Sports

In Praise of Baseball Season’s Opening Day

Fans outside Yankee Stadium in 2013. (Ray Stubblebine/Reuters)
What is America’s finest game about, if not returning home?

Memories are a funny thing.

The more you reflect on one, and the more time that passes, the hazier it becomes. Maybe, at first, you misremember a tiny detail, altering it slightly. Do that a few times, and a few years later you can’t be sure that it bears much resemblance at all to what really happened. “Fuzzy trace theory” is one explanation that psychologists and researchers have developed for such tricks of memory. We slowly and accidentally train our minds to clearly remember something that never happened. In fact, researchers say, we do it all the time.

For me, baseball — New York Yankees baseball, I mean (is there another kind?) — has always been an exception to this phenomenon. One of my earliest, most vivid childhood memories is of sitting on the couch with my dad, transfixed by the TV, forcing my eyelids open so I could watch the Yankees defeat the Mets in the 2000 Subway Series.

When I think of my first game at Yankee Stadium, I recall the taste of the liquid painkiller my mom gave me in the stands; I had a bad fever and a sore throat, but I hardly noticed. The game ended with clutch centerfielder Bernie Williams hitting a walk-off home run to defeat the Minnesota Twins and clinch the AL East.

Last May, I went on a whim to a day-night, single-admission doubleheader, that increasingly endangered event. (This one was forced by rain.) I rode the subway from Brooklyn to the Bronx and sat in the bleachers for ten hours, alone in a crowd of thousands, but perfectly content. Between games, they unveiled a plaque for Derek Jeter, my childhood hero, in Monument Park. It marked the end of an era for the Yankees, and for me.

In the fall, I went back for game four of the ALCS, watching with glee as the Yankees defeated the Houston Astros in a raucous late comeback. Players said afterwards that the crowd hadn’t been that loud since the stadium opened in 2009. For the first time, they said, the building was full of the same grit and spirit as the old stadium across the street.

Every fan has his own list of unique baseball moments, but I can guarantee they are exactly like mine in how sharply they are etched into the mind. We possess them in a way we possess no other memories. They can’t be touched by that deadly “fuzzy trace.” They need no mental remaking. Baseball memories are different, because this impossible game touches on something fundamentally human: our innate longing for the eternal.

In the prologue to his epic novel Underworld, Don DeLillo describes, through the eyes of a fictional announcer, the aftermath of Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning, walk-off home run for the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in 1951:

Russ thinks this is another kind of history. He thinks [the fans] will carry something out of here that joins them all in a rare way, that binds them to a memory with protective power. People are climbing lampposts on Amsterdam Avenue, tooting car horns in Little Italy. Isn’t it possible that this midcentury moment enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping strategies of eminent leaders, generals steely in their sunglasses — the mapped visions that piece our dreams? Russ wants to believe a thing like this keeps us safe in some undetermined way. This is the thing that will pulse in his brain come old age and double vision and dizzy spells — the surge of sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in. This is the people’s history and it has flesh and breath that quicken to the force of this old game of ours. And fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren . . . that they were here when it happened.

The staying power of memories and moments like this one is largely due to nostalgia, of course — but not in our watered-down conception of it. “Nostalgia” combines the Greek words nostos and algos to mean “a pain at returning home.” And what is baseball about, if not returning home?

The graceful game of baseball always feels like a homecoming to the fan because it satisfies our contradictory longings for both enchanting novelty and comfortable stability.

The graceful game of baseball always feels like a homecoming to the fan because it satisfies our contradictory longings for both enchanting novelty and comfortable stability. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis captures this odd contradiction, writing from the perspective of one demon instructing another about how best to tempt his human charge:

The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, [God] (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them. . . . But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme.

Baseball is one such season, balancing these loves with ease, a rhythm that defines each year and answers our irreconcilable yearnings for fantastic impossibilities and reliable permanence. It begins anew in the dew of spring, with all the promise of “turning over a new leaf,” any team’s to win. It winds down in the dusk of autumn, as days shorten and wintry chill breathes just around the corner. There’s always next year.

And in between is all the sunny haze of summer, long nights under the lights and the grassy fields home to a game that seems to promise it’ll go on forever. Lewis writes later in Screwtape that “the present is the point at which time touches eternity.” To the true fan, the baseball season — every game, every inning, every pitch, every swing — feels never-ending, timeless moments strung together to mimic the eternal present. Our game refuses to be dictated by the demands of a ticking clock. In a split second, a single swing can transform the humblest bench player into the vaunted hero, hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates as if he belonged there all season.

There seems to be more talk than ever these days of speeding up baseball. The experts tell us that the crowd gets bored when the game slows down. The league toys with instituting a pitch clock. The minor leagues experiment with placing a runner on second base to start off extra innings. Next year, teams might be allowed to send any player to the plate in the final inning. All in a quest to shave those extra milliseconds off the season — we have to save the fans some time, they say.

I say let baseball be timeless. Give us our slow moments of eternity in the sun. That’s why we love it.

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