February is finally here. That means that pitchers and catchers report this month. That also means that it’s time to ask the annual question that many of us contemplate when we find ourselves giddy with the notion that there are ballplayers once again stretching and throwing in the Southern sun: Why baseball? What is it about this game that makes many of us rank Opening Day above Christmas as the number one holiday of the year?
As Yogi Berra might say, this question is so easy it’s hard to answer. It seems to me, however, that the answer is twofold. First, baseball is a restorative. Ballparks are really time machines, and when we enter them, we are whisked back to childhood. Every little ritual now recalls the day we were baptized into the game. For me, it was simply the thrill of seeing the stadium come into view.
A couple of years ago, a friend drove me down 33rd Street in Baltimore and past the site where Memorial Stadium once stood. The white houses, always so visible beyond center field were still there, and for a moment I honestly thought that something was wrong with me, for I could not see the stadium. I kept looking. What the man saw, the boy refused to believe. To this day, a part of me still thinks that I just looked wrong, and that if I go back again, Memorial Stadium will be there, where it’s supposed to be. I’m never going back.
Maybe the ritual for you was getting the tickets or that proverbial first glimpse of the greenest of grasses as you left the concourse and came up into the stands to find your seats. Maybe it was the anticipatory hum of the crowd or that 150-year-old announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, here are your starting lineups.” Maybe it was peanuts, popcorn, and hot dogs.
Oh, sure, we may be at an age that prevents us from having that hot dog with onions lest we wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning fumbling in the bathroom for the Zantac, but that’s no matter. Nothing can restore the body, but the game restores the child in us. Last season, I planned to meet someone at a baseball game whom I had never met before. This gentleman is a college mathematics professor, and he assured me that once I got to the first-base side, I would know him. I entered the park and started down toward the first-base dugout when I spied a man wearing the team hat, shirt, and jacket. He also had his glove with him. I knew him all right. I knew him before I met him, and it illustrates the second reason that baseball has such a powerful hold on us.
From childhood to adulthood, we all long to belong. Baseball can create that sense of community, even if it’s just for an inning or two. Our team is trailing by a run in the 9th, but we’ve got the bases loaded with only one out. The ballpark comes to life, and you look around and you realize that that guy way up there in the middle of the upper deck down the right field line, the guy who’s waving a pennant as if he’s carrying the colors into the face of the enemy, is thinking and feeling and hoping for exactly the same thing that you are. And when a single brings home the tie run standing up, and the winning run barely eludes the catcher’s tag in a swirling dust cloud at home plate, you are suddenly hugging strangers. The park empties, and everyone’s smile lights the way back to our respective cars. We wave to the people waving out their windows and blowing their horns. For an inning or an evening or sometimes, if we’re lucky, for a whole season, we are one.
That’s why baseball. I’m sure that other folks have their own restoratives; at least I guess they do. I hope they do things that bring them a sense of belonging. As for me, well, now that February is here, I feel younger already.