A Season to Get Better

Jason went to the ballpark a lot in 2016. Sometimes it was sunny. (via Jason Linden)

Jason went to the ballpark a lot in 2016. Sometimes it was sunny. (via Jason Linden)

January 2016. A bar in Cincinnati. I’ve come to gather with friends for something we call the Bourbon Vortex. I’ve never met any of them in person before, but we know each other pretty well and we all have at least one thing in common. Baseball. They’re a few of the friends I’ve made over the last half dozen years in the online baseball community. I’ll come back to this moment, but stop for a minute and go a little further back with me…

In August of 2015, my favorite baseball team, the Cincinnati Reds, finished with a monthly record of 9-21. It was a miserable month in a miserable season. But I was still a little jealous. Nine wins. That sounded pretty good. My marriage of seven years had just exploded in a manner much more reminiscent of a wreck on the highway than home run fireworks. I was starting a new year at my day job as a teacher. And, most importantly, I still had two little humans to take care of. To say I was running on empty is to undersell it. Anyone who’s been through it will understand. Imagine running out of gas in a blizzard on the highway in the middle of the night. That about gets it.

I went down and, aside from making sure my kids had their needs met and that I fulfilled the most basic requirements of my job, I didn’t come up for air for months. I don’t remember much about the end of that baseball season. I remember nothing at all about the playoffs. I do remember lots of conversations with friends who knew me only because of baseball. Some I reached out to because I knew they’d gone through it. Others reached out to me because, I suppose, I seemed a little off on Twitter and they noticed.

One person in particular was there all the way through. She’d gone through something similar and understood the way I was flailing around, completely unsure of who I was. When you have small children and a difficult relationship and a demanding job, everything else gets crowded out. I had been a father and a husband and teacher, but during the last year of my marriage, almost everything else had gotten crowded out.

Take one of the legs out of a three-legged stool and you know what happens.

Anyway, my friend understood. She told me about how when her divorce happened, she’d gone to lots and lots and lots of baseball games after not having gone much for a long time. I’d watched and listened to baseball often enough over the past few years, but I hadn’t been to more than a couple of games a season in a long time.

And winter came and I’m there with my broken stool of a life and the friend tells me to come out with some people. So there is a January night and we are drinking bourbon. Me and my baseball friends from the internet. I don’t suppose most of them knew what was up. That in the months after the initial blast, the kids had been with me night after night after night. Months without going out as an adult and not just a father. Work and parenting. Work and parenting. Work and parenting. But that night out was the start of a realization that I could put myself back together and that baseball could help.

And then spring happened. Insert all the metaphors you want here. I’m talking about baseball. By this time, it’s fair to say I was doing better. Think of the moment after a stomach flu when you know you aren’t going to vomit anymore, but you don’t exactly relish the idea of eating, either. In a way, it was kind of nice that everyone knew the Reds were going to be bad. In 2015, the Reds and I had both entered the season thinking everything was okay and we had both been proven wrong. This year, we knew it was going to be rough, but that meant we were trying to get better, too.

Just like my friend once had, I started going to baseball games. A lot. Whenever I could manage it, I was at the ballpark. Usually in Louisville, but sometimes in Cincinnati. I lived and breathed baseball in a way I hadn’t in years. Often I was there by myself and I was working on stories in the press box. In 2016, I wrote about baseball more than I ever had. But when I wasn’t working, I was there with my kids or a friend.

Often, the game in question took place as the sun was setting. (via Jason Linden)

Often, the game in question took place as the sun was setting. (via Jason Linden)

Baseball gave me a place to be and often people to talk to, but it wasn’t just that. In the aftermath of something like a divorce, things sneak up on you all the time. A quiet moment happens and you’re lost. Long sleepless nights. Endless empty afternoons. They happen so quickly, and often the only way out is to find something else to dwell upon.

Baseball is a game of endless, fractal detail and this is much of what makes it beautiful. We can zoom out and appreciate the beauty of a no-hitter taken into the seventh and broken up when a base hit slips just under the diving outfielder’s glove. A well-turned double play. A diving catch. A game-winning dive into home plate. If that isn’t enough, we can zoom in and see the endless repeated patterns. The fastball versus the change-up. The depth of the outfield. The wind blowing in from left. And the sensory. A rain-delay pour. The oppressive heat of July before sundown. Tiny minor league crowds and roaring major league crowds. And the eccentricities. The foul-ball-punched hole in the press box. The same player diving into home again and again.

Homestretch: The 1967 AL Pennant Race, Part 3
A tight race shows no signs of letting up.

And if there is no game? There are numbers. Forecasts and trends. History and potential. Minor league numbers and major league numbers and rehab numbers.

This hurts, of course it hurts, but I’ve got tickets to the game tonight. Last night, Joey Votto walked three times. This hurts, but look at that breaking ball. Look at that homer. God it’s hot. This hurts, but it’s raining and I have a story to write and this game is going to take forever.

That’s how it went for a while and slowly, the hurt started to filter out. Sometime, toward the end of the year, I was just going to the ballpark because that’s part of what I do. Sometimes I was writing, sometimes I was hanging out with friends. Sometimes there was a pitcher I wanted to see and sometimes I just wanted to see if there was something to see.

And, as it happened, my baseball team came right along with me. We both struggled through the first half. It takes a while to shake off pieces of the old guard. But in the second half, we were okay. There were good days and bad, but when you’ve been losing for a while, .500 feels pretty good, and that’s kind of what happened.

And then it was time for the playoffs and I had no rooting interest and it was pure fun. Francisco Lindor was fun and Kris Bryant was fun and it was fun that some friends of mine who’d been watching a long time and had never seen their team win saw their team win.

Sometimes, it was rainy, and that's OK. There is beauty in rain too. (via Jason Linden)

Sometimes, it was rainy, and that’s OK. There is beauty in rain too. (via Jason Linden)

2016 is over. Like everyone, I suppose, I take a lot of pictures now. Scrolling back through the season, I have one photo of the player I spotted and wrote about and saw get called up. I have pictures of day games and night games and rain delays and pink clouds over the left field wall at sunset. I have pictures of friends at baseball games and pictures of my children. I have one of my four-year-old son seeing how hard he could throw on the radar gun. One of my seven-year-old daughter working on her batting stance. I was usually the picture taker, but there are even a few of me snapped by a friend and sent along. I’m always smiling. Baseball does that.


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Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.

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3 Comments on "A Season to Get Better"

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jim
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jim

All the best, man. And keep writing.

Scooter
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Scooter

Very well written. Thank you.

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