so you've come to learn the ways of Arnis. the fighting art of your ancestors.
you think you deserve
to hold this stick and knife
and call yourself a warrior? sportsman?
I ask you,
were you there when Magellan landed on our shores
savage colonizers who claimed these islands
were you there when our hero Lapulapu
led his forces, wielding spears and daggers and stones
were you there when blood
dripped onto sand
mixed with the saltwater
were you there when we fought for our lives
to the bitter end
now you step on rubber gym mats, blue as the ocean
and call it holy ground.
now you scream and search, desperate to find meaning
in this joyless earth
fear not, little girl
the fight has only just begun.
image: Ed Himelblau
Our Little League paid amateur umpires $10 a game, for a game that usually went ninety minutes, which meant they were paid slightly less than minimum wage. They also received a free cheeseburger and drink. I say amateur because none of them had any training other than the rulebook and a test. Some had never played baseball, either. But most were competent and fair. If a home plate ump was bad on balls and strikes, they were bad for both teams. If a base ump, usually the junior and more inexperienced of the two, and the lower paid, was inattentive, they were inattentive for both teams. As many characters as you could find among the eleven- and twelve-year-old players, there were umps of unique character as well.
Clint, for instance, had a cheeseburger exception. The team I coached was one run behind in the bottom of the sixth and last inning of a game, I had a player turn an ankle sliding into second for a double, and Clint came out from behind the plate instantly and told me to hurry and get the player off the field. I thought he was both insensitive and beyond his authority, and told him so. He kept looking at his watch and over at the snack shack.
When we returned to play, every pitch was a strike. Balls a foot inside or outside or in the dirt became strikes. A ball that clipped a batter’s helmet became a swing because it spun the batter around. I was confounded. My first baseman told me that Clint had ordered a cheeseburger at the top of the last inning to be ready in ten minutes, so he wanted the game to end.
We got a single with two out and tied the game. We went to extra innings.
Clint ushered the first batter in the top of the seventh to the plate. Again, every pitch was a strike, for both teams. Our team got a single and a double and won in the bottom of the seventh. Clint left the plate area before the winning run scored.
Every game afterwards, coaches would talk and laugh about the cheeseburger rule, and though Clint was embarrassed, he continued making his cheeseburger order at the top of the sixth.
After that, the cheeseburger exception became the cheeseburger rule. Clint called a decent game of balls and strikes, standing slightly oblique to the plate so that he could capture the strike zone from the left side of the plate. He was tidy, like a house painter when cleaning the plate, or a custodian of a church.
But with the grill a slight oblique right turn from home plate, and Clint’s attention more on the grill than the pitch, he began to miss coaching gestures from the first base coaching box. If the coach stood closer to the dugout, all Tom could see were occasional right-hand signals without turning his head. It drove him nuts. He would often stop the game to ask if a coach were calling time out, and once, thought the coach had made inappropriate gestures. The kids loved Clint for hassling the coaches, and would hang with him after a game.
The rule expanded.
During a close play at the plate, Clint, focused on the smoke from the grill, did not gauge the speed of the runner, and had to leap to the side, quickly leaned within an arm’s length of the play, and called the runner out with a swooping call. The players laughed, and the play at the plate took second place to the retelling of Clint’s call. The runner had been safe by a body length.
Once, when Clint had called out one boy twice on the same play, first at third though the third baseman had pretended to receive the ball and, in fact, had no ball at all, and then at home, for overrunning the plate. Several moms in the stands stood and told him to go home, and one challenged him to a fight if he removed his mask.
Clint did not hear the criticism, he said. He had been focused. Waiting in the wings was a cheeseburger, the aroma and smoke of the grill wafting over toward him and obscured distinguishing home plate from a base bag. He marched over to the grill after the out call and ate the first bite of the cheeseburger with his mask tipped up on his forehead, some parents fuming, some laughing, and kids lining up behind Clint to eat.
image: Adam Cooper and Mat Barton
Perhaps it’s the final scene’s fading golden glow in the broad Iowa night sky of the movie “Field of Dreams” that creates the first pull on our emotions. And the slow walk together of a now grown man with the baseball player spirit of his deceased father that creates the second pull. But it’s their conversation at the end of the movie about heaven that pushes most viewers to the threshold of controlling the swelling of tears in their eyes. “It’s so beautiful here,” the father gazes in awe around him. “It’s like a dream come true. Can I ask you something?” he looks at his son, “Is, is this heaven?” “It’s Iowa,” his son slowly replies. “Iowa? I coulda sworn it was heaven,” the father replies, turning to get his baseball glove. This isn’t just about baseball. Movie viewers are witness to the lesson of reconciling with those we love before it’s too late and soothing our emotional wound by getting a second chance with those we have loved and lost.
Baseball is a game of connections. Fans sit next to one another, talking about the game played in front of them or else talking about whatever is on their minds. It’s a game of viewer leisure, where close attention to games is only really paid late in the waning days of summer as each division’s teams head into the final stretch of the season. It’s a game where grandparents attend games with grandchildren and grown children with their parents. It’s one where not everyone knows the rules of the game, but everyone knows what their favorite stadium concessions food is to enjoy during the game. The pace is slow, but the rhythm of the game and the geometrics of the field are artful. The outfield is a beautiful hatch work pattern of immaculately mowed green grass, contrasting with the earthen brown of the diamond shaped infield, with four white square bases placed at each diamond point. In the center of the infield is the pitcher’s mound, a slightly raised earthen round where every play on the field in each of the nine innings begins. If you sit close enough to home base, you can hear every pitch hit the catcher’s glove with a dampened thud, and the umpire make the call of “strike” or “ball”. You can hear the batter’s bat connecting with a pitch with a cracking sound, sending the ball arching high into the air as the batter sprints to first base. The diamond, the squares, the green, and brown, and white. Art and rhythm. Every player on the field has their eyes focused on the player at bat before each pitch, while the batter keeps his eyes focused on the pitcher on the mound. It’s an expansive field with focused connections.
