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The Meaning of Baseball

Column: 
Papi and flag

Here's a little something I wrote last week after the season ended last week. For those who understand the meaning of baseball:

You could argue that this year’s World Series victory by our hometown team means, in the grand scheme, absolutely nothing. Professional sports, including baseball, are both big business and entertainment, and the results have little long-term impact on the casual fan. In a week or two, this run of late nights, bleary-eyed mornings, and water cooler celebrations will pass, and we’ll be on to the next preoccupation. The NFL playoffs are only a couple short months away.

You could also argue, however, that any baseball season (especially one marked by the first championship celebrated at Fenway Park since 1918) means everything – and not for the reasons you might think.

When the Red Sox season began last early April, no one could have predicted that, two short weeks later, the city would be rocked by the bombing at the Boston Marathon. As is often the case following a tragic event, professional sports venues become the stages on which cities (and, arguably, the nation) begin to unify in perseverance. Consider, for example, the New Orleans Saints’ emotional season following Hurricane Katrina, or the first contests in New York after 9/11. In similar fashion, we looked to the Red Sox and to the emotional gatherings in the back bay ballpark to transmit the “Boston Strong” sentiment across New England and, perhaps more importantly, to provide the distraction necessary to promote the gradual healing of a community in deep pain.

In early May, my mother entered the hospital, and soon thereafter it became clear that she would spend her final days there. My father and I (and occasionally my sister, who twice made the trip from the west coast) kept vigil in her room, holding her hand and engaging with her when she was lucid enough to talk. For the rest of the time, we made small talk, told stories, and, during those hospital evenings and nights where time seems to stand still, watched the Red Sox. From the small couch twenty feet from my mother’s bed we huddled and watched the games, sometimes with sound, sometimes without. We made the occasional comment and had the occasional laugh and speculated about the team’s chances. Later on those evenings, on my drive home from Boston during the late innings, I listened on the radio and sometimes called my father to stay connected:

“You watching?”
“Yeah. Lester looks good.”
“I’ll call you in the morning.”
“Be careful. I love you.”

And we’d do it again the next day, and for days after, until my mother was gone. Baseball had provided a safe place to rest, a comfortable space to which we could retreat, if only for a stolen moment in the midst of the most devastating loss of our lives.

As summer passed, I made trips to the ballpark with my son and with my friends and family. To walk through the turnstile, up the ramp and into Fenway Park is to be completely consumed by a magical green place, perfectly manicured and yet adorned with the architectural warts that give the park its mythical quality. To walk into that setting with a child is to instantaneously create a memory for her or him that will last a lifetime, and to take in a game with an old friend is to strengthen a bond and to plant a milestone by which other memories are preserved.

I am not good at all about maintaining connection with friends and others who are not close by. I think often about penning a note or making a call, but more often I am on with the concerns of the day, promising myself to reach out “sometime soon.” Having a team in the World Series, however, is like inviting all the people you love most back into your world for a magical week. My oldest and dearest friend, whom I have known since we were five years old and with whom I played Little League as a child, has gone in and out of view over the last several years, as old friends sometimes will. Last Wednesday, a few hours before Game One, he called out of the blue with a spare ticket. That night, we sat beside each other, each pushing fifty, talking about our children, high-fiving like kids, watching our childhood team win a historic game.

I have another close friend with whom I text incessantly during games and with whom I have attended many a game at Fenway. As luck would have it, he is in Bangkok this week on business and watched Game 7 from a hotel room a world away. During the sixth inning a text chimed in with a video attached, a panorama of a city in broad daylight, a skyline, a muddy river, and a well-appointed hotel room, in the corner of which was a television screen displaying an otherworldly green field and a baseball diamond. In another text message from a former colleague, a Yankee fan, was this message: “Here’s to Papi! My grandmother, the biggest Yankee fan I know, called him the black Babe Ruth…and she saw Babe Ruth.” From my friends in California came more text messages, each containing heartfelt congratulations, as though I had won the series MVP.

I called my father just before last night’s game, but we did not connect. This morning I had an email from him that contained this line: “Good game but sorry to see it end – another harbinger of an approaching winter.”

A season ended last night, one of tragedy, loss, and perseverance. A season, like all seasons, that provides strangers a topic for conversation, adults a platform on which to bond with their children, grown men the opportunity to jump up and down and shout out loud and high five and hug each other with all their might. I love this game of baseball. It means nothing, and it means everything. For now, it’s over. Thankfully, there’s always next year.

Dave Provost is head of school at the Glen Urquhart School in Beverly Farms, MA.  He was formerly head of Nantucket New School and an accomplished musician.