Bringing my Mitt

I fell in love for the first time in the 8th grade. However, it wasn’t with another human being. I fell hopelessly, endlessly, passionately, and head over heels with the great American pastime: b-a-s-e-b-a-l-l. Infatuation quickly morphed into a full-blown love affair, the flames of which have never extinguished even all these years later.

More specifically, I fell in love with my hometown team: the Detroit Tigers – on the cusp of their lowest point in franchise history. It was only fitting that my path would cross with the Tigers during this time. A match made in heaven.

Like the Tigers, I also endured a lot of downtrodden losing in my own personal life – beginning with the constant stream of bullying I endured and ranging in everything from my dating life, to the eventual never ending stream of rejections that I confronted on almost a daily basis (first with my peers, later with dating and – most notably – my writing career).

Like any good marriage, I have stuck with my #1 team for better or for worse, through sickness and through health, from April through October. Enduring off-seasons are like the equivalent of having a partner who must take leave for a long period of time, making the promised reunion all the most resonant. Absence truly does make the heart grow fonder, as evidenced with the arrival of every April, when I find myself loving the game even more than I did the previous season.

My first exposure to the game actually took place several years before my passion soared into full-flight when my parents signed me up for recreational tee-ball. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that I would become a much better fan than I ever was going to be a player. The bullying from my opponents and my teammates certainly didn’t matter. Being afraid of the ball didn’t help matters. Nor did running to the wrong base (e.g. running from home to third … on a strikeout). Sure, I was only a beginner. But I was still running to third at the end of the season, too. At least I wasn’t running on strikeouts anymore.

Somehow, my failed tee-ball experiment managed to plant a seed deep within my subconscious, years before it would eventually blossoming into fandom, of which there are several different levels: fanatics, moderates, and bandwagon. Overall, I’d say I’m in the moderate category, with a sprinkling of superstitions that occasionally push me into the realm of fanatic. I can certainly never be accused of being a bandwagon fan, which is attested by my unwavering devotion to my hometown team, no matter how bad they may be. And for most of my formative years, there was no shortage of bad.

I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that was conducive to becoming a sports fan. My mother at least watched baseball on TV every now and then, as I begged to watch reruns of Facts of Life or Diff’rent Strokes. My father, on the other hand, did nothing to foster my skill or passion for the game. Unlike most little boys, my father doesn’t give a shit about sports. In fact, he goes out of his way to make it known any chance he gets, going so far as to make fun of others who love sports. My dad was a late-70’s burnout. Sports didn’t quite fit the mold of the mid-70’s burnout that he was (missing the hippy wagon by a few years, he didn’t have a cause to fight for. But there was still plenty of weed to smoke).

When I finally went to my first Tigers game, it wasn’t with my father, but rather with my Grandma’s longtime boyfriend, Chuck (who was like a third grandfather to me). At the time, I had no more than a fleeting interest in the game, with excitement measured only by hot dogs, nachos, and Cracker Jack, as opposed to base hits, home runs, and stolen bases. Chuck had season tickets to old Tiger Stadium (lower-deck, third base side, a few rows back from the Tigers’ dugout – which would have been paradise for a “real” fan) and took me to several games each summer throughout my youth. Beyond that, I never tuned into games at home and never had any idea – or interest – in what their record was (which during that time, was a blessing). In fact, I barely paid attention to the score while watching it live.

But things were about to change.

During the spring of my 8th grade year, I made a conscious decision to become a devoted follower of the Tigers. The seed had finally taken root, making me a late-bloomer in both sports and puberty. Perhaps subconsciously, I figured if I liked sports, than my peers would like me. But that wasn’t quite how it worked out. In the meantime, I started watching baseball on a regular basis. There was no turning back. My theory was that I simply saw enough reruns of Facts of Life to last a lifetime. And one can only take so much of Mr. Drummond … let alone Mrs. Garret. It was time for something new. It was time to become a man.

I remember that first Opening Day as a christened-fan. My school had a half-day. My mom prepared egg salad sandwiches, which I ate while I read the season preview in the Detroit News like a true sports fan with game time less than an hour away. My baseball journey was about to take full flight.

Unfortunately, it was 1990. At that point in time, there was plenty of space left on the bandwagon, which was not only empty – but running on fumes. By the end of the decade, the The Tigers had amassed more losses than any other team. Things didn’t get much better at the turn of the century, either. In fact, rock bottom hit in 2003 when the Tigers fell short of setting the all-time loss record by one game (53-119). Despite the losses, I continued cheering them on, taking jabs from family and friends for my blind devotion, and watching just about every game with the hope that things were finally going to turn around and that my allegiance would make things all the more sweeter if – when – they finally did win. And if you are an eternal optimist like myself… life was always a matter of when.