As both a fan and a player, baseball was a big part of my youth. In 1972, a typical summer night in Connecticut where I grew up was best spent with the screen doors and windows open to let the evening air drift in and cool off the warmth of the day. Mosquitos and night beetles were heard buzzing at the screens, drawn to the light from inside. These summer nights also included my family’s television set turned on, tuned to a baseball game, preferably a Red Sox game, with my father watching from his favorite seat on the sofa. I frequently joined him, with both of us commenting on and critiquing the game, the teams, the hits, the strikeouts, great plays, and errors. The games sometimes ran late into the evening with extra innings, my father occasionally falling asleep or, if our team was too far behind, calling it a night and heading to bed. Baseball is that kind of game. Stay to the end or leave any time before. The morning news will always report who won the game.
I began playing the sport at eight years old in my town’s all-girl recreation league. I was tall and strong for my age, quickly becoming a competitive player. Hits, walks, throws, catches, strikes, balls, outs, double play, fly ball, pop fly, single hit, double hit, triple hit, homerun – I mastered them all. My wide arm span earned me a first base position where I could catch my teammates’ wild throws. I was fourth in the batting lineup, the “cleanup” spot for the batter on the team who could hit the ball well enough to drive home any runners on base. Two seasons later, I became a catcher with my strong and accurate throws to second base, needed to pick off the runners attempting a steal. I watched with satisfaction when I succeeded, as the opponent jogged back to her bench.
When I first started playing, my parents drove me to games. As a teenager, they allowed me to ride my bicycle to games and practices. I hooked my baseball glove strap on to my bicycle handlebars and tucked my baseball hat visor in my back pocket before peddling down the street. My parents still asked to come to my games, but I sought independence and told them the untruth that parents didn’t attend games anymore.
As my throwing arm got stronger, I became a pitcher. There on the mound, I commanded each inning. Each game began with our team huddle and then my solo walk to the mound. Once there, I would rub my sneaker back and forth over the white rubber strip that was the spot where my lead foot was placed before each pitch. The softball held loosely in my right hand, turning it, turning it, feeling the lacing that loops around the leather cover, throwing it sharply into the webbing of my glove. Then watching the first batter walk up to the plate. Looking at my catcher, crouching down behind the batter and in front of the umpire, seeing if there was a pitch signal. Standing tall with my left hand in my glove, holding it in front of me, waist high. The softball in my right hand, held tightly, as I locked eyes with the batter. My pitching arm swings up and then down quickly in front of me, arching forward and releasing the ball, underhand and at top speed. “Strrrrikkke!” The umpire blasts the call. All of this was art to me. The throw, the catch, the swing of the bat. An athletic dance of sorts, with the chatter of my teammates in the field behind me.
The affection I hold for this group of people – players, coaches, umpires - and the memories they provided me are endless. We won two league championships before I aged out at 16 years old. Baseball was part of who I was, and I have loved the sport for life.
I continue my love for the game as a fan of the Durham Bulls, a Minor League team in Durham, North Carolina and the Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays. Fans accustomed to major league stadiums might be caught by surprise at a Bulls’ game. The stadium is smaller, the crowds are sparser, the ticket and concession prices are much less. Yet it’s the stadium atmosphere of music and between inning contests that shape the experience for fans.
At evening games, the stadium lights turn on as twilight starts to settle over the stadium giving the field a movie set feel. Some fans begin to file out before the last inning. Young children are tired, some people having other plans for the evening, others want to beat the traffic. But most stay to the end, not wanting to leave the spell of the golden glow over the field. The people sitting near you whose conversations you have overheard all evening, smiled and cheered with throughout the game, and watched as they returned to their seats each inning, their hands filled with food and drinks from the concession stands, all now seem like friends. You have shared this evening, relaxing together on a warm evening under stadium lights. No one heads home disappointed regardless of the final score. “Is this heaven?” one might ask. It’s Durham, but I could have sworn it was heaven.
My father died unexpectedly in 1990 at the age of 62. It was a dark time of deep loss, enormous grief, and overwhelming confusion. In the weeks following his funeral, I helped my mother gather important papers and documents that she needed. While going through my father’s desk, I found a scrapbook buried under some other papers. Slowly opening the cover, I saw that each page had been filled with a recording of newspaper clippings reporting the game final scores from my years playing softball. My name was mentioned several times on these yellowed clippings. I had never seen this book. My father had carefully cut out each game writeup and taped them in the scrapbook. And that moment found me wishing for my own field of dreams.
image: Adam Cooper and Mat Barton
The aggressive length of time before games makes Fridays very long. He is sitting at his desk, which he shares with Alexis-not-Alex, whose hair smells a certain way. Her hair smells a specific way, like he can recall the smell at any time, and that just makes him feel weird — and a little stressed. The teacher is talking about how the government has three branches that all work together and keep each other accountable, and Miles is thinking about how school is kind of stupid. He’s not thinking that school is stupid in an I’m-gonna-quit-school-ASAP kind of way, just in an I-can’t-believe-you’ve-spent-twenty-minutes-talking-about-this kind of way. Alexis is taking notes and making sure, as she writes, that every letter is perfect, which means she's about three sentences behind the teacher and losing ground.
