Baseball, more than any other sport, is a religion (also maybe a bit like a cult), and most of us become devout followers when we’re kids. It is a game grounded in nostalgia for the quaint and innocent days of our childhood; our dad teaching us to play catch in the backyard, meeting up with the neighborhood kids to play pickup wiffle ball games where the torn, sweaty caps of our favorite teams served as bases, trading cards that never held any real value apart from how they made us feel when we held them in our hands. Baseball binds itself to our memories of being young, to the hopes and dreams and naivety during our youth, and never lets go. We used to imagine that someday, we too might be playing in Game 7 with the World Series on the line, while millions of other children sat where we once did, enthralled by the ethereal magic of a simple game. Baseball is the sport for children, the one we will always connect to our time as a kid. But eventually we all grow up.
My love for baseball blossomed before I was really even old enough to remember. I took my first swing in t-ball, a line drive to center field with extra-base potential, and I bolted out of the batter’s box straight for 3rd base (people laughed, but I thought it was just a market deficiency to get an easy triple). I got my first glove when I was 4, a small, brown and black Wilson that I wore until I was 9 and it was beyond too small for me. I would spend hours each day tossing a ball against a pitch back in my yard, making acrobatic plays, and, once, throwing it a bit too hard so that it ricocheted off of my face and gave me a fat lip. (That really sucked. My mom had made lemon bars that night but I couldn’t even eat them because it stung my lip too much). From those first moments I spent on the diamond, I became a baseball lifer.
My first year playing on that t-ball team – called “The Bad Boys” – my dad went on a business trip to Baltimore, and saw Pedro Martinez pitch his 20th win of the season at Camden Yards. He returned home with a Boston Red Sox cap, a celebratory gift for his son that had just become acquainted with the game. I was born in Washington, lived in Colorado, Pennsylvania, then Washington again, and have no ties to New England, but from that day on, I rooted for the Boston Red Sox, and I wore that hat to school every day. We ordered the MLB Extra Innings package, and I started watching all the Sox games or Rockies games or Mariners games that I could. Part of the reason I look back on these times so fondly is because of the players I was able to watch as I grew up. Then, they were my idols; now, they are symbols of a time of unbridled joy in my life. I hope I always remember them.
The first baseball card I ever got was a 2003 Topps Opening Day Ichiro Suzuki in a pack I opened on Christmas morning. Blue-bordered with a green bottom, Ichiro is taking a lead in the Mariners’ road jersey, a pose I drew him in for multiple assignments in kindergarten (they were universally acclaimed by my class). The other cards in the pack were quickly thrown aside to marvel at Ichiro, who became my favorite player, the leadoff hitter on every fictional Red Sox team I ever created, and my first pick whenever I played Backyard Baseball (pro tip: young Ichiro was a heck of a pitcher). He was mythical to me, to the point where I truly am unable to come up with the words to describe my relationship with this man that I have never even met. Ichiro’s was the first jersey that I ever owned, Ichiro graced the only poster I had on my bedroom wall, Ichiro made nonchalant catches behind his back and between his legs during batting practice at my first Major League game that, if I wasn’t completely brainwashed by him before, left me as the most devout disciple of Ichiro Suzuki in the land. (He also had an infield single that game. It was awesome.) When Ichiro had 262 hits in a season, I tried to change my Little League number to 262, only to be told the highest they would allow was 20, and when Ichiro hit his in-the-park home run to lead off the All-Star Game, I ran upstairs in a frenzy and woke up both of my parents to breathlessly tell them about the blur that had just circled the bases. Ichiro was my idol, baseball or otherwise, the person I dreamt of and pretended to be more than anyone else. And it all started with that baseball card.
