If you’re a long-time reader, a follower on Twitter, or otherwise know me in any substantial way, this won’t be news, but in case none of that is true, here’s the piece of information you most need in order to understand this article: My eldest son, Emerson, died on March 28th. We held his funeral and buried him a week later, on Opening Day.
I don’t tell you this so that you’ll feel sorry for me. Nothing in this broken world is perfect, not even the tragedy of my son’s death. He was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS) when my wife was 20 weeks pregnant. Somewhere just past 30 weeks, we also found out that he had at least some hydrocephalus—fluid buildup in his brain, the extent and clinical impact of which would be impossible to know for a while. He had open-heart surgeries when he was four days old and five months old, and a kidney surgery tucked neatly in between. We found out when he was a little over a month old (from doctors conferring during rounds, not knowing we were able to hear them) that there was only a 50 percent chance of Emerson surviving that first surgery and the period immediately afterward. He needed a tracheostomy tube and ventilator support for two years, had the trach for another six months. He never ate, except via feeding tube and pump, directly to his stomach. He never learned to walk or talk. He needed glasses and hearing aids. At two and a half, he was finally diagnosed with Kabuki Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects multiple systems within the body, and which finally helped his doctors paint a complete picture of his myriad issues.
Yet, he achieved remarkable things. After spending the majority of his first year of life in the hospital, he was back only occasionally, for a few days here, a week and a half there. His doctors were very impressed by his ability to stay healthy at home. He learned to play, learned to sit independently, learned to pull himself up and stand alongside a low table or his bed, learned some sign language, became a big brother (twice), found his early passion (music), found favorite toys, went to school, made friends, built relationships, grew a lot, could climb stairs with some help. As his baseline health improved and he no longer needed machines attached to him, he got outside, found he loved the swings at the park, went on long walks with us and with his aunts and uncles and with his nurses, did a ton of things. When he got sick, then suffered a cardiac arrest, then (after being improbably stabilized, and improving for a few days) a brain hemorrhage that ultimately took him from us, it felt sudden, gut-wrenching, and horrible, but the truth is that the story of his life is still a joyful, improbably long and rich one, and so my grief and despair must blend with gratitude and hope. I’m not telling you about his death so that you’ll feel sorry for me, because sorrow isn’t entirely the thing I feel, and I hope it won’t be all you feel, either. I just have to tell you that, so that I can tell you this.
See, since we lost Emerson, I’ve been having a Hell of a time finding meaning in baseball. Emerson didn’t care for baseball, really, except in that it amused him when I either shouted at the TV or jumped around triumphantly while watching. He didn’t ever play the game, obviously, and we took him to a couple games at Target Field, but the experience outpaced the product for him (as it would, I guess, for any 3-year-old kid). Over the last couple of summers, with the house filling up more and both Emerson and his younger brother getting more active, I had been engaged with the game on an increasingly transactional basis: find something to write about, then get back to the boys.
Early this season, I found myself fighting even to enjoy the time I did put into watching or listening. I would watch as I sang our second son to sleep (in our bed, because he’s still having a really hard time with all of this), or as I waded through paperwork and laundry, the mundane things that no amount of support can take fully from your plate, even at a time like this, and I would just hate the game. Perhaps stuck in the bargaining phase of grief, I kept thinking about how many games (indeed, how many Cubs wins, even) I would trade for even one more chance to toss my phone aside, load Emerson into his wagon, and go to the park to swing. As anyone who has grieved a painful loss can tell you, irrational anger sometimes creeps in, and for me, that has taken the form of blaming baseball for stealing my son from me, for taking my attention away from him too often over the last few years, for distracting me as I cared for him over the last few weeks, even.
Here’s the moment when some of that began to change. Here’s the first play of the season in which I truly took solace in baseball.
That’s Joe Mauer, a few days shy of his 33rd birthday, throwing from medium-shallow right field, near the foul line, to third base. Second baseman Eduardo Nunez and right fielder Miguel Sano had collided, hard, as they each tried to catch a soft flyball from Yunel Escobar; you can see them picking themselves off the turf as the camera tracks the flight of the ball. Mauer, seeing the ball deflect off Nunez’s glove and roll toward the foul line, ran out, grabbed the ball, and uncorked this throw, turning what looked like a disastrous play into a merely scary, ultimately undamaging one.
