Baseball is our house religion. Only we don’t have a house. We have an apartment, a cramped one, and it’s overflowing with sacraments. Mounds of balls and bats and gloves and gear form shrines and obstacles. I trip over this stuff daily, swear at it loudly, and very soon will pine like crazy for it and everything it represents.
My little boy is almost off to college.
Along with his older brother, he’s played ball forever. Unlike the firstborn, the baby isn’t finished yet. My lanky righty is bound for the NCAA; he’s pitched his way onto a baseball team hundreds of miles away with a bunch of strangers at a huge state university.
That’s great, of course. I’m proud, of course. They won’t be strangers to him for long, of course.
Will I miss him?
Do bears wind up in jokes referencing the woods?
Missing him is huge and yet it’s only part of the story. I’ve been steeling myself for that punch in the gut since he was knee-high to a near-sighted umpire.
What’s caught me by surprise is my pang of anticipatory nostalgia for the soundtrack of the diamond.
I will yearn for that lost music.
Not the crack of the bat or the thwack of the glove or the country music dreck to which high school boys now cling as a badge of baseball culture.
I mean the chatter.
Just amble by a neighborhood ballpark on a muggy summer night. You’ll hear it: ritualized incantations of unwavering support.
From the dugout, teammates sing to their guy at the plate.
“Here ya go, kid, here ya go!”
“Attaboy, 2-1, good cut!”
“Good leave, good leave!”
“You’re OK, Sully! Hey, babe!”
“You’re right on it, Chooch!”
Every batter up, the liturgy begins anew. Inning after inning, player after player.
The voices in the dugout rise and dip and overlap and echo. Together they create a chorus of positivity. These are the most beautiful gems of encouragement you can ever imagine boys uttering to each other in public.
“Like you can, kid, like you can!”
“Just like last time, 2-5!”
“Like you know how, Boss!”
“You’re a hitter, babe! We need you on!”
“Hey, you’re nasty up there, 1-5! Let’s go, now!”
It’s like daily affirmations. Only better. No self-help pablum, just testimony shouted by your cleat-scuffing bro on the bench.
At the risk of gender stereotyping my way into hell and damnation, I submit this unabashed sweetness is not the standard dialect of boy world.
Nor of jock planet.
My evidence is only anecdotal. But among the XY set and the sports-stud subset, sarcasm and grunts seem to dominate the discourse. Standard operating procedure does not include openly lavishing one’s friends with optimistic assessments of their unlimited potential.
Then again, in most sports, the action is never so isolated to one individual for long enough to even allow this sort of focus.
Such is the blessing and the curse of baseball. Hitters, pitchers, catchers, fielders — you’re all alone out there in a game of failure.
The attaboys fill the void.
And they fill it with light, not dark. As befits the serene and pastoral nature of the game, the cheering in baseball almost ignores the opponents. Chatter from your teammates is all about you.
Sure, accuse me of reading too much into mere banter on the bench. But isn’t this what we want for our children? Able-bodied or not, athletes or otherwise? Isn’t this what we hope they will learn, and carry with them in life? To develop and express empathy, high spirits, passion and a sense of community? To be surrounded by people doing the same on their behalf? Is this not how we nurture a mensch?
Rewind the tape, please. Let me hear it a few more times. A few more thousand times, if you don’t mind.
The tenderness, the strength, the faith, the affection. Under cover of time-tested phrases, the tough guys feel the love. They met as bright, funny, oddball pipsqueaks in the days of high voices and elastic-waist baseball pants. They’ve grown together into a booming bass chorale, these bright funny oddball stubble-faces now swaggering to fields unknown.
Godspeed then, lil shavers.
When you can, slugger, get home safe?
Let us turn now to page one in our hymnals.
“Have a day! Here we go, kid! All you, 1-9! Have yourself a day, babe! Go on now and have yourself a day!”
Click here to listen to Sharon Brody on WBUR’s Radio Boston.