I have collected cards ever since that Christmas in 2003. After the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 (I don’t know if you knew they did that, but they did), my dad bought me a Topps Total Team Set that quickly became my most cherished possession, featuring all-time Red Sox players like Mike Myers, Matt Clement, and Jay Payton. On my seventh birthday, I saved up fifty dollars and had my mom take me to Target to buy the 2005 Topps Complete Set, a design that, in my very biased opinion, is the best the brand has ever had. Unable to contain my giddiness, I had my parents and grandparents sit in the kitchen with me and go through every card in the 600-something count box, sorting first by number, then last name, then team, then by position by team, until I practically could have described all the cards from memory. The one time I got in trouble as a kid (for lying about brushing my teeth, and trying to hide the evidence by shoving my toothbrush down the garbage disposal), my baseball cards were taken away from me as a punishment.
Over time, my collection became more and more specialized. The old prizes of my lot (a badly water damaged 2005 Jose Lopez card that my cousin and I traded back and forth, each time for a more and more ridiculous demand, a Vlad Guerrero rookie card that got bent in half, a David Wright card where he was making a funny face) gave way to autograph and relic cards, Red Sox team sets, and more expensive, specific cards. But if you open the binder filled with my best cards, my pages of autographs and sport prints and variations and Aaron Rowand World Series relics, the first space on the first page belongs to that 2003 Topps Opening Day Ichiro card. It is bent at the corners now, but I keep it in a plastic sleeve for preservation.
The 2018 Boston Red Sox were one of my favorite teams that I have ever watched. After the sweep of the Yankees in August, I told myself that anything afterwards was just a cherry on top, because this group had already given me more joy in the regular season than any team in my lifetime. It was a thrill to watch them play every day, and now that 2018 is over, I feel a lingering depression that I can never watch the 2018 Red Sox, that specific itineration of the team, play again. The only thing that could have possibly made the season better was David Ortiz.
In my second year of Red Sox fandom, the man they called Big Papi burst onto the scene, and, like Ichiro, became a God-like figure to me. It was Ortiz and Ramirez, back-to-back, hitting moonshots that left my eyes as wide as, well, moons. I was a natural right-handed hitter, and mimicked Ramirez’s swing for the first several years of my baseball career. But when I was seven, I decided that I wanted to swing like Ortiz, too. I spent the next two weeks in my backyard teaching myself to hit left handed just so I could pretend that I was David Ortiz walking off games against the New York Yankees. I must have taken a few thousand cuts a day out there until I went from swinging and missing to spraying line drives off of the fence, and, occasionally, my mom’s flower beds. I continued to train myself to swing left handed in my spare time, but during my actual games, I only hit right handed. Eventually my dad talked me into giving switch hitting a try in a game, a single game, a test run to see if I could do it. I was nervous beyond belief, but my first at-bat next game, I strode up to the plate and stepped into the left-handed batter’s box. I fell into David Ortiz’s crouch, as natural as anything I had ever done, and on my first swing, I hit a home run out of the park. It was my first ever, and one of only two I would hit in my 14 years playing.
My favorite thing to do as a kid was to pretend to play out the MLB: I would head into my backyard, toss a ball up in the air, hit it, announcing and playing as everyone on the field, and repeating for hours. I kept detailed stats for each team, written in a purple mechanical pencil, made trades and signings each offseason to construct perfect rosters, played out managers arguing and getting ejected, and saved every box score along with a game summary that I wrote out. Basically, it was OOTP before OOTP, all done in an seven-year old’s wide-ruled notebook. On my eighth birthday, I went to a game at Coor’s Field with my dad, and somehow ended up with three baseballs by the end of the night. These were real, big-league, leather, hard baseballs that I could use for my league to give it an air of authenticity. I still have one of those balls, the first official ball I ever got, in a case on my desk. The other two were eventually lost when I hit them into the street and they rolled away (for the record, both of those balls were lost on home runs hit by fictional Carlos Delgado, so if you are reading this Mr. Delgado, you can GO TO HELL). I used this league to put all of my favorite players on the Red Sox. Pedroia, Youkilis, Lowell, and Varitek were joined by Ichiro (of course), Adrian Beltre, Ken Griffey Jr., Scott Rolen, and whoever else happened to have captured my imagination at the time. But Ortiz was so precious to me that I refused to ever have him in the league. I made up stories about how he had retired early to go live in outer space, or become a modest farmer, providing for his family, and living out his remaining days in a quaint house in Puyallup. I knew that however well I hit with him in my pretend league, in my tiny backyard, wearing an Ichiro jersey and my Red Sox cap, and swinging my disco-green drop-13 bat, I would be doing the real man a disservice.
