It was forty years ago, this year, that I fell in love with baseball: October 1982 and I was nine years old. My team, the St. Louis Cardinals, were in the hunt for the World Series title, facing off against the Milwaukee Brewers. We we considered the underdogs, and I was glued to the TV nearly-nightly during that magical fall, determined to do my bit as a fan to make sure we won. The whole region was crazy with Cardinal Fever that Autumn and it made everything feel electrified and cheerful, almost like a second Christmas.
Baseball fandom was nearly mandatory where I grew up. From the first pitch of Spring Training to the last (usually) heartbreaking out of the season, nearly everyone was following the Cardinals game. It was almost impossible to ignore. From TV’s and car stereos, shop radios to store PA systems, repair shops, gas stations, car dealerships, pawn shops, music stores, everyone had the game playing in some form or fashion.
The Christmas before, my Aunt Shirley (aware of my budding baseball interest) had given me a pendant she’d purchased from Avon: a small, pewter baseball-mitt with a golden baseball in its center, hanging on a silver chain.
Early in the season, I had taken to wearing the pendant while watching the games on TV or listening to them on the radio. During crucial plays, I’d rub the baseball in the center of the mitt with feverish thumbs, closing my eyes and whispering guilty prayers to baseball gods I still only-sort-of-don’t believe in.
By the time my Cardinals made it to the World Series in October of ’82, I was convinced that thing was magic. Every time I rubbed the now-worn pendant and Ozzie made the catch, or Willie knocked one over the wall, it confirmed my faith. Every time it failed, I berated myself as a heretic, unworthy of being a fan–certain that my trip to the bathroom or lapse in concentration had failed both the team and the talisman.
In every other aspect of my life, I am a cold realist, but when it comes to baseball, I believe in miracles.
A little over a week ago, I was placed on hospice care.
Now, I’m not superstitious enough to think that there’s anything that the baseball gods can do about that, but there’s part of me that can’t help but notice that both my teams, the Cardinals and the Mariners, are surging in their divisions, and wouldn’t it be something if they defied the odds and met, in the last World Series I may ever see?
Only a baseball fan could believe in such a thing.
Baseball fans know the outlandish happens every day in the season. From April through October, 30 teams play 162 games nearly every day on the calendar, and nearly none of them go by without some Hollywood moment: some rookie gets a hit in his first at-bat in front of the hometown crowd; the retiring slugger drills one over the wall on his last at bat; the no-hitter happens; the underdog wins; the dynasty continues–they all happen every single day, somewhere, in front of some amazed crowd.
That’s what makes it so easy to believe. If you watch enough of those games every year, year in and out, you’ll have seen the impossible happen, repeatedly. It makes you believe in magic.
I believe that’s what initially attracted Americans to the game: they’re both built on the magical belief that you can win it all, despite overwhelming statistical evidence that you can’t.
You can’t be a baseball fan for any length of time and not know how to lose. Good teams still lose forty percent of their games; the very best hitters fail to reach base seventy percent of the time. Many seasons your team’s win/loss ratio will hover somewhere around fifty-fifty for a period long enough to become worisome. Some years teams can lose nearly half of their games and still win the World Series. The margins are that thin.
Failure is built into the game, and if you can’t come to terms with that, you’re going to have a bad time.
Again, a lot like being American.
But is excellence possible?
Absolutely! You see it every day! A lot of talent, a lot of hard work, a little luck, and…who knows? Maybe magic can happen.
I’ve seen it happen enough that I have hope.
For the country and the game.