The world has seemed dark to Miles for multiple years around this point, which (1) he knows is stupid because it’s not like just stopping existing solves anything and (2) he finds kind of concerning considering he’s only eleven. Granted, he has seen/been through/lost a lot. He is entirely aware of the fact that his parents will get divorced, but he’s not sure that counts as another loss, considering everything they seem to put each other through, which not even freaking Ghandi could understand. Or Einstein, perhaps Einstein is better or at least more known for being smart?
And when he centers himself on that darkness, as he does sometimes on accident, never on purpose, he doesn’t feel so much dead inside or, like, capital-S Sad but more of a punching inside his chest, a fog that settles in behind his eyes, either his chest shrinks or his insides grow to where he feels like a graham cracker about to be crumbled over a cup of yogurt, and a number of other very physical sensations he can’t describe. So, sometimes he can be “sick” without having a fever or going to a doctor and having them poke things down his throat, but instead he just feels, in his body, like crap. That’s what happening now.
It happens sometimes that he begins to feel like crap so much that he does play sick and convince his parents to let him stay home. Scooby-Doo does help, sometimes Snorks, but never the Smurfs, which doesn’t make sense even to Miles. He got the idea for this from watching Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. His mom and dad were less worried about him when they thought he was physically sick than when they thought he was Sad. But it couldn’t happen today because of the game.
His hair feels like it’s standing on end, but it is not because if it were, Alexis would say something to him. His sickness is always worst when he has a Little League game after school. It comes like clockwork. The teacher starts the day with Math, and that’s okay because then Miles has to sit there and think about something, but then when Social Studies time or Reading time starts, he can listen, and he can even half-listen or half-listen long enough to get the gist and move on to Not Thinking. When this happens, he feels the hair on his neck standing up, he feels something trying to get out of his chest with increasing wildness. He is watching a small bug fly around the room. His mind has settled into itself and made his head feel empty, and if someone were to talk to him he would have nothing to say, as though he had lost words.
To get his words back, he tries to think of the game because he has never felt sick during a game, or a practice, or when he was at Jamie’s house playing Wiffle Ball. At home, sometimes even when he is sick, he will sit and rub the laces of a baseball and he will feel a little bit better. But he is not at home, and he is feeling sick, and his heart will not stop pounding and if the teacher were to look at him right now, he fears she might cry, she might look in his eyes and see that there is something wrong with him and that pity might lead her, he fears, to cry.
The manicured grass leans against Virginia’s Tretorns, just like the ones she wore in college, which she now wears to every ballgame, threatening to muck up the still immaculate shoes. Wallace, still wearing his loafers, which are creased at the toe and several years older than Miles, faces her. His back is to the field, to the bleachers they should have been sitting in. Miles sits in the dugout, watches the game unfold in front of him, speaks to no one, only waits for the half-inning to end so he can go back to third base where he will crush the dirt beneath his cleats, pat his glove, and repeat to himself, hit it here, hit it here, here, right here.
“Alright,” Wallace says, “say it.”
Virginia looks at him, hands on hips.
“Say I’m a workaholic.”
Her nose is a little flared.
“Say I should apologize for making us late.”
She crosses her arms.
“Tell me how much Miles needs me.”
“Miles does need you.”
“Say I’m stuck in the past.” Tears, scalding and stubborn, refuse to stream down his face. They swish around his eyes, blurring the green with the brown. “Scold me for everything, list it all out here and now. Tell me I’m a terrible father.” A tear clouds the leather of his loafer. “Say I’m a coward.”
She lets her hands fall. “We’re all still struggling.”
“I should be okay by now. Able to move forward.”
Virginia starts to say something about how she still sees Lucy everywhere and in everything, but the crash of a ball off a bat startles them both, stifles her voice. There is a second sound, another collision. A single grunt, a communal gasp. Virginia watches a body fall, limp before dirt flies up around the sound of it. Wallace only hears it.
No one moves. The wind roars, and the ball follows the body to the ground. Now Wallace is running, sprinting, gasping for air. There is no one faster than a parent in crisis mode, rushing for their child.
He is led by instinct. I cannot lose another, cannot lose another, cannot lose, cannot, he almost whispers the words. He is at the boy’s side, rocky dirt and soft chalk soiling the knees of his khakis.
Wallace’s shoulders drop, relax, and he realizes the body bears a red, not blue, shirt. This is not Miles. This face, broken, belongs to a stranger. Wallace says something to the other team’s coach, stands and walks slowly toward the gate, which he does not remember opening.
Miles is staring at his father, a moment that stands out to his young mind and will continue to stand out to him when he is no longer young. Less than a minute ago, he was enjoying the game. He had his quirks already as a ballplayer, habits, superstitions. They will change as he gets older, but the rigidity will remain in his heart, the repetitions and routines that made the game enjoyable. He breathes unbearably slowly when he waits for the pitcher to throw the ball, he counts and breathes in for a count of ten and when his breath is about to pop within him he releases it over a count of thirteen. Each number is denoted by the crunching of the dirt, and he does it so regularly he has stopped thinking about it, but it remains ten in, thirteen out, even as he thinks of other things.
These other things he thinks about do not have to be things, in fact usually they are as clear of words as he is in the middle of a sick spell. But Not Thinking in a game, as long as you are still feeling, is not the same as Not Thinking outside of the confines of a baseball field. He is focused. He is determined, watching, he is feeling. He is hungry.
When the other player is hit by the ball — was hit, a few seconds ago, Miles was enjoying the game, the feel of it, the shouts of his teammates in the dugout. He was trying to get his gum to sit in his lip like dip sits in some professional baseball players’ mouths. And when the ball made impact his mouth fell open, and it has stayed open since. He notices a blur, realizes it’s his dad, and then stares at him.
