I encountered the game of baseball around the age of six, when I joined my local park district team. My career ended mercifully after one season. Even though most of my time as little-leaguer was uneventful, one moment lives on today.
It was raining one summer day, so we had to play our game indoors. I was installed at first base, hoping that the ball somehow would avoid me. A kid on the opposing team hit a pitch high into the air, all the way up to the ceiling. Magically, the ball landed in my open glove and stuck there. I had no idea what was going on, but my dad was in the gym, and he was cheering for me. That’s what he always did.
Today marks five years since my father died, and all I keep thinking about is baseball and our relationship to it. I’ll never forget how my dad, a huge Cubs fan, used to find out when my favorite team as a kid, the Atlanta Braves, would be in town to play the Cubs at Wrigley Field. He made sure that I got to see my team in person at least once a year. He rooted for me even when we weren’t rooting for the same team.
By the time college rolled around, though, I started following the Cubs and quickly became a big fan. One year after graduation, in 2003, I was having a difficult time in my life. It was often hard for me to get out of bed and face the world, but that summer dad encouraged me to emerge from my darkness and watch Cubs games with him. Again he was cheering me on, wishing the best for his struggling son.
Sadly, 2003 went down as another lost year for the Cubs. After beating, ironically, the Braves in the first round of the playoffs that October, the Cubs were five outs away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945, when dad was just nine years old. The Florida Marlins scored seven runs in the eighth inning, though, and won game 6, forcing a game 7.
Hope was tough to come by at the start of that last game. The Cubs couldn’t recover from their previous defeat, and just like that, a promising postseason run went up in smoke.
The loss was hard enough, but I didn’t make it any easier for my father, telling him right after the loss, “It’s just a game.” Of course, I was trying to cheer him up as he had done for me that whole summer, but he was so heartbroken that my words were empty.
Three seasons later, in 2006, my father’s health was in decline. We still watched the Cubs, of course, but I could tell that it was harder for him to enjoy the games. In April, while the Cubs were in Los Angeles and playing the Dodgers, Cubs first baseman (and our best player) Derrek Lee broke two bones in his wrist during a collision at his position. Right after it happened, dad said, “There goes the season.”
I tried denying the truth of that statement, but I knew he was right. I didn’t know, however, that in one month my father would be gone.
When the season ended in October of that year, the Cubs finished in last place with close to 100 losses in a 162-game schedule. They watched the postseason from home as their archrivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, went on to win the World Series.
From my first-grade team, to my favorite club being five outs from the World Series, to watching last night’s contests on TV, baseball’s been more than just a game for me. It’s a part of who I am and part of who my father was. It unites us even though we’re not here together, cheering for each other.