Despite the losing, nothing dampened my enthusiasm for my beloved team – the tell-tale sign of true love. Of course, I wanted them to win more than anything, but I knew that it was only a matter of time. I just had to be patient. With each passing year, I continued to echo this refrain, truly meaning it, in the face of all logic, reason, and Vegas odds.

Despite the endless losing, I became instantly obsessed with absorbing every detail and intricacy of the game: the sights, the smells, the sounds, the box scores, the standings, the endless parade of stats – in short, anything and everything about the American pastime, which was now my pastime, even though I still couldn’t play it worth a lick. It was during that summer, I also got my first big-boy glove, which I promptly oiled up and placed under the tires of my parents’ Dodge mini-van in order to break it in. That fall, it became the subject of an essay I wrote in English class entitled “My Most Prized Possession.” An essay that simultaneously showcased my passion, overshadowed by delusions of grandeur:

“When I look at my mitt, I feel hope that someday, I will be the greatest baseball player ever. It seems to hold a bit of magic that allows me to feel like a real ballplayer.”

The essay optimistically concludes with this nugget:

“One more thing. My mother told me when I entered high school that I would make the baseball team my senior year. I laughed at this comment. But as I look at my mitt, I wonder. And hope…”

Although that seemingly magical glove was de-commissioned a long time ago, I still have it safely packed away in a box full of childhood memories. To this day, it still remains one of my most-prized possessions – a symbol of never giving up. It still smells of oil … from that long ago summer. As I sometimes do with my old security blanket, I often take it out for a dose of instant nostalgia.

Countless summer afternoons were spent adorning my prized glove on one hand and bouncing a tennis ball off of the orange brick of my house with the other, as I waited for the Detroit News to arrive so I could devour into the sports. For a kid with few friends, this was often the highlight of my day. Despite my lack of skill, I somehow managed to magically catch every ball into my sun-warmed, oil-soaked glove, much like I used to magically make every shot I made on my basketball hoop.

When I got bored of tossing a tennis ball against the wall, I would simply hop on my blue and yellow Huffy and take a bag filled with baseballs to my neighborhood park, proceeding to hit them one after another with my Louisville Slugger, before gathering them all up and doing it all over again from the opposite side of the field. It didn’t matter that I was doing it alone. I was enjoying every second of it.

At ever fair climate family gathering, I would ask my countless Italian cousins “Did you bring your mitt?” Usually, they did not. But of course, I did. And I never lost hope that someday, they would bring theirs. I still get teased about this till this day. When my grandmother passed away a few years ago, her funeral was held at the church just down the street from the house. On the grounds of a church was a baseball diamond. While standing in the parking lot with some of my cousins, overlooking the now weed-strewn field and mourning my grandmother’s passing, I asked – in a moment of levity – “Did anyone bring their mitt?” We all laughed. Some things never die. And for the record, I always keep my mitt in my trunk. Just in case.

By the time I was a high school, I somehow found the confidence to try out for my high school’s JV team. I knew I didn’t have a realistic shot, but I had recently taught myself how to throw a decent side-arm pitch, so, I figured what the hell? In the end, I failed. Though coaches admire heart, most have no need for a pitcher with zero velocity in combination with the uncanny ability of being able to consistently toss a meatball over the heart of the plate. In the end, I failed. My years of “training” did little to help – other than preparing me to lose. At least the coach thanked me for trying out. I took that for what it was worth. The fact that the baseball coach acknowledged my existence was a victory in itself. That was the end of my high school athletic career … and it hadn’t even started. One thing was clear: I was always going to be a much better fan than I ever was a player. But I could live with that.

Three summers later, I formed a co-ed softball team through my church. I bought a brand new glove, my first pair of cleats, my first cup, and my first non-wood bat. The glove has held up well over the years (despite the invisible hole in it that I maintain is the cause of all of my errors). The lack of contact of ball into glove is probably the reason why it has lasted so long. As far as the bat, it turned out to be an absolute lemon – taking me from suck to super suck. Not that it would have really mattered which bat I used; the results would have more than likely been the same. But others attested to the fact that my bat sucked, proving I was even a loser at selecting a bat.

Somehow, against all odds, I eventually turned out to be a fairly consistent hitter – certainly, not in terms of power numbers, but I could at least get on base with a steady stream of singles. My deficiency as a player was more in the realm of my complete lack of ability to judge fly balls. Hence why I was a natural fit for right field, where the balls was least likely to go – unless it was a left-handed hitter … or a crafty right-handed one who knew how to hit the opposite way once they realized I was a weak link (it usually didn’t take much time). Whenever a ball was hit my way, I would either :overrun it, or stop short of it, watching the ball drop right in front of me – or, more often than not, far away from me. My inability to judge even the most routine fly ball rendered my decent speed completely useless.