His mom is behind the bleachers stunned. Back to his dad, mouth still hanging open, his dad is frantic, searching for something with his eyes. They are afraid, his eyes are screaming. He looks briefly up at Miles, and the scream of his dad’s eyes is burnt into his mind. They are about to relax. Wallace is about to realize he has made a mistake, gotten worked up for no reason, but for this moment, his son understands their connection, the panic and anxiety Miles has no words for have expressed themselves on his father’s face. This is what it is to be sick, this is what it is to hide that sickness from the world because who will understand the darkness of the world but those of us who have already lost it? Those of us who have been left behind, in a state of panic, in a state of please don’t take anything else from me because I will shrink into nothing.
Miles decides not to react. His dad walks calmly away from the field, and Miles sits calmly in the dugout. He puts his glove on. He rubs his hand into its palm and prepares to walk back out onto the field, to stomp on the dirt and hunger for the ball to be hit toward him.
And Wallace walks past Virginia, whose cheeks are scarred by nearly restrained tears. He keeps walking. When he returns, the game has resumed, Miles stutters his feet in the same spot where the boy fell. Wallace is carrying a bag of ice, which he takes to the other team’s dugout and hands to a man with tears still wet on his cheeks, and a Gatorade, which he places on the bench where Miles always sits.
He finds his seat next to Virginia in the bleachers. She slides her arm into his.
“He’s gonna be fine,” Wallace says.
Her smile is gentle. They sit together, watching the rest of the game in silence. She looks at her shoes and reaches down to clean off a green smudge, rubs for a second. The stain doesn’t go away.
Mia adjusted her pasties again, paranoid she was showing areola despite the assurance on the adhesive label that their sticky backing superseded all sticky backings.
The tinny voice from the intercom quickly started to fade, but Mia kept staring at the speaker above the mirror, half expecting the stage manager to add an addendum about her inexperience for everyone to hear.
“I’m loving this new corset. It’s custom-made. It was so expensive.”
The chatter of the other performers came and went like waves, giggles and confessions and proclamations of love crashing onto Mia’s consciousness and then receding as her nerves grew too loud to ignore.
The Green Room was cold, the space heater in the corner doing practically nothing to warm the January air gusting in through the ill-fitting window. The theatre was a mainstay in the scene, an Art Deco showpiece of local history, drafty and cavernous with a dramatically-raked proscenium stage.
Mia shivered in her thong, but she was no stranger to cold; she rubbed the gooseflesh off her arms and remembered the years when being cold was all there was.
Except that’s not true, she reflected.
Those years, there had also been shame and isolation and self-loathing. There had been deprivation and ideation and psychic pain. There had been hopelessness; there had been entropy. There had been other things, too, of course; college and boyfriends and ballet classes, discipline and ascetism and unrelenting pressure, the omnipresent voice of her mother reminding her to only drink lattes with nonfat milk. Those years, that had all been white noise, and the white noise did not change; it simply morphed from day to day, a malevolent force from which there was no respite, constantly demanding perfection.
Those years were not so far gone.
Unhappy with her ribbons, Mia leaned over to retie her pointe shoes, careful not to dislodge the feathers attached to her wrists, hyperaware of the folds that appeared in her stomach when she bent. Finally satisfied, she rose once again, catching sight of her reflection in the full-length mirror. She ran her hands lightly over her ribcage and sacrum, remembering a time when she venerated her own bones, when she was addicted to becoming less.
“Curtain in five! Packed house, folks!”
The sequins on her thong were digging into her hips. The weight of the beaded headdress was making her neck ache. Mia wouldn’t have thought any of the performing arts could be more painful than ballet, but her burlesque debut was giving Vaganova a run for its money.
Attempting to ignore this discomfort, Mia was saved from any other remembrances of her former body by another surge of nerves so caustic she feared she would be sick. Vivid images began to bounce around her amygdala, calamitous scenes featuring her turning an ankle or losing a tassel or falling flat on the floor.
This was a mistake, she thought.
I look so fat, she thought.
This series of thoughts was firmly entrenched in her brain, a deep rut made of synapses and habit, the comfort that is familiarity with even that which is uncomfortable. It ran its course like a runaway train – Mia recalling every failure, every second-place finish, every poor decision and unfortunate consequence, all of them her own fault and all of which would never have happened if she could’ve lost more weight – until she felt almost as bad as she had before all the therapy, until she started to doubt she was making any progress with recovery whatsoever.
Clutching the window frame as a makeshift barre, Mia kept warming up, for lack of anything better to do; she listened to the 30-second-warning chime echo through the theatre.
Let’s bail, her brain suggested.
This was your idea, she shot back.
Her brain had no response for that, because it was very much the truth.
This night had been months in the making.
After venturing too close to death to ever use starvation as a coping mechanism again, Mia had sought out new reasons to stay alive; it was faraway thoughts of glitter and curves and stilettos and sex appeal that had empowered her through the nightmare of early recovery. What followed was research and rehearsal and repetition and tears, something nonlinear and inscrutable, something that looked absolutely nothing like healing…but something that was slowly helping her to heal nonetheless.
“Mia, you’re on deck.”
It was easier to take ownership of a body, she was discovering, when the body was doing burlesque. Thus she did burlesque, her most effective weapon against the unrelenting noise of her brain’s desire to descend back into Anorexia.
“I’m coming,” Mia told the stage manager, hurrying out of the Green Room and down the hall, towards the delicate cacophony of hisses and mutters that is universally recognizable as a large group of people attempting to quiet down. Approaching the auditorium, she felt a bass line begin before she heard it, a primal rhythm vibrating deep in her molars.
Backstage was an uncanny valley, a sense memory of ballet performances past, a mirror image of actual life, everything exactly as it should be but also backwards. Mia pressed rosin into her pointe shoes and rolled out her ankles; she adjusted the waistband of her thong and went to wait in the wings.
