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baseball communion
A few years ago, the Boston Globe published an op-ed piece by writer James Carroll entitled "Baseball Communion." I cut it out and put it in my nightstand, and for the past few years, I read it every now and then. Today being Opening Day, I pulled it out and read it again. I'm as giddy as a kid getting out of school for the summer. Having grown up in Asheville, NC, the closest Major League team was the Atlanta Braves. My father was not a baseball fan. I didn't play Little League. So I grew up with baseball all but absent from my life, except for the occasional pick-up game in the street, or a pack of Topps cards -- back when they put saccharine-covered gum sticks in the packs. Having moved to Boston, a ridiculously over-the-top baseball town, several years ago, it wasn't long before I was hooked. I dove headfirst into baseball, going to as many games as I could, watching nearly 162 games a season, reading everything I could get my hands on, like a released prisoner gorging himself on his first meal outside the joint, making up for lost time. Several old friends, learning of my new obsession, shook their heads, wondering why I'd be at all interested in a bunch of over-paid grownup jocks play a kid's game. It's nearly impossible to explain to someone with that mindset. I know, because I used to be one of them.

The piece in the Globe seemed to explain a lot of what is so unexplainable about the lure of baseball. Sure, it doesn't speak of the intricacies and nuances of the game, or the Shakespearean saga of a century-long rivalry, or of curses, or of the modern twist that compters have presented to the age-old game. But I love this piece. So much that I typed it out to share with you people (I googled phrases of it in hopes of finding it posted somehwere, but no dice). Plagiarism be damned.

Baseball Communion
by James Carroll

My father used to get up in the middle of the night to listen, surreptitiously, to the short wave radio. We were living in Germany at the time, where he was an Air Force officer. I knew that he had some kind of responsibility for keeping track of Soviet espionage activity. I had a melodramatic imagination, and so it was easy for me to assume, the first time I noticed Dad at the radio that the low-volume, static-ridden broadcasts were about the Reds. They might have been, but the Reds – Cincinnati – were in the wrong league.
"What's that, Dad?" I asked
He grinned at me triumphantly, "The Sox," he whispered. He waved me over, but with a finger at his lips, warning me not to wake my younger brothers. He pulled a chair up for me so that I could join him with my ear at the speaker, next to his.
The Chicago White Sox – Minnie Minoso, our hero, in left. My father leaned closer to hear, and I can still conjure the focused joy in his face as he envisioned the announcer's description of the game. Comiskey Park, in the South Side neighborhood where he'd grown up, was as vivid to him as he was to me. That night, and others that followed that season – the two of us at the shortwave, him intensely focused on the game, me focused on the pleasure of being with him – taught me what I know about the American love of baseball.
The endless fascination of the game's possibilities, the structure of personal confrontation between batter and pitcher, the cosmos defined by the imperfections of the field, the mystery of time distilled into innings, action rising and falling along an arc of reversal, the intersection of skill and chance – and always that one batter, that one pitcher.
The game means nothing, but while it's on, the game means everything. The game belongs to the players on the field, but their performance is insignificant unless beheld. Thus watching becomes, intermittently, the most intense of human acts. Famously a mere pastime, what lifts baseball out of the realm of triviality is the meaning that fans attribute to it. A ballpark's grandstands, therefore, matter as much as the lined field. The broadcast, too, becomes absolute, as entire populations pull up chairs.
What is it that could get a hard-working man out of bed in the middle of the night, drawing close to rough sounds from far away? I see that moment at the shortwave freshly now; recognizing that the joy in my father's face was as much about my arrival as it was about the White Sox. My joining him made what had, until then, been an imagined connection quite physical. His love of the old neighborhood, of the South Side, of the people from whom he sprang, of the nation he served – it all became in an instant his love of me. Baseball happens to be an occasion of connection, one of the ways solitary individuals find themselves tied to a community, whether a nation, a city, a family, a friend. Baseball is the opposite of loneliness, a cure for it.
How ‘bout them Sox? Even when there is a great divide between people – whether inevitable alienations between parent and child, or the distances of class or culture, or even the grave antagonisms of politics – baseball can remain a point of connection. When my father and I, like many of our kind, could speak of nothing else, baseball remained. Years after the middle-of-the-night radio games, we could still sit side-by-side, watching that batter and pitcher, caring intently – each of us mutely consoled by the old connection. A shift in allegiance from White Sox to Red Sox – from Minnie to Yaz – defined the true measure of my coming of age.
When a parent begins to play catch with a child, the slow accumulation of associations has commenced. And the game of catch says it all, for it isn't the ball that matters, but the other person. Such play is a way of pushing back the worst of human fears, that when we throw, no one will catch. When we sit in the stands to watch, no one will play. When we turn on the radio, the city will be gone. In a world where such fears present themselves routinely, the act of snagging a small sphere in mid-flight provides an intimation of redemption, and it too can be caught.
The game affirms the normalcy of physical communication with another – and with many others. That communion, we understand from an early age, is what we live for. And as things have accidentally unfolded for more than a century, that communion has a secular sacrament in America, and it is baseball.
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