Another hindrance to my speed is the fact that I’m still afraid of the ball … even after all of these years. I’m even afraid of the ball when I’m running to first base. More often than not, I duck and/or throw my arms over my head as I approach first base, thus slowing down and thereby resulting in outs that should have been hits – once again, neutralizing my adequate speed.

As far as my team itself, it was doomed from the start. Each week, I scrambled to find enough players to field a team – especially female ones. The females that were on my team had little to no interest in playing softball (and the ones who did play had little to know skill). Our men (with the exception of me), on the other hand, were adequate. But suffice to say, I guided my team to three straight, pitiful losing seasons. And thanks to my Gold Glove talent, even my Grandmother paid an unfortunate price. It was bad enough my family came to watch such an awful mockery of the game. Making it worse was when the third baseman threw a ball to me, while I was stationed at first base during pre-game warm-ups. In usual fashion, the ball got past me, only to ricochet directly into my Grandma’s leg. What began as a major bruise later required minor surgery.

Three years later, I waved the white flag on my softball experiment, deservingly putting it – and myself – out of its collective misery.

Despite my failings on the field, I could always hang my hat on my one true position – being a mere spectator. Even my dad eventually came around to the fact that his son wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps of being an anti-sports fan. In 1993, he acknowledged this fact by taking his me to the holiest of holy days for a baseball fan: Opening Day in Detroit – an unofficial holiday. I remember that day so vividly – the sights, the smells, the sounds. It has become one of those memories that feels as immediate now as it did then – no matter how much time continues to pass by.

Every game I have gone to since – in some form or another – takes me back to that one, magical day.

We sat in the massive sun and booze-soaked centerfield bleacher section at old Tiger Stadium, which had originally opened in 1912 on the same day the Titanic sunk.

Any true Tigers fan knows that the bleachers – despite their distance from most of the action – were the place to be. After all, this was the place where I saw my first real boobies flashed directly behind us (they were the only boobs I would see for the next several years). As for the game itself, the Tigers beat the Oakland Athletics 20-4 and went on to have their only winning season in an almost a 20-year span (a short-lived success … the losing resumed the following year … and several years after that).

I’ll always remember Opening Days with my dad – especially the first one. The tradition lasted about six or seven years and I have gone to several other Opening Days since, but none of them have matched – nor, ever will – the memory of the first one. But there were come close second. Following a strike-shortened season in 1994 that wiped out the World Series, irate fans protested by littering the field with magnet schedules – most of which were flung from the bleacher section where we sat.

Another vivid memory in my infancy as a baseball fan involved my entire family and took place at historic Fenway Park, which, like the now long-gone Tiger Stadium, opened its doors in 1912. The pitching match-up pitted two aces: Roger Clemens vs. Scott Erickson. There was just one problem: the game never happened. It was rained out. Despite the torrential downpour, I remained determined that the game would be played eventually, forcing my family to endure sitting in the pouring rain for over three hours before the game was finally called. I can still see the falling rain through the hazy lights of the hallowed ballpark. Seared into my memory more than any actual game would have been.

 

As disappointing as it was that the game was canceled, I can at least say I was once inside hollowed Fenway. Hopefully, I can actually see a game there, before Fenway joins the formerly departed Tiger Stadium.

Though I missed out on Fenway, I was fortunate enough to be at both the last game at Tiger Stadium and the first one at their new home, Comerica Park. I remember both games as vividly as any of life’s most profound moments – and as clearly as that first Opening Day. In many ways, the transition between the two stadiums represented, in my mind, the divide between childhood and adulthood. My past and future. And the promise of better days ahead.

The people I have attended games with over the years serve as a sort of timeline, or snapshot, of my social life at the time. Over the years, friends have come and gone, just like the players on the team, or each passing season. One of the joys of the game is the social dimension that the sport provides – more so than other, far more fast-paced sports like football, basketball, or hockey, which demands constant attention. Baseball moves at a leisurely pace, allowing for conversation with friends and family in a way that the other sports simply can’t provide. At times – especially during losing seasons, or the doldrums of any long season, for that matter – the social aspect of the game easily trumps the competitive aspect. In essence, the various ebbs and flows of the sport become almost like a marker of one’s life. Intertwined with our memories are the players and highlights of the game over the years. They are the timeline to our lives.

It is only fitting that I would have a chance encounter with Tigers’ legendary manager Sparky Anderson while waiting at the gate before my fateful flight to L.A. in pursuit of my Hollywood dream, that ultimately led to my memoir Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine.

I spotted a white-haired man sitting in front of me that struck an uncanny resemblance to Sparky. I couldn’t believe my own eyes, so I approached the gate attendant:

“Is that Sparky Anderson?”

“Yes, it is,” the attendant replied with a smile. I debated whether I should leave the old man alone, but couldn’t resist. I approached, struggling to keep my nerves under control.