I cried alone in my car when David Ortiz played the final game of his career. It was pouring rain outside, and I just sat there, cold and desolate and lonely, weeping for at least an hour. There are some years where it’s a lot of fun when your team wins, and some years when your life is so miserable that you need your team to win to feel any sort of reason to get out of bed in the morning. 2016 was one of those years, and not only did the loss bring the devastation that comes with a season that falls short, but it brought to the end the career of a man who had been on the Red Sox since essentially when I started rooting for them. I didn’t know how to watch baseball without David Ortiz playing. It sounds so silly, but the prospect of it was terrifying, a clear mark that I wasn’t so young anymore. So I sat in my car and mourned this loss, and skipped school the next day, just like I did when Jon Lester signed with the Cubs.
When it stopped raining, I decided to go outside and take one more swing as Big Papi. At this point, I hadn’t played baseball in nearly two years, and hadn’t swung lefty in five or six, but his stance was still entrenched in my muscle memory. I picked up the bat, pretended to give my batting gloves a spit and a slap, and stepped in. It felt just as normal as it had all those years ago when I hit that home run. I tossed the ball in the air, and swung a mighty swing, worthy of David Ortiz. It would have been a groundout into the shift.
In the summers, I would go visit my cousin who had a PS2. The Red Sox had just won the World Series, which I didn’t really understand the gravity of as a seven year old transplant fan, but I knew my favorite team was the best team, and now, one of my favorite players was on the cover of my favorite game: Manny Ramirez on MVP Baseball 2005. I don’t care if you like traditional stats or sabermetrics, if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, or if you do or don’t think Zac Efron’s Hairspray is the best movie of all time (hint: it is). Whatever you think, you better admit that MVP ’05 is the greatest sports video game of all time. You don’t need to be a science computer to recognize this, and anyone who disagrees is probably a witch. My cousin and I would play this game for literal days in a row, singing along to Tessie for the millionth time, and making stadium designs that were highly questionable. My cousin was a Mariners fan, and before the 2005 season, they signed Adrian Beltre. Despite his struggles in his first year in Seattle, both of us were captivated by him anyway. He played the game with such a tangible, refreshing passion and joy that we couldn’t help but gravitate towards. Regardless of what team we were playing as (usually the Marlins, and I truly don’t know why), Beltre would invariably end up on the team. My love for him was rewarded throughout the rest of his career, not only due to his incredibly fun stint in Boston, but because even after he left, he gave me more and more reasons to adore him each season. I hadn’t yet seen him throw his glove at Elvis Andrus, move the on deck circle, or swing out of his jersey yet, but every year I grew older, Beltre got more fun.
There were an infinite amount of things to love about MVP Baseball, but my absolute favorite was this little glitch that happened on occasion when a player would hit a fly out to center. It wouldn’t be anything special, just a normal fly ball, but one of the announcers would get incredibly excited anyway. Just like the cameramen who worked every postseason series the Red Sox were in this year, the announcers seemed to think any ball hit in the air would be a home run, and the guy would go, “A HIGH FLY TO CENTER………caught, for out number one.” The two of us couldn’t get enough of it after we heard it the first time, dying laughing. The ridiculousness of acting like a weak fly ball was a blast put us in stitches. That glitch happened about one out of every thirty or so fly outs, but what was even better were the exceedingly rare times where it actually did turn into a homer. The announcers had conditioned us to expect their celebrations to mean easy outs, but then, randomly, the excitement was warranted and the ball cleared the wall. (Juiced balls?)