On stage, a dancer tossed off her bustier to the roar of the audience and wrapped up her number with a flurry of tassels. The emcee began Mia’s introduction while, behind the curtain, she rose en pointe and flexed her fingers to flutter the feathers at her wrists. The nerves were dissipating this close to the pull of the stage and the draw of the crowd. Rhinestones refracting the stage lights, she felt alluring like a siren; she felt ethereal like a swan. The opening notes of her music drifted across the theatre, and Mia made a resolute decision.
It wasn’t Anorexia’s body any longer; it was her own. And she was going to take it back.
Compared to the personal and economic havoc caused by the coronavirus, the loss of sporting events was trivial. Yet while arenas, ice rinks, stadiums, and ballparks were dark or off-limits, we came to appreciate just how much we do need sports to lift spirits in grim times. A particular game between the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland [then] Indians reminds fans why they love baseball and what sportsmanship is all about.
During a home game on June 2, 2010, Tigers right-hander Armando Galarraga threw what should have been a perfect game. After eight innings without a Cleveland player reaching base, excitement amped up among fans in Comerica Park as Galarraga retired the first two batters in the top of the ninth. When the twenty-seventh man bounced a grounder to the right side of the infield, Galarraga covered first base and took the throw in a close play. His teammates went wild in celebration as the umpire, Jim Joyce, called the runner … safe. Galarraga didn’t rant or throw a fit, but rather stood there with an incredulous, almost angelic smile on his face as Tigers manager Jim Leyland—never a man to hide his feelings during a game—raced out to “discuss” the play with Joyce. (Back in those days, only home run calls were subject to instant-replay review.)
After the heated conversation concluded, Galarraga returned to the mound, went about his business, and got the twenty-seventh out—or twenty-eighth, some would say. When Joyce saw the replay afterward in the clubhouse, he realized that his honest mistake had cost Galarraga a place in the record books for one of baseball’s rarest accomplishments; no-hitters number more than three hundred, but there have been only twenty-four perfect games going all the way back to 1880. Joyce, an experienced and well-regarded umpire, went to the Tigers locker room that night and apologized in front of reporters, an apology that Galarraga graciously accepted.
The next day, under the normal umpire rotation, Joyce was scheduled to move from first base to behind the plate. He could have asked to be excused rather than risk the wrath of an outraged Detroit crowd, but he did not. In a brilliant move to defuse the situation, Leyland opted to have Galarraga deliver the starting lineup to Joyce at the plate before the game. How could the crowd not be forgiving when the two men involved shook hands so publicly and gave each other a consoling pat on the back? It also didn’t hurt that General Motors had a brand-new Corvette driven onto the field, and Galarraga was handed the keys.
To honor a perfect game, the Baseball Hall of Fame typically displays a game ball and the pitcher’s cap or shoes. To recognize this uniquely imperfect yet classic example of the human element in the game, the Hall requested Galarraga’s spikes, a game ball, and first base from Comerica Park.
How often—in sports or in life—do we see an injustice resolved with such dignity and charity on both sides? But then, this is baseball, and it can teach us more than just hand-eye coordination.
We got old one Saturday morning, then went for coffee and ended up at the high school football field.
There was an event in full swing. Banners and hooting, whistling, bright costumed adults and their children coasting the margins.
The sun was oily grey.
Our temples drummed a displaced fear that only sleep can allay.
Someone near the fence-line made a tired joke about the short-bus kids hobbling Washington Street, but only young couple laughed.
We watched athletes roll the red oval track, and silently wished they could tap dance or double-Dutch, steeplechase or hurdle or even stand. But apparently nobody’s god was going to allow for this.
Soon, it was a hot midday. A grass fire burned in the foothills north of the city.
One broke-neck kid screamed, It’s foggy! and his father said no, sniffed and pointed into the chalky matchstick air, smiling, reaching across to touch his boy’s temple.
Along the metal bleachers mothers screamed into the haloed sun.
A smear of geese lowered to the midfield grass, landed in a hush, had a look around, called loudly to us all before rising and V’ing west.
Mothers watched acutely. Mothers kept score.
Mothers bit their lips, cheeks, tongues, tasting blood and carbon, worrying the afternoon into something better than it was meant to be.
Mothers made us wish again for impossible things. Afterall, these were their girls and boys, the argument they would never win.
Soon enough an air horn blew. The races ended.
Points were tallied. Ribbons pinned on t-shirts. Everyone clapped, whistled. Busses were loaded and driven back into the city.
We waved to retreating vans and lifted 4x4’s, making our way. Happy hour wasn’t far off. That was something.
We pat each other on the back, nodding that those kids, man, those kids had a nice afternoon, didn’t they?
One of us said, I’m glad we stopped by, lucky we did. We all agreed that sometimes we get lucky on days we didn’t think we would, or even could.
But also, shuffling and squinting up 10th St. we looked to each other and silently agreed to ask for one more thing, agreed to ask please, one cold afternoon months and years from now could we look back and know with certainty, that this – the wheelchair girls and boys, our juddering heads and hands, all the tired mothers and the fathers, the grass fire, the blare of that airhorn, all this life we were carrying on amidst – all of it, could it just have never happened, never been thought up or assembled, please, could none of this or us have ever been seen through or made a thing in this world at all.
A couple of us laughed at this one, saying nice try, saying very nice try but no, saying wouldn’t it be pretty to think such wishful wishes could be made manifest in this life as we slowly walked west toward the next thing.
And sometimes, those years, this is how our days unspooled.
My mother chose the day of her dying. How many of us get to do that? She, who couldn’t keep living, fixed it, like an appointment on a schedule. On her never-ending to do list, it was the last task to be completed. The results, like every other task in life, uncertain.
