Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Journey - Chapter 8

The ghost of Derek Jeter hovered over the shortstop hole from the first day of the season. Not only was the bedrock of the team gone, he had seemingly sucked all the talent out of that position. By mid June, there had been six players who had tried and failed, if not to fill the shoes of the former occupant of this space, at least not dig a deep trench.

There was the free agent flop, the back-up fiasco. There were hitters who had no idea how to field, and fielders who never met a pitch they couldn't flail at helplessly. Stephen Drew proved that 2014 was not an aberration for there were no paper bags he could hit his way out of. It would have been a comedy of errors if it weren't so tragic. It was beyond embarrassing. Over two months into the season, the collective batting average of those who were pretenders for the shortstop throne was .210, with three home runs, twelve RBIs and eighteen errors. It was enough to make one wonder if Jeter couldn't be coaxed out of retirement.

Tyler Wade was a 4th round draft choice of the team in 2013. Handsome, 6 foot 1 inch and 180 pounds, out of California, with a ready smile, he was a good fit physically to one day play shortstop for the Yankees. But at the beginning of 2015, still only 20 years old, he seemed far from the answer. In 2014 he had hit .272 at Class A ball with only one home run and 118 strikeouts. No power and a questionable eye at the plate were not the combination the doctor ordered.

But he had moved up to Class AA in 2015 and seemingly found some power and control of the strike zone. He was hitting .306, with seven home runs and had committed only three errors when, on June 3rd, he hop-skotched over Triple A and landed on the Yankee bench. Ten days later he was in the starting line-up.He became my new favorite Yankee that day.

Batting ninth in the lineup, Wade had three hits in his debut, although one was a bunt, another a broken bat dying quail into short left. But he got on, stole a base and seemed to contribute more in that one game then all the rest of the Jeter wannabes had by their combined efforts. The next day brought similar results. The Yankees won both times. Maybe, finally their luck was changing and the Jeterian curse was lifting.

One other thing happened for me in mid-June. I changed my approach to the game, and to the season. If I had been assigned an average up to that point, it would have been no more than .160. I stunk. My attitude was wrong, my appreciation was missing. I had made one monumental, fundamental error, even worse than those that were being made everyday out on the field. I had forgotten what brought joy to me as a fan.

If a basketball heart beats 200 times per minute, baseball's barely breaks 100. If the face of football is violence, baseball has a much gentler visage.If athletics in today's world is all hype and loud noise, then the sights and sounds of baseball barely register. It is in many ways antiquated, an anachronism, not imbued with the necessary prerequisites that the high octane  21st century demands.

The average length of a game now exceeds three hours. For those of us accustomed to watching the Yankee - Red Sox clashes over the past decade, four hour struggles seemed the rule, not the exception.

So what is it that keeps the game alive?

It is in its lack of constant hyperventilation, in its punctuated outbursts, surrounded by time that has to be otherwise filled. It allows each of us  to slow down, to relax, to breathe, to absorb, to reflect and to make connections with much more than the game itself.

Over the close to six decades  I had been going to the ballpark, most of my lasting memories had much more to do with who I was with then what was happening on the field. I still picture the smile on my dad's face that day he caught the ball Yogi Berra hit that had caromed off one of the steel stanchions at the old Stadium. The laughter that resounded as my friend, whose family shared partial season tickets with mine, criticized or praised the efforts of the pitcher, any pitcher, one good or bad throw at a time. And best of all was the joy I got, and still get just watching my children watching the game, discussing with them matters important or not, knowing that we were all so happy sharing this life long connection. Baseball provided the backdrop,  permitting me the great and unusual privilege of letting time slow down in a very fast paced universe.

I realized that I was making a terrible mistake in taking this journey by myself. I had been isolated, surrounded each day by others who I had studiously chosen to ignore.

So I began act two. I looked for a relationship not with athletes in pinstripes but with others like me, people who came to get away from their worries, to cement old bonds or create new ones. I engaged fans around me, both at home and on the road. I found them to be universally warm, interesting and nearly as funny as my friend had been so many years before. Many found my story compelling and I seemed to gain a bit of celebrity wherever I went. 

And while I deeply missed the presence of my children, I found a kind of substitute family with whom I could share my thoughts, many of which had nothing to do with the trials and tribulations of my team. It opened up a new world and a level of enthusiasm that had been sorely lacking in me.  

Suddenly, I was having fun.

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