I remember the day clearly. Heat curled up in waves over the diamond as sweating, chattering infielders danced like mirages before each pitch. A warm wind sent dandelion seeds swirling around me in the centerfield grass, bringing with them the smell of stale pop and mowed grass. The AC compressor of the nearby grain elevator hummed in the background, accented by sounds of children laughing and playing in the nearby city pool and park. The southwest sky behind me had turned ominously dark, but on days like this in rural Missouri, this was always a good omen.
It was a tight game, and a league championship game against our arch-rival across town. We were clinging to a 5-4 lead with one out in the last inning and a the tying run on third base base. The batter up was 3 for 3 and their best hitter, driving every fastball thrown to him all over the field that day. Since none of you were there and I know I have unverifiable poetic license, it was a 3-2 count and most of the town was in the stands - that's how I choose to remember it anyway. The sky behind me flashed with lightening and thunder rumbled to the "oohs" and "ahhs" of the crowd. A cool gust of the coming storm raised hairs on the back of my neck. And then, there was a crack of the bat.
You always want to be the one who caught the last out, but that is afterwards. Most who watch a screaming line drive spinning awkwardly towards them with a championship on the line are scared to death, and the rest are lying. I took a line on the ball, said a quick "Dear Lord, Please don't let me screw up" prayer and, somehow, caught the ball. By sheer adrenaline, and with no small help from the gusts of the imminent storm, the throw to the plate was more of a strike than any of the pitches I'd thrown in a forgettable releif appearance earlier in the game. There was a collision at the plate, but our catcher was the toughest guy on the field - he always won collisions, and we won a championship. What followed can only be understood by people who have ever had an experience like that, at any level, but is part of why I still love this game so much. This is what baseball is, and what it has always been.
I usually write very meticulous posts, tirelessly researched by facts and figures to make some fascinating point (at least I always think it's fascinating). But, I don't write posts to make fascinating points, or spend time tracking pitch after pitch so I can go update my statisitical analyses. I do all of this for the same reason fans and players everywhere make baseball such a part of their life for 8 months out of the year - I love this game. There is nothing more factual and statistically relevant in all of baseball for me than this one simple fact.
Not only do I love this game, but I respect the talent and heart of the players that are good enough to play it at such a high level - everyone from Albert Pujols to Milton Bradley to Aaron Miles to David Patton. I respect and value each and every one of them, because I know how good they are to have even gotten out of Low A ball. And, because I know there's no way a single one of them would be on that field if they didn't have something in common with that rural midwest little leager 25 years ago. Though there are many distractions in the game today, each of these guys, beneath it all, is a kid playing baseball. And when they take the field, they give all of us a chance to relive that dream every day of the summer.
So the next time a Cubs relief pitcher walks someone, or your kid strikes out in a little league game, or your team loses when you really hoped they would win, remember why YOU'RE there. Remember that you've chosen to give up your valuable free time over anything else you could have put in your busy schedule, to take your seat at the table of America's pastime. Why do you buy the tickets, participate in online discussion, coach or watch little league games?
Why? For the perennial distraction to summer heat, where the crack of a bat holds all the same promise as the crack of thunder after a hot midwest summer day. For the smiles and gossip over a beer (or soda) and hot dog in bleachers overlooking those green fields. For the wins as well as the losses, the 14-12 slugfests and 1-0 pitching duels, for the fun and the fandom - For the Love of Baseball.