What jumped out to me about the play was the unhurried naturalness of it—the fluid perfection reserved for things that can’t last. Because this is where my tragedy crosses paths with Mauer’s: We’ve both had something we dearly love taken from us, and we can’t have it back. Mauer was once one of the game’s best catchers, and best overall players. He chose catching over, if you believe the hype, being a starting quarterback in the NFL one day. (He was the National Player of the Year as a senior in high school, and committed to Florida State back when that was the mark of the nation’s top recruit, before deciding on baseball.) In the way he chased wild pitches and foul pop-ups, in the way he came up throwing on stolen base attempts, and in the way he put himself right into harm’s way on plays at the plate, you could see how much Mauer loved catching. He was great at it; he was made for it.
Eventually, though, it was taken away from him. During spring training, Twins GM Terry Ryan revealed that Mauer (who hasn’t been a catcher since 2013) isn’t even medically cleared to catch right now, thanks to long-lingering post-concussion symptoms. No, Mauer will never catch again, will never regularly get to run this far or throw this far or worry this much about making the play quickly again. And I’ll never hold my son again, never play patty cake with him or dance with him or chatter with him again. Mauer won’t make the Hall of Fame, and I won’t teach my son to walk. There are only, for Mauer, oddball plays like this one, and for me, dreams. I can only assume that pains him, though probably not as deeply as my loss pains me. I feel, each time I watch this moment in which he got to be his full baseball self again, awash in empathy for him, but buoyed by the joy I know that throw had to give him, even if he’ll never say it, maybe hardly even think it.
The sheer excellence of this play would have shined through better, by the way, if I had shown you the real-time throw, instead of the slow-motion replay. I chose the latter because, in addition to being unburdened by a cut from one camera angle to another, this GIF has a more dreamlike quality. It’s so vivid and perfect that it seems like it can’t be real. In that way, it reminds me of a dream I had about Emerson on Friday night, after I watched this clip for the first time, cried a little, then squeezed myself into the small space my 2-year-old had left between himself and the wall alongside the bed.
It was just me and Emerson, in the bedroom he shared with his brothers, the loft of our Cape Cod-style rental. We were working, as we did two or three hundred times over the last year of his life, on standing and walking. And then, in one magical moment, I could feel that he didn’t need my help anymore. I felt almost that way a lot of times when he was alive, mind you. On several occasions, I (incorrectly, as it turned out) predicted that Emerson would be walking within a month. He was able to stand with minimal help, able to walk with just a little encouragement and hands to hold, and I often felt like his muscles were ready to move independently; he was just a little bit scared, yet. Anyway, in the dream, I felt this familiar feeling, but it was stronger. I let go, and he did it. He stayed up, and took a hesitant step, then another. Then he sat down and applauded for himself, a huge smile on his face. I’ll never forget it. Decades from now, as my mind goes, I’ll swear it really happened, because it was as clear and vivid as that high-definition arc carved by Mauer’s throw across the diamond.
I became a baseball fan in 1997, and the first (non-Cubs) player I ever remember idolizing was Jason Kendall. He could do everything. He played exactly the way I wanted to watch people play. I think I wanted him to be a Cub more than I wanted any Cub to actually succeed, more than I wanted the Cubs to win, sometimes. Then, 10 years later, the year I graduated high school and moved to Chicago to begin college, the year I got to attend something like 12 of the last 15 home games for a division-winning team, the Cubs traded for Kendall. It was a mostly broken, aged version of him, but I was still overjoyed. I think I still have the shirsey I bought. I told people that story, for a few years thereafter, with the moral: this game pays you back.
That’s some Field of Dreams bullshit. Baseball mostly steals from us, steals our money (tons of our money), steals our time, steals the passion and intellectual energy we ought to put toward more important things. Every now and then, though, if you come to understand the game and the people who play it, come to know the inner workings of everything and the histories of all the figures filling up the uniforms, you do get a moment, a chance to feel something stretching beyond analytical interest or fanatical excitement. When those moments come, and I say this with some authority, I think, it’s worth it.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now