Tiger Stadium.
Sometime in late August 2012, many months after my husband had moved out, perhaps during the period I was figuring out some of these questions about dating, friendship, and what to do with myself, I began to notice the baseball standings. They appeared every Saturday in my British newspaper, so it was a weekly reconnoitre at first. The Detroit Tigers were leading the division. Soon I was checking every result on the Tigers’ website, where I found there were photos and highlights. I began tracking coverage in the Detroit papers, learning about the players.
It was new to me, but it was powerfully old to me too. Following baseball was, again, like ice skating: a sense memory, a stir of knowledge, a movement that slips into your body and never fully leaves you. By the time of the 2012 pennant race and World Series, I had subscribed to Major League Baseball television and was streaming the games on my laptop. Okay, we lost in four games; I had barely returned to baseball and watched just a fraction of a season. But for a few precious weeks, I had fallen back into a pleasure so deep that I knew I would be there for the next opening day.
Winter came. I wasn’t a girl in Michigan anymore, but once again, I thought about baseball during the cold months when all the ballparks were quiet. I worked, saw my friends, went out and about in London, got used to coming home alone and liking it. There were, and always will be, hard moments. When there is nobody to tell; nobody to call. But these are no harder than another person’s hard moments. I was looking outside myself again, remembering what Humphrey Bogart once said to Ingrid Bergman – that lovers’ problems “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” And anyway, for my pleasure, I had a complete season of baseball waiting for me when the snow melted and the ice skaters hung up their skates.
And so to 2013, my first complete season in many years. My subscription granted me each and every game on my laptop, but of course the night games and west coast games appeared in the small hours here. For some night games, I moved the laptop to my bedside, typically drifting off to sleep during the middle innings. The cheering crowd or animated announcers woke me for crucial plays. But I lived for the day games, which would arrive about dinner time in London; I cooked and ate with the laptop on the kitchen table, and was regularly joined by my son. A Londoner by birth, he persists in calling the games ‘matches’, but he now knows the difference between a sinker and a slider, can give the ERA for any Detroit pitcher, batting averages down the line-up, Miggy’s home run count. Like baseball fans anywhere, we sat in the kitchen and cheered, complained, argued about calls. In between innings, we looked up baseball rules, stats and lore.
During some games, my son and I spent excessive amounts of time peering into baseball’s living room, its domestic space – the dugout. We desired the company of the players; we analysed the character of this one or that one, or the relations between them. Like a pair of homeless people outside the picture window, we hungrily watched the talking and teasing in the dugout, the summer boredom, the camaraderie, the ups and downs of the game inscribed on the players’ faces. A diminished family, we secretly longed for more than was reasonable to ask of your baseball team. But somehow, the Tigers delivered.
Steady and reliable, these guys turned up 162 times. Yes, one of the most compelling aspects of baseball is its season, its 162 games. Readers of sports journalism may remember Thomas Boswell’s lovely book, How Life Imitates the World Series. In the opening chapter, he quotes Earl Weaver on the baseball schedule, “This ain’t a football game,” Weaver says. “We do this every day.” Boswell claims that this is “baseball’s great blessing and the source of its richness: you play it every day.” He suggests that the 162 games produce a micro-culture of regularity and balance. “The sense of elemental sanity and order that we sometimes feel around baseball is not entirely a romantic wish; the game has, at its core, a distinct therapeutic quality.”
Having entered the 2013 season following a period of personal loss and upheaval, perhaps I submitted Boswell’s claim to a small, private test. I make no sweeping claims, but I can confirm that for me, the frequency of play, the episodic quality of home and away series, the removal of clock time, the old-fashioned uniforms, the grass and the baselines, the ghost of my grandfather near third base, the summer heat, the lights, the balls fouled off into the crowd, the 1-2-3 innings, the long and narratively complex innings, the strike counts, the arcane signs from the coaches, the impenetrable relationship between pitcher and catcher, meetings on the mound, the occasional bench-clearing fight, the endless statistics attaching to each player and each situation, the lazy inaction on the field punctuated by bursts of brilliance from a batter or fielder, then the return to a quiet game in the middle of a hot afternoon – all of these elements burrow inside the person who watches with any kind of regularity. They slow a person down, cause her to live in the moment, cause her to feel close to the players who turn up every day. She comes to care about them, mothers them, sisters them, gradually forgets her age and falls giddily in love with one or two of them. She sends little messages throughout the season, if only in her thoughts. Fans and messages. It’s a powerful element in baseball culture. We talk to the players and imagine they hear us.
Towards the end of the regular season, I was out for dinner with a friend. He asked me why I didn’t show much interest in dating. I told him that at least 162 times a year, I’ve got nine guys in the field, and at least eight of them are willing to go to bat for me. A few weeks later, the Tigers lost the Pennant to the Red Sox, and for the first time in many months, I was lost and lonely again. But I had things to do and the feeling slowly passed, leaving a residue of post-season melancholy.
My divorce will soon be final. I used to find it hard to imagine life without him. Not anymore. I’ll be fine, having understood that many good things do, and should, come to an end. Fortunately, baseball isn’t one of them. Dear Tigers, I’m back, communing with my team and my grandfather too. While winter lasts and the cold winds blow, I’ll keep busy. Maybe I’ll try a date or two. But between you and me, I’d rather go ice skating and dream of opening day.