I’d brought a book with me to the hospital. There’s a book for every situation, but I didn’t read that day. There was a television mounted to the wall of the room, near the ceiling. It was angled down at us, the sound muted. My father didn’t bring anything. He quietly watched TV. We sat together. Saskia had brought a book too, along with some crocheting. I absently changed the channels. Saskia worked on an afghan, a bag of yarn beside her. My mother’s eyes were closed. I changed the channel. I changed it again, and again. Flip. Flip. Click. Like how we used to do it. A baseball game was on. The season hadn’t started yet, but preseason games were happening in Florida and Arizona. It was still morning, too early for a game. I stopped flipping and left it on. We kept watching, and I realized it was a replay of a classic: the 1996 World Series, Yankees, Braves. I left the game on.
Look what’s on.
My mother opened her eyes. They’re not playing yet—it’s too early.
It’s not live. This is an old one. Remember this game? It’s an old game. They come back. The Yankees come back and win. 1996, I think?
We watched all those games. We went to so many games during those years. She smiled.
Leave it on.
It was true. There were years, when I was a teenager, we went to ten or twenty Yankee games a season, driving the two hours there and the two back on weekends. We split the tickets, Sunday tickets, with a family friend. They were on the first base side. We sat six rows back, near the home team dugout. They were amazing seats. If it was quiet enough, if there was a lull in play, you could hear the players in the dugout.
In the 1996 World Series the Yankees were losing to the Braves. They were losing the overall series too. In 2022, we watched the game; they were down six to nothing in the middle innings. As a teenager, watching at home in Connecticut, I’d given up. I couldn’t stand it. It was too difficult, excruciating. With the Yankees down six to nothing, I’d abandoned the television and my family, who huddled around the game together on the sofa. I went to my room and closed the door. I turned on the radio. I turned off the lights and lay in bed. I thought it’d be easier to hear them lose, rather than watch it happen. I tuned the radio to 660 AM out of New York. It came in clear that night in 1996. They came back. I listened to it happen: hit after hit, runners rounding the bases of the dirt diamond framed by so much lush green grass. The crowd noise tremendous from the small cheap radio beside my bed.
My mom yelled from the living room, clapping, yelling for me: Derek! You’ve got to see this!
I rushed from my room when the Yankees tied the game. It went to extra innings. I sat with my family and watched them come back and win. In the days that followed, they came back and beat the Braves in the series and won their first World Championship since 1978.
My mother closed her eyes again. I turned up the volume on the game. The excitement of the announcers voices and the steady clamor of the crowd were our soundtrack. The doors to the room slid open and closed when nurses came in and out, shielding us from the rest of the ICU. The room gave privacy, which was the opposite of almost every other hospital experience I’d ever had with my mother. When you’re dying, you finally get the good room—I guess that’s what it takes. The nurses brought in sandwiches from the cafeteria. My mother wanted a burger and fries. My brother took her order, what she wanted on it, and left to get it while we grazed on the bland sandwiches and coffee. The Yankees won. With the game over, a pregame show began for a live spring training game from St. Petersburg, Florida.
Mom, they’re going to play now. It’ll be live. This is happening now.
Leave it on, she said.
I hope Judge is playing.
Aaron Judge is a twelve-year old’s idea of a professional athlete. He’s six-seven, and weighs two hundred and eighty pounds. He hits home runs with a flick of the wrist. He’s that strong. When he debuted on the team as a rookie, a section of fans sitting in the right field of Yankee Stadium, where his home runs often landed, began dressing up in long black gowns and white wigs. They were the Judge’s Chambers. It was a good bit.
We watched and the game began. My mother ate almost all of her burger, and picked at the French fries. The Yankees were at bat, hitting. Judge stepped to the plate, towering over the catcher and the umpire, both crouched near him.
The moment before the pitcher begins his windup, looking in at the catcher, getting the sign, nodding, the batter looking on, is all possibility. Anything could happen. Outcomes narrow when the ball, it red seams spinning, leaves the pitcher’s hand. When the hitter makes contact, and the ball jumps off the bat, aloft, the camera wide, the arc of the ball, the flawless green expanse of the outfield with the fielder drifting back, effortlessly—joy and disappointment are possible. More likely than not, it’ll be disappointment. Fans knows this. Great hitters fail far more often than they succeed. The players know this. Disappointment wins. But possibility is vital and eternal. The home run hit and not hit, caught at the warning track. He got under it too much. The wind shifted. The fielder made a great catch, timing his jump, reaching over the fence, robbing the batter, delighting or disappointing the fans, depending on their rooting interests.
The home run is in defiance of death. It’s the least likely outcome in the face of inevitability. We sat together, my father, Saskia, my brother, his fiancé, and I. My mother lay there between us all. The ball left the pitcher’s hand. We watched Aaron Judge’s flawless swing.
That one looks good, I said. He got all of it and then some.
The home run is an affirmation of life—at least it was that day. The home run is a relic: numbers and history. The arc of the bat. The plane of the swing. The lift of the ball. The rotation of the hitter’s hips. Head down, he makes perfect contact. The path of the ball preordained by the swing but difficult to predict—the commentators call it towering. Massive. The crowd’s intake of breath before cheering, airless and so much gravity, doing its job, flags out beyond the bleachers, the American flag extended, waving. Head up, the hitter trots to around the bases. He’s at his leisure. Head down, the pitcher kicks at the rubber on the mound. He paws at his glove: the smell of leather that has defined his life.
A home run.
