Sunday, April 5, 2015

Baseball from the Heart

I've spent the better part of my Easter Sunday browsing through YouTube videos. It sparked from a friend's Facebook post linking to a recap video of the Kansas City Royals historic playoff-run last October. Have you seen how many are out there? Hundreds, seemingly. Most have the term "Blue October" in the title. Some will give you chills, maybe even produce a happy tear or two. But all of them have one thing in common... everyone's happy until the end.


* * *

When I was a child, baseball was my life. Nothing stood in front of it. I loved the terrible Royals, and even more, I loved playing the game. My earliest memory on a ball diamond was back in tee-ball, when they allowed coaches to stand in the outfield to keep the kids from getting distracted from the excitement that was a three-foot tall human being trying to hit a ball off a tee using an aluminum weapon. I remember thinking, "Hey, coach, you can go chill in the dugout. I got this." I was probably the only one paying attention to the actual game.

My passion knew no limits. By the end of January of each year it had already become a daily routine for me to try and convince my dad that it was time for practices to begin. On game days, I'd be fully in uniform by the time breakfast was served. Sometimes I'd even beg to be dropped off at the park early just so I could watch all the other games before ours.

I just loved the game. To this day, there's a really strange sense of satisfaction I get when I simply hold the ball. This observation was first realized in a special "History of Baseball" class taught by *the walking encyclopedia* Mr. Farmer in middle school. First day of the entire course, he pulls a baseball out of his desk, leans over a table and in the softest of tones says, "Have you ever just held a baseball? There's nothing like it. I want everybody to take a moment and just hold the ball. Feel it. If you don't absolutely love it, this class probably isn't for you."

I'll never forget that moment.

But then high school came, and things weren't exactly smooth at home, and my influences changed. My brother had gone off to college, my dad was somewhere that I wasn't, and my passion for baseball had oddly fallen victim to that sense of betrayal. In a lame attempt to suppress my heartache, I stopped playing midway through high school. The dream had died.

* * *
On September 26, 2014, the Kansas City Royals clinched their first playoff-berth in 29 years. That's a lifetime for guys my age. To celebrate, me and two of my closest friends walked across the street to a liquor store, purchased several bottles of extremely cheap champagne and proceeded to waste every ounce of it all over ourselves. We didn't know how long the feeling would last. We just knew we'd never felt it before. We were kids again. I was a kid again. For the first time in so damn long, when I thought about the Royals and the game of baseball, it coincided with a smile.
All the years of losing, terrible trades, circus-act performances led by Emil Brown and Yuniesky Betancourt... gone but not forgotten. And then October happened, and the heart-stopping wild card comeback, and the Mike Moustakas catch while falling into a crowd of fans and so on. Lorenzo Cain dazzled and Eric Hosmer became a national star, and BILLY BUTLER STOLE A FREAKING BASE, YOU GUYS. The stuff legends are made of.
But then we lost game seven of the World Series by 90 feet...
As children, my brother and I would stand in front of the TV with a bat in hand while watching the Royals and imagine being each player that came up to the plate (yes, in the living room, sorry mom). We'd emulate each player's stance and everything. But then our imaginations would take hold, and before you knew it, it was bottom of the 9th, 3-2 count, down by a run, and guess who was hitting. Except in our worlds, I don't remember the game ending with a foul pop-out to Pablo Sandoval. Ugh. But that's what Kansas City collectively experienced last October. Imagine waking up abruptly from the greatest dream you've ever had just before the best part was about to unfold. Not like this. It can't end like this.
But it did.

So I've contemplated how to express what October 2014 meant to me since the day it ended. What to write, what to say, how to even remotely describe the journey that the Kansas City Royals took us all on, how to make any sense out of the deeply rooted emotions now pouring from my heart. Then, while still browsing YouTube, I came across my favorite video of all, one set up just outside the stadium, recording the sounds echoing from The K just before and after the final out of the American League Championship Series that gifted an entire generation of bitter baseball fans and my beloved city its first World Series since the year I was born.

In the video, when that ground ball is struck toward third base, for a brief second Kauffman Stadium and everyone watching at home pauses and becomes silent. I was certainly holding my breath, hoping the moment would never end. And maybe that's what Blue October was. An aberration, a pause from reality, a departure from the norm. A dream that eventually had to end. At some point you have to wake up, open your eyes, breathe out.

November came, and so did the cold... and with it a feeling of incompletion. But here we are. We survived. I write to you with the joy and sense of freedom of a child on Christmas Eve. Baseball is back. Did you hear that? Baseball is BACK. I just cannot contain my excitement. Five months ago I lived a dream that I was certain had faded with the freedom of my childhood. Today, a new one begins.

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