Mets rookie pitcher Jacob deGrom, aka Baby Bird.
"... and that runner is a catcher on a team that's going nowhere in the middle of September..." -- Keith Hernandez, following a first-base out by Travis D'Arnaud, who ran his heart out anyway, September 16th, 2014
Like me, my mother came to baseball late and somewhat unwillingly.
Her second marriage (or, what I have always termed The Grand Disappointment) yoked her, from age 57 to her death at 72, to a man with whom she had only two things in common: 1) ballroom dancing; and 2) baseball. Only on the dance floor and in front of the television set watching Braves games did she and Jack share a shred of common ground, so she made the best of it.
I never understood her interest in the slowest of my country's games. My life was frantically busy at 30 and 40, and baseball, with its glacial tempo, its pitchers and hitters forever stepping off the mound or out of the box, its seventh inning stretch, its men in archaic garb standing around, so very much of the time, apparently doing nothing was entirely too static a tableau to hold my interest.
Baseball was the Kabuki of American sports.
When home, I would zip through the room where my mother watched, riveted, gently shaking my head in disbelief. How could anyone sit still for three hours or, mercy upon us, nearly nine? (On April 18th, 1981, the Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings, two teams from the Triple-A International League, played the longest game in professional baseball history: it lasted for 33 innings, with eight hours and 25 minutes of playing time.)
What did she see in the game that I did not? What was it about baseball?
Well, as my friend Jean Nolan is wont to say to me, when I despair again about my team's prospects: "It's a long season, Elizabeth."
Just as in life, in baseball, you have to take, or learn to take, the long view. The best players, and the best fans -- and the best fans of the worst teams -- must graft onto their fast-twitch, 21st-century muscles, sinews, and neurons a very old teaching: "The secret of Zen, and the secret of baseball, is just three words: not always so." (And, apologies and thanks to Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, for this.)
Will the Mets lose again this year, as they did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that? Well, perhaps. But... not always so.
In baseball, as in life, one must suspend one's disbelief (sometimes, seemingly forever: Chicago Cubs, I feel your pain) and, if one is fortunate, come to enjoy suspending one's disbelief.
Like the players, God bless them, in inane interview after inane interview (during which, eventually, one and all of us pray the non-native speakers will be struck dumb before uttering the same anodyne response yet again), one must win, or lose, with grace, quit the field with as much dignity as may be mustered and, tomorrow, perhaps on too little sleep, sometimes on no rest, and too often recovering from a third Tommy John surgery, take the field again.
Watch baseball, you kids at home, and prepare for life: it's long, it's slow, there are sometimes way more losses than wins, how you play is always going to be much more important than how much you win, and you have to have a team, and become a team player, to have any success at all. (Also, if you do a dumb little victory pantomime like Jenrry Mejia, you're going to be disciplined by your captain and come off looking like a -- heaven forbid! -- American football player, a fate worse than death: baseball is about good manners, not showboating.)
But I'm getting ahead of myself, perhaps. You'll think I'm putting baseball forward as a primer for life, itself.
... which is precisely what I'm doing.
Baseball is America's homegrown version of Zen Buddhism. Good day? Fine, but don't get cocky. Lousy day? Fine, too, but do better tomorrow. You win some, you lose some; some get rained out. All fine.
That's about as close as I can get to expressing my respect for this absurd, slow, infuriating, nit-picky, fussily-anachronistic, all-male (yes, that's unfortunate, but the subject of another essay and, I posit, given Mo'ne Davis, this past year's Little League phenom, things may be looking up for women in the sport), violence-free (well, but for Giancarlo Stanton), and PG-rated form of national theater.
Theater... and religion. Baseball is both. It's where Americans can go, en masse, to suspend their disbelief; pay their respects to perseverance and grace under pressure; praise the rare outliers of godliness (Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Gehrig, etc.); and express -- even Cubs fans -- hope in the face of "the universal human certainties": decline, disappointment, debacle, and... death.
As a Mets fan, I know my team will probably lose every blessed year. On some deep level, I know this. And yet, when spring training starts up again in Las Vegas, Binghamton, and Port St. Lucie, I will just as surely know spring has returned. Baseball is as insidious as the Monarch butterflies' annual return to San Juan Capestrano. Somehow, one forgets last year's losses and, in February or March -- still grim months in the Greater New York area -- trains one's eyes on a little town southeast of Orlando.
This year, in the depths of a major depression, I found it difficult, always, to focus on my team; on the game. Some nights, I would sit, completely silent alongside my vociferous spouse as he egged on a struggling pitcher or hitter -- multiple hitters: even the stalwart David Wright -- enduring unending slumps at bat.
But, about halfway through the season, I latched on to a 26-year-old rookie pitcher named Jacob deGrom, whom I nicknamed "Baby Bird." Kid looks a bit like an adolescent stork with a curly bell of auburn hair he's kept well-groomed but long all season. Twenty-six years old in the big leagues, he's already been through Tommy John Surgery, and wasn't called up to New York till May of 2014.
DeGrom's a quiet phenomenon, and a favorite of announcer Keith Hernandez, whose color commentary is almost as important as the game, itself, to me every year.
So, depressed and dejected as I was throughout the long spring and summer, I was brought back again and again, by my husband and deGrom and Hernandez... to the fact of the long season; the fact that baseball and life are a long season of ups and downs and dead zones, too; and that while it might seem, to me, that my depression would never lift (it persists, still), and that the Mets might always lose (they did, again, this year), it is, in fact not always so.
And on September 15th, 2014, two days after my bleak 63rd birthday, deGrom faced the Miami Marlins and struck out the first eight batters he faced, tying the MLB record.
There ensued much dancing up and down and yelling in our New Jersey den here, and not the last of the season, I feel sure.
If my mother could only see me now!