Judge, massive; he can mash. Aaron Judge crosses home plate and celebrates. It’s a small celebration. It’s only spring training, after all. It’s 2022. He will hit 62 home runs, most ever in baseball’s post-steroid era. Most in the American league since 1961, when Roger Maris hit 61. These numbers are so beautiful, odd and even, asymmetrical. The popularity of baseball is waning and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. It’s a slow game, a game that is an experience. It’s a painting you look at that moves. It’s better to attend, to go to a game and see the dimensions of the field, to eat and drink and watch.
We watched Judge homer in the hospital ICU. My mother opened her eyes when I told her about it. She watched the replay. She smiled so much that day.
image: Norman Jung
He knew that the emergency room doctor would explain the manifestation of anxiety mimics cardiac arrest, not as frightening as heart attack, with its sour-sweet stench of death, and he also knew the doctor hadn’t followed him to the gallery, not in body, at least, where it was just him noticing he wasn’t breathing as on the television monitor Chris Burden at the Art Institute of Chicago plunges his face into a basin and doesn’t breathe air, breathes water, and keeps coming up choking, gasping, sputtering, which at those moments he—the he that had been in the emergency room with anxiety so intense his body went into shock, seized and cold, shaking—at those moments he breathed, heaving, gulping breaths as Burden finally breathes air; and even now, staring at the record player and the concrete ceiling and the taco hut on Broadway and the Saint Laurent ad like an omen, even as the pit of his chest constricts and he wills himself into a hot bath, where the woman waits, calm, eyes shut, funny, she hadn’t once thought about breathing water, hadn’t once thought about Burden, had only been glad that they were back in their hotel room, not in the emergency room, even now he is glad to be dying in California.
image: Dan Misdea
As a child, I swam on a team where we would pen our lane and race assignments on our chlorine dry skin with markers as thick as some of the younger girls’ forearms. I played soccer for a team with an unofficial mascot of a tattered Pink Panther stuffed toy that the MVP of the game got to take home each week. I took a dance class, where I was laughed at for suggesting we wear monkey costumes for our final performance. For a season, I played softball, hitting neon green balls with a neon green bat.
None of these athletic endeavors outlived my childhood. I would never be good enough to earn college admission from my “prowess,” so I could hardly see the point. Instead, I had taken a hard and embarrassing pivot into the realms of theater and debate.
Julia was different.
My sister, Julia, has always been a wall of muscle (a gift that resulted in many tears and cries of “I’m telling mom!”).
As I transitioned away from childhood sports, her love only intensified. She trained in CrossFit and played post on our high school’s basketball team. When she reached college, she found her true love.
I will confess to not understanding rugby.
I don’t mean the sport itself — Julia’s obsession is sufficient to make me competent in its rules (they call them laws). I just don’t understand why someone would play rugby. At the sport’s behest, Julia has had foot surgery, as well as innumerable bruises and gashes catalogued in photographs she sends to myself and my parents. She has told us horror stories of playing the sport on frozen grass in the dead of Wisconsin winter.
In every bit of game footage, Julia is bright red and covered in dirt, thrashing, like a worm plucked from the soil.
Aside from NIL contracts, it is next to impossible to make money as a women’s rugby player in the United States. It is unlikely that playing will earn you a college scholarship, and, even at the professional level, the athletes are unpaid. Unless you play internationally, it is unlikely that your pocket will grow even a penny heavier for your endurance.
Julia plays for the University of Chicago, and aspires to play for Chicago’s professional team, the Chicago Lions. Currently, players for the Lions pay their team $250 to play.
As I write this essay, she texts me, during a workout: “This is the most unpleasant 17 minutes of my life.” I am on the couch in my pajamas, seated directly in front of a fan.
But still, and still, Julia plays.
I am not a physically strong individual. I break a sweat carrying my groceries up the stairs to my apartment, and bribe friends with beer and pizza to carry heavy furniture when I move. I am not lazy, but I am not an athlete. If I go for a walk, it is to find a place to sit with a coffee and a tattered paperback. I move precisely, but never forcefully.
It is hard for me to understand Julia’s love and persistence.
I think about this often. On one occasion, I am late for a brunch with my sister and the now-graduated captain of their rugby team because I am exhausted from standing at a concert the night before.
As I slide into the outdoor dining pavilion and order an iced coffee, Julia and her friend are already talking rugby. I listen for a while, but mostly watch my drink homogenize as I stir in a swirl of milk from a small, metal pitcher.
Finally, when our eggs benedict comes, I ask. “How do you like playing rugby?” They laugh and continue eating, my question assumed to be rhetorical.
The morning light bites at my eyes and I wish I had brought sunglasses.
Julia’s games are filmed by her coach and streamed live on Instagram. The footage is vertical and shaky, and the football-field sized pitch feels almost miles away, like watching through a fisheye. It is next to impossible to recognize my own sister, until someone half her size is all but catapulted across the sidelines by the force of a tackle — that would be Julia, my parents and I say.
When I remember, I tune in.
In November, UChicago played a team from the College of St. Scholastica at the National Collegiate Rugby playoffs in the quarterfinals. They lose 45-36. (I force her to recall this loss and score for its inclusion here).
I watched this game and listened as the color drained from the coach’s voice. As the loss is realized.
As I watch Julia and her teammates pummel their bodies against a wall that has already fallen atop them, I wish the pitch didn’t feel miles away. I wish I could shout — just stop, then!
You’ve lost. What’s the point?
But there is none.
In women’s rugby, there is no glory, paltry money, and very little fame. No one’s life was changed by their fall against St. Scholastica.
But still, and still, Julia plays. For the sake of it, in the purest sense.
For them, it is a pathless activity. It is divorced from ambition, aside from ambition to be better at the thing itself. Still, I’ve never seen them happier.
