Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Midsummer Classic

Psalm 42:4 (NIV)
These things I remember
   as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
   under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
   among the festive throng.
The All-Star Game is tonight. If I were writing for a newspaper here, I’d be required to clarify it is the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. But in my sports fan world, there is only one all-star game worth noting, and it always happens on a mid-July Tuesday.

I grew up loving baseball. There are lots of reasons, but I mainly credit growing up in the Chicago TV market, when the Cubs played at least 81 games a year in the afternoon on free TV and were shockingly good in 1984 when I turned 5. They also were shockingly good in 1989, the summer I turned 10. I will not soon forget crying when they were eliminated from the playoffs that October, even though the opposing team’s leadoff batter was my own hometown sports hero.

Baseball was the world to me, at least in the summers. I bought tens of thousands of baseball cards. I created computer spreadsheets — no easy feat on a home computer back then — to keep track of my Ryne Sandberg card collection. I kept score for games I watched at home. I played games, often by myself, in the back yard. I was everything: pitcher, batter, umpire, PA announcer, even Harry Caray leaning out a garage window to lead thousands of imaginary fans in the seventh-inning stretch.

As the Cubs were not great most years, the All-Star game was a highlight of the summer. We didn’t have cable at home back then, so most of the league’s best players rarely flashed across my TV screen. For this one night, it was like my card collection came to life and all of these mythical heroes I only saw as still images became fully formed giants of the game in our living room.

I loved every bit of the telecast, but my favorite part was the pregame introductions. The reserves from each league were introduced first. As each player’s name was called, he stepped off the foul line and waved into the camera. Some players had “Hi mom!” or Bible verses written on their hats and batting gloves. The crowd always heartily cheered the players from the host city and lustily booed the league’s villains. Then the starters, the best of the best, were named and trotted out of the dugout. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be one of those men with the chance to shine in that spotlight.

Ryne Sandberg, Will Clark and Matt Williams at the 1990 Home Run Derby.
In 1990, the All-Star Game was at Wrigley Field. Already one of my favorite places in the world, my affection for the Friendly Confines grew even stronger that night. A family connection helped my dad and some of his pals secure standing room tickets, and I was allowed to attend. I have more clear memories from that one night than most of the rest of my youth, and to recount them all would take several hundred words. But the most special, the most lasting, is the cheering.

When the PA announcer said Sandberg’s name as he took his spot in the starting lineup, I screamed as long and loud and as with much joy as I can ever remember — and thousands of other fans did the same. I was proud of my hero, delighted to be there in person and unable to process the chain of events that allowed me to be a part of the spectacle I’d so loved watching from afar. It would have been no less surreal to somehow share a cheeseburger at The Max with Zack and Screech.

That was 1990. Now it’s 2013. I am an adult, married with three sons and a fourth on the way. The All-Star Game is tonight, and we won’t be watching. I don’t love baseball any less than I did when I was 10. But I do love a lot of people a lot more.

My wife was first pregnant in the fall of 2003. I do not need to remind Cubs fans what transpired that October. Nor do I need to recount the optimism of 2004. But it was not unusual for me, a lifelong Cubs fan, to be holding my hours-old son in a hospital room watching Kerry Wood allow four hits over seven shutout innings with nine strikeouts en route to a 3-0 win over the Mets. Nor was it out of line for me to dress him in a little blue pinstripe Cubs outfit for his trip home from the hospital a few days later.

And while it may indeed have been a bit weird for me to read Chicago Tribune game stories to a days-old infant as he sat on my lap, I offer in my defense that I had literally no idea what one says to such a little person. I figured him hearing my voice and speech patterns was more important than what I actually said, and if he subconsciously picked up the nuances of the infield fly rule, well, all that much the better.

As he got a bit older, I was able to use refrigerator magnets and sports pages to teach him the Cubs logo. One of the first songs he learned to play on the computer was “Go Cubs Go!” There was a time that whenever he saw vast expanses of grass on a TV, he would proclaim, “Dad, your Go Go Cubs are on!” even if it was football or golf or an HGTV landscaping show.

But baseball was not meant to be for us as father and son. The Cubs were great again in 2007 and 2008, the same time my wife was pregnant with our second son. But I mostly watched those games alone, or bouncing the baby on my knee in a vain effort to get him to sleep happily. Eventually it became clear sports on TV are just not something my children especially enjoy. And the Cubs have been a hard watch in recent years, so there’s little incentive for me to try to argue for Rizzo and Castro over SpongeBob and Patrick.

My oldest turned 9 in April. I’ve never dreamed of taking him to a major league game. At first I had no interest in changing a diaper in a Wrigley Field restroom. Then I started doing the math on how much I’d have to spend on popcorn, hot dogs and nachos just to have a hope of seeing the ninth inning. And ultimately I realized baseball is something I love, and my kids don’t have to enjoy it with me. There are plenty of other things for us to do together.

My dad, brother and I have always been able to communicate about and through sports. Pops did not grow up a Cubs fan, which helps in a way, because then it’s my personal passion and not some legacy I’m trying to force on future generations. And with the kids still so young — one not even born — and the Cubs threatening to be good once again, I’m not writing it off altogether. But neither do I see a mutual love of the sport or the team as an essential component of our father-sons relationship as long as we all shall live.

My boys love video games. Maybe one day we’ll borrow a baseball game from the library and learn together that way. They also love to take swings at Nerf balls in the front yard, and they don’t need to be able to calculate an earned-run average to have fun playing catch with their dad. Baseball cards are expensive, and a family trip to Wrigley can cost more than the five days we just spent in Nashville. Baseball helped teach me an awful lot about more than just the game (the sport and media get lots of credit for my reading and writing skills), but nothing that can’t be learned elsewhere.

The All-Star Game is tonight. I’ll follow along via social media and maybe catch the last few innings after everyone is in bed. There’s only one Cub in the game and he won’t even play. Still, the day brings with it many happy childhood memories. Today’s game won’t be making any lasting impressions for my boys, but so what? They have parents who love them beyond expression and a safe, happy home. We make our own memories, and they get to grow up as their own people and not miniature versions of me. They’re my greatest blessings no matter who wins the ballgame.

A prayer for July 16:

Lord, thank you for each of my sons. Thank you for allowing me to have them at all, and especially the chance to get to know them individually, to understand the differences in their personalities and the things that define their character. Help me continue to build bonds with them as we all grow and change, and show us the common ground where we can all stand together and enjoy to unique gift of being a family. Let us live in love always. Amen.

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