Baseball’s Not Just a Game. It’s a Wildcard.

It’s not just a baseball game. It’s a wildcard, and sometimes I love wildcards. But today I definitely don’t. Wildcard games mean you can’t make many mistakes if you want to win. All the baseball players that I have loved did not play wildcard games.

Baseball is a pillar of my family. And the Yankees and the Astros are two teams that probably matter the most. Stories about the state championship game, semi-pro try outs, playing in the Mexican league, and breaking windows out from baseballs flying through abandoned childhood lots are staples at any family gatherings on the river. It’s what we do. We gather to relive the past and enjoy the present moment. The simultaneousness of this is a hallmark of my family and my time here.

I’m not sure I understood the draw of baseball until tonight. Stunningly hard news hit my family tonight in the wake of difficult times that have already begun to come in waves. And yet I think back to two little boys who grew up in West Texas needing baseball in their lives the way that some of us need water. Baseball was essential to their souls’ survival in a dry, arid landscape of poverty.

My daddy knew as a child that only baseball could save him. This was the reason that he “got the flu” every year during the World Series. At that time games were during the day, or as my family affectionately calls  them “day-games.” He HAD to listen to the games on the radio, and if you look deep in Yankees history you will find that he had a great time during the “flu season” every year. It is easy to understand why Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra (and numerous others that my mother dutifully recites as a keeper of his memory) were his childhood heroes that came to life in his imagination as he listened to the radio in Odessa, Texas during the World Series.

Baseball is the reason that I am here in a round-about-way. My father loved my mother so much that he gave up a professional baseball career for her and a future family. And yet, it was the baseball schedule that dictated when he would marry her. On a date one night which involved walking the baseball diamond, he mentioned to her an open date on the schedule. His idea was marriage. And in two weeks they were married. He was playing college ball and she dressed for school the day they met at the justice of the peace. Rules were not followed and this was the mortar for my future in the family, many years later, almost twenty.

During their marriage she dutifully endured all the obsessions of a player, coach, and fanatic. It would have helped had she known that he talked in his sleep. They were visiting her parents, and she was pregnant with my middle brother. To earn extra money, he was working in the oil fields. Sleeping in the front room of my grandparents’ home in twin cherry beds (that are still in the family) my father was asleep while my mother read a book. Soon he sat up, swung his feet to the floor, leaned towards her, looked at her, and asked in an elevated voice, “Where are they??”

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

He repeated in an even louder voice, “Where are they?!?”

My oldest brother was sleeping in the next room, and my mom said, “You’re going to wake Ward.”

For a third time he asked, “Where are they?!?!”

And finally she asked, “Who?”

“Maris and Mantle, Mantle and Maris! WHERE ARE THEY?” he yelled.

Finally, she realized he was asleep and answered, “They went home.”

“Oh,” he said and lay back down perfectly content.

Two or three weeks later, my middle brother was born on the date of the All Star game, July 30, 1962. My dad was so grateful because he got the day off and was able to watch the game. Maris and Mantle played in that game.

More than fifty years later I took my mom to Yankee stadium. I went to the gift shop my usual happy-go-lucky-ignorant self. I strolled into the store and eyed the t-shirts with player names on the back. I walked through the shop reciting names of players out loud to try and find the rhythm that matched my memory of the above story. Eventually I figured it out. Maris and Mantle, Mantle and Maris. I bought two shirts for my mama that day solely based on a memory that was passed down to me.

The day that my daddy was born on a farm in Winters, Texas, June 3, 1936, the Yankees won the only game of their three game series with the Chicago White Sox, 11-1. The way I see it, my family was brought into the world by the Yankees in some regards. True or not, it’s my perspective. My mind thrives on connections.

As my dad grew and matured as player to coach he loved watching the home team, the Astros. The Yankees were his radio team, and the Astros were his television team. I remember the stories of my daddy, head between his legs, crying at a hotel in Houston after a ‘Stros game, telling my mom he was “better than every damn one of ‘em.”  So tonight, as the Yankees and the Astros play in the American League Wildcard Game, I use baseball to lift me from myself to enjoy past memories and present moments simultaneously.

I don’t have to get the flu this year to enjoy the World Series, remember my dad, spend time with my mom, or help the hurting in my inner circle. I just need to breath and watch a little baseball. It’s in my blood.

Wildcard? Either way, whatever happens, I know how to be victorious. It’s choice of perspective, shift of mind, belief in a greater purpose. Those around me that hurt the most have taught me this. I thank them all for sharing their pain so that mine can be lessened. Gifts abound in every ball and strike; you just have to look.

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