It was the same when we penned lane lines on our bodies. The same when we rug-burned on indoor turf for a week’s custody of a slightly-reeking stuffed toy. Only then, it was all for the sake of it. For the feeling of life and embodiment and adrenaline.
For me, this was the feeling of childhood: seeking only the rich feeling of being alive.
I think, for Julia, this is the feeling of now.
When March comes around, I start to dream of October. Baseball and fall and a sea of orange taking over Houston. The Astros have made it a sacred time for Houstonians, the past seven years a clinic in dominance. Seven ALCS appearances, four World Series appearances, two World Championship rings.
There have been triumphs, betrayals, heartbreaks, and history. I’ve loved every second of it.
There are people who don’t understand my fantasticism, especially since I’m a lesbian from Texas. Shouldn’t I spend my time saving the state? Probably. Don’t half the players and front office hate people like you? Probably. The fans, too? Probably. Just look at the official Astros social media posts promoting Pride night. The comments range from excited and supportive, to cruel and unrelenting meanness, all citing the same book that tells them to be kind, to be patient, to let love fill them up and drown out their own ego and understanding, replacing it instead with a grace unbeknownst to anyone, truly, because it is a grace that surpasses all that can be known.
But, I digress. One of the reasons I love sports is because it isn’t about semantics. It’s not about the self or one’s place in the world or how other people might make keeping that place more difficult by the day. It is an emptying of the self. When I walk into Minute Maid Park or turn on the local broadcast, I’m still Madeline, but I’m also, more than anything, an Astros fan. It’s not equality, and it’s not even real, but for a few hours, it’s what matters most to me.
Having grown up in the Christian tradition, I’ve heard a lot about miracles throughout my life. Jesus showed up, he did stuff, and he left the people in awe. It sounded so wonderful. To have nothing and then, suddenly, with a snap of two holy fingers, something magnificent.
What sports makes me understand is that miracles don’t just happen. There’s preparation, work, grit, and that nearly manic, adrenaline fueled desperation to win. If you’ve loved a sport and played it at any level, you know that locked-in sort of focus, the way the world shrinks down to the boundaries of a field or court, and your mind thinks of nothing except burying the other team into the ground. It’s the primal urge to conquer, refined by years of practice, study, experience.
Take the 2019 MLB Postseason for example. ALCS. Astros vs. Yankees. It’s Game 6. The bottom of the ninth. Two outs. Tie game. One man on. And Jose Altuve steps up to the plate.
In another city, in another time, this will prompt boos, f-bombs, plastic trash cans tossed onto the field. In Houston, at Minute Maid Park, affectionately called The Juice Box, there is a roar and then a held breath. Prayers said silently, even by the nonreligious. In October, everyone wants a miracle. Every team has its player they turn to when they need one. The player who can change the game with one swing. The giant walking among them.
Houston’s giant stands at 5 foot, 6 inches. A second baseman from Venezuela with a mischievous grin and a shocking amount of power. He takes his bat to a pitch on the outside corner and drives it out to the left field wall. The home run sends the Astros to the World Series and Houston into a
state of jubilation.
“Do you believe in miracles? YES!” Al Michaels roared during the final seconds of the Miracle on Ice. That jubilant joy of victory. The dream chased during every season. The impossible transformed into the realm of reality.
When you witness enough miracles, they start to feel like a right. For the first three years of the
Astros’ historic dynasty, I was over a thousand miles away, going to grad school on the East Coast, trying on pretension and polished words and pushing down my subtle southern accent so people wouldn’t question my intelligence, a habit now a distant memory, my long vowels restored to their natural order.
There, I watched the Astros win and lose in Boston bars, clutching a beer and letting the tears flow freely down my face. The euphoria, the complete loss of control. Heartburn. Heartbreak. Hope. All offered up at the altar of October. The pain is a privilege for fans when their team establishes greatness as a habit, championships as the only goal.
When the local nine plays like that, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
The romance, of course, only exists in the city where they call home. The Astros are the villains of the MLB. Mention their name anywhere outside of Houston or on social media, and you’ll receive three standard replies: trashcan emojis, “cheaters,” and vague, threatening comments about the moral reprehensibility of supporting a team that cheated in the MLB. Sure, there’s been cheating before, and there was cheating by other teams, too, they seem to say, but no one did it worse than the Astros.
That’s all fine and good. It’s the natural penance for the 2017-2018 sign stealing scandal that transformed the Houston baseball team’s reputation from loveable, unlikely heroes, into the Shakespearean villains, the unforgivable bad guys that everyone loves to hate.
Everyone, that is, except the fans in Houston.
When the Astros get to October, it’s nothing but love here in the H.
Minute Maid Park has a retractable roof that stays closed for most of the season, and thank goodness for that. The hellish summer heat of Houston would be unbearable to sit through, even for me, a sycophant of the sport. But, here, again, is another miracle of October. It’s 2022, and it’s the ALCS, and the Yankees are in town, and the roof cracks open. Crisp air whips through my hair as I take in the glory of the downtown skyline from the last row in the nosebleeds. Some folks say Michelob Ultra is water, and if that’s true, then the stuff they pour at Minute Maid is holy. Cup bigger than my head, my dad next to me, the boys jogging out to their positions, and Bob Ford’s familiar boom voice pronouncing, “...your HOUSTON ASTROS!!!” Framber Valdez on the mound, Alex Bregman home run, affectionately called a “Breggy Bomb” to the Crawford Boxes, fans in the stadium and all over the city waving rally towels and screaming at the top of our lungs, one thought pressing into our cerebellum with an unrelenting force: this is our year.
And then, weeks later, as Kyle Tucker sprints to make the final out in foul territory, it is so. It is our year. And the entire sports world groans. While, down south in Texas, an entire city erupts.