“Mr. Anderson?”

“Yes?” he replied.

I offered my hand. He shook it.

“I am so happy to meet you. I am a big fan,” I said, before I congratulated him on his recent induction into the Hall of Fame.

I thought for sure that he would brush me off, but instead we chatted for a few minutes about the Tigers and their upcoming season. I then offered him my pen and steno pad, which he signed on the first page: “To Bob. Thanks for being a great baseball fan. Sparky Anderson.”

I thanked him, before clumsily returning to my seat, where I waited to board. The next and last time I saw him, I was heading down the aisle in search of my seat. He was sitting in first class, already asleep and I realized that I just had the rare privilege of seeing a Hall of Fame coach in repose.

 

 

When I finally found my seat, I wrote in my journal: “My trip’s off to a good start already. Perhaps it’s an omen.” How little did I know how much of an omen it truly was.

Naturally, I informed my best friend Mike about my engagement to the person who would become my wife during at a Tigers’ game shortly upon my return from Ukraine in Septemeber 2001.

The following season, I took my wife to her first baseball game.

Eight years later, it was a game when I told Mike about the end of my marriage. Despite all of life’s changes, the stadium remained constant. The game remained constant. And sadly, so did the losing.

And then came 2006. Following years of torture, my beloved Tigers finally turned things around. They not only had their first winning season since 1993, but they somehow put together a dream season that catapulted them all the way to the World Series, where they proceeded to lose in six games. They have been competitive ever since.

Incidentally, the Tigers’ turnaround mirrors my own professional and personal turnaround in life in a myriad of ways. Just as the Tigers are no longer losers, I am no longer bullied, nor teased for being such a diehard fan, as I was during all the losing. My loyalty has finally paid off . In fact, the bandwagon is now overflowing. And I am its merry driver.

Throughout the years, I have made it a habit to write while a Tigers game plays in the background, finding my own ebbs and flows running concurrently along with the game itself. Much like the Tigers, year after year passed with my writing career seemingly going nowhere. Sure, there may been the occasional winning streak amongst the losin, poking through the gray clouds of my writing life. But it was always fleeting.

Suddenly, once the Tigers figured out how to win, somehow, so did I, as a steady stream of publishing followed. But like the Tigers, I am still searching in vain for the grand prize.

The ebb and flow of both the game and life were further echoed in the dissolution of my stormy first marriage, which paved the way for a new one, ultimately leading to the birth of my beautiful little girl. In fact, her birth coincided with a 12-game winning streak late in the season that propelled the Tigers into the playoffs in 2011 for the first time since 2006. She’s been their good luck charm ever since . A year later, they were back in the World Series.

From the time she was born, my daughter has been immersed in Tigers baseball: from the pink pennant that was hung in her room before she was even born, to various onesies and other clothing items and toys bearing the old English ‘D”, it was no surprise that she quickly learned to associate that logo with daddy. She literally called it “Daddy” for the first two years of her life. Furthermore, the only TV she was exposed to for the first year of her life was Tiger games, which ensured that she got a much earlier jump on the game than her father. In fact, she was indoctrinated with Tigers baseball before she was baptized into the Catholic faith that defines me nearly as much as my faith in the game of baseball. In fact, after seeing me play softball, she believed I played for the Tigers (she also believed that I am Grover from Sesame Street). If only I could have kept both of these illusions alive in her mind forever.

The following season, just following her first birthday, I took her to her first game. My legacy of baseball fandom was officially moving on to the next generation. Taking my child to a baseball game was a moment I had dreamt of for years. And now, the time had finally come. My parents were there, as well, making everything so very “circle of life.” The Tigers lost, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was, my little girl was experiencing her first baseball game – one of which I’m certain will be many. Of course, being only one-year-old meant she had no concept of what was happening on the field. However, I was strongly encouraged by the fact that she sat perfectly patient for nearly the entire game. We were certain that we would have to get up numerous times to occupy her. We were wrong. Now with a son, as well, the future is certainly looking bright. I look forward to all the games I will be taking her to in the future. I look forward to taking her to her first Opening Day. I am so grateful that I now have a permanent baseball companion – even though she doesn’t know it yet. She will someday and I hope she will feel the same way. As will my son, who will hopeful.

Despite all the changes my life has faced, the one constant has been my love for baseball. That is one of the few things I know will never change. Sure, in any relationship, there are always going to be ups and downs. The relationships that thrive are the ones that realize that even when the ups are outnumbered, they are still far worth it. In fact, getting through the downs make the ups so much sweeter. Baseball is no different, which is why in the baseball diamond of life, I will always bring my mitt. What I’ll never do, however, is become the type of fan who actually takes their mitt to a game. Now, that would just be plain crazy … unless, of course, my children asked me to.

 

 

 

 

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