In one game with the Marlins franchise, Adrian Beltre strode to the plate in the bottom of the 8th inning in a 17-2 thrashing of the Braves, who had our arch nemesis in the game, Johnny Estrada, on their roster. Jermaine Dye (who we always hit leadoff and played at catcher, for some reason) and Tony Womack (who was always our second baseman, for some other reason) were on base. Beltre already had three homers on the day, and was looking to make it a four homer game. We had done a lot of cool things on MVP Baseball 2005: we had thrown a few no-hitters, and even a perfect game from Brad Penny, hit for the cycle on several occasions, and won the World Series with Antonio Alfonseca as our closer. But we had never had a four homer game, and we wanted it bad.
First pitch, Beltre swung and lifted a lazy fly into center. Sure enough, the announcers were all over it. “A HIGH FLY TO CENTER!” The excitement for a normal play was infectious, and we started to laugh as the play unfolded. It certainly was high, though it didn’t seem to be much other than that. But the ball kept carrying, and carrying, and suddenly, the center fielder was back at the track, and oh my god, this was going to be that once in a season span where the announcers reverse-psychology-ed the game into making a soft fly ball a homer, and Beltre was going to have a four-homer game, and…
Andruw Jones leapt at the wall, and robbed him. Jermaine Dye tagged from third and scored without a throw, a sac-fly for Beltre to make it 18-2 . He would settle for just three homers that day. We never got that close to four again.
I turned 20 in August. Adrian Beltre, just 26 in MVP Baseball 2005, is now retired. I graduated high school, transferred colleges twice, became an uncle, and started liking the taste of asparagus since David Ortiz hung up his cleats, and Ichiro, his goodbye-tour of Japan now completed, has finally followed suit. There are so few players left on active rosters that were in the league when I first became a fan that I can count them on my two hands. Once, these players were my superheroes, baby faced and agile, young and strong and seemingly invincible. Immortal. They made plays I would emulate in my backyard, had batting stances that I spent hours practicing until they were identical, and made me feel like I would be young forever. Now, they are greying men who’s bodies have betrayed them. They either retired on top, which was sad in itself, or hung around long enough to toil as well-below average players, which was torture to have to watch. Ichiro, Ortiz, Beltre, even Carlos Beltran, Chase Utley, David Wright, and Joe Mauer, all took my breath away, and had me leaving five-minute long rambling messages on the phone to my dad about what highlights he had to watch that night.
I don’t get to watch those players play anymore, and outside of the old games I have stockpiled on my computer, I never will again. Someday, I’ll be one of the only people around who remembers So Taguchi or Mark Loretta or Jarrod Washburn, players who won’t go down in the history books, but left an indelible mark on me that I couldn’t begin to explain to someone who didn’t grow up watching baseball. It is a sobering reminder of my own mortality, that even though the game of baseball is, at heart, a sport for kids to play on a summer day and talk about the incredible feats of Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and, now, Mike Trout, we can’t be young forever.
My dad gave me that first Red Sox hat in 2002, the beginning of my love affair with the game of baseball. Now, it seems to be a distant memory, like the last time the Dodgers didn’t lose in the World Series. I still have my cards, a few Major League baseballs, and my cousin and I start up MVP Baseball every few years, but not very much has stayed the same since 2002. I wore that hat every day for a very long time. It is soaked in sweat, dirt, and grime, tearing at the seams, and the cloth on the brim has stripped away to reveal a hard piece of plastic that used to be shiny, but is now also browned by dirt and dull from wear and exposure. I keep it hung up on my bedroom wall now so that I can look at it from time to time and remember my first days as a young boy falling in love with baseball, and watching the players I worshipped set records. The day after the Red Sox won the World Series this year, I took it off of its hanger, just for fun, and put it on my head. It didn’t fit.
Featured Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ichiro_Suzuki_2010.jpg)