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April 2, 2013

Western Front

Lines in a Larger Song

by Geoff Young

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There have been other Opening Days, other games, other seasons. After a while, they all blend together, lines in a larger song forming a melody that is difficult to dissect without conscious effort.

Opening Day marks a new beginning, a rebirth, a reaffirmation of all that is good in the world. Or it at least gives us the illusion of such things, along with an excuse to expound on them in saccharine prose. Tomorrow we will return to more mundane concerns, but today let us pretend at perfection.

I don't remember my first Opening Day, but I do remember my first baseball game. Parts of it, anyway. Curious details: It was at San Diego Stadium, Gene Tenace hit two home runs for the Padres, and at some point I asked my father what quarter it was.

My father was a football guy who preferred its adrenaline to baseball's contemplation, so I knew only quarters and clocks. Innings and outs were foreign units that required a level of abstraction I lacked in the third grade.

The last time I saw my father was at another Padres game, at what had since been rechristened Jack Murphy Stadium. Fewer memories from that contest remain. Baseball was played on the field, conversation between us strained. Then we said goodbye.

A few months later, the players went on strike. The Expos missed their shot at winning a World Series, and Tony Gwynn never got to finish his pursuit of .400. A year after that, I married a woman who knew the name Brian Boehringer and understood his role on a baseball team.

I have spoken with my father once since then. I called him on September 12, 2001. Everyone was okay.

* * *

Opening Day brings with it questions that only time can answer. What will Mike Trout's sophomore season bring? Were last year's A's for real? What impact will the Astros' presence in the AL West have on the division race?

We make our best guesses and watch them crumble into irrelevance like sandcastles washed away by the sea. The force of reality overwhelms our dreams.

* * *

When I was a boy, my uncle took me to the occasional Dodgers game. It was like church, only a million times better. We got to sit outside, and instead of someone talking at us, there was baseball and hot dogs. Before my uncle got married and had kids of his own, he and I used to play catch at a huge park near his home in San Fernando Valley. I never asked what quarter it was. Time didn't matter.

He once took me to an Angels game in Anaheim, which is a long way from Los Angeles. I don't remember much about that contest either, but we stood out in the parking lot afterward and got autographs as the players left. I came away with several, including Rod Carew and Larry Harlow.

I was 10 or 11 years old. I didn't know the difference between a future Hall of Famer and a fifth outfielder, nor did I care. They both played baseball on a field in a place that was better than church, and they both made time for a kid who was falling in love with the game.

* * *

More questions. Can the Mariners keep hitting home runs like they did during spring training? Will the Diamondbacks survive their perplexing offseason? Will money bring the Dodgers success? Can the Padres win without pitching and defense?

* * *

In the eighth grade, a complicated family situation got weirder. It involved a remarriage and subsequent move to Florida, neither of which ended up happening. But while the adults were sorting through all that nonsense, I ended up at a boarding school in the mountains east of Los Angeles.

My classmates were largely kids of the rich and famous, including the daughters of an NHL team owner and a massively popular '60s musical group. This was the early '80s, though it felt earlier. Word that the hippie movement had ended never made its way up the mountain.

We had study hall every day, and after I finished my homework I would leaf through our library's copy of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia. Everyone knew Hank Aaron, but what of Luke Appling and Earl Averill? It was another world.

I lost myself in the numbers, which were as close as I could get to the field that was a million times better than church. This book of names and numbers was a proxy for something sacred. Who were these men, and what had they done? Their exploits were captured here, in this book, for all fans—my people, my tribe—to read. It was scripture to me.

Too much? Maybe, but that's what it felt like.

I also served as equipment manager for the school's baseball team. The rules prohibited eighth graders from playing (although our basketball coach once slipped me in at the end of a blowout), so fetching water and lugging stuff around would have to do.

It was the best job ever. Some of the guys were jerks, but that's true in any walk of life. At least I got to be around the ballpark and the game.

And it kept me engaged. Like Eric Davis in center field, I had to be moving in the right direction before anything happened. If someone asked me for something, I was too late getting it to them.

Our school was in a remote mountain town, so we played other schools in remote mountain towns. There were three other teams in our league, none less than an hour away. The ride home invariably involved a stop at In 'N' Out.

The other teams were all “juvenile court schools.” Our vans had to pass through a gate with a guard, which was a little different from our school.

One of my duties as equipment manager was to retrieve foul balls and home runs. Once I went to get a ball that landed beyond the center-field fence. I ran down the right-field line to where I thought the ball might be. The other team's equipment manager did the same, down the left-field line. We always ran because the guys on the field hustled, and we didn't want to be slacking.

One of us found the ball and we each returned to our dugouts. When I got back, the team was laughing at me because it looked like I was running away from the other kid, who was at that school for who knows what reason.

But I didn't mind them laughing because it meant I was part of the team. Thirty years later I have trouble recalling wins and losses, but being part of the team sticks with me.

I couldn't play organized ball, but I could be around the guys at the ballpark. I could also play “disorganized” ball with my eighth-grade friends. And I could read chapter and verse from the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia. All of it was magical, like baseball is.

* * *

My father still lives in the same town as I do. It's a rich part of town, devoid of estranged sons and other riff-raff. Rumor has it that the residents once tried to have underground roads built so the “help” would not be seen. He presumably still follows football, though I couldn't say for sure.

* * *

Watching Tenace hit homers, playing catch with my uncle, getting Carew and Harlow's autographs, absorbing Appling and Averill's statistics, and fetching foul balls all become part of the same memory. They inform who I am as a baseball fan and as a person. Other, similar moments whose descriptions would try the reader's patience—my discovery of tabletop games, Rotisserie Baseball, Bill James, computer games, and more—have affected me as well.

Outcomes shape, process defines. Events occur and are recorded as scripture. Castles and empires get swept away. We are the water that moves, not the absence of sand.

Wins don't matter. Losses don't matter. All that matters is being there. And when the game is done, going back tomorrow for more of the same, only different. And doing that until the season is done. And the next season, and the next, and the next...

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