More than a Game: The Hidden Gifts of Baseball in 2021
As a mom of three sports-addicted boys and the wife of one, I have spent the better part of each year of the last 17 of my life attending sporting events - mainly baseball practices and games. Around 2011, my youngest son grew old enough to play travel baseball, in addition to Little League, like his older brothers. This brought the number of teams I had to navigate to a total of at least three and sometimes as many as six during a single season.
It was then that I knew I was going to have to convince myself that this was more than just a game. Once I factored in both the amount of money and of time we were tracking to spend on baseball, I was intent on discovering what that "more" was. What followed was the creation of my blog, The View From Behind Home Plate, where over the past ten years, much of my writing has centered on detailing the hidden gifts I have found while watching sports from the sidelines. And while I have come to love baseball at its most simplistic level - see the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball - I've learned to appreciate even more why we love it so much, why we give it so much of our energy and mental space, and why we grieve it so much when it's gone.
Today we are slowly, but surely aging out of amateur baseball in my family. The teams I watch in person are down to one or two. The laundry is less overwhelming. The end of my days in the bleachers as the mother of a player are on the horizon. And though I would have thought I had learned it all, it is in the last 18 months - a time of both global upheaval and personal challenges - that I have more deeply understood why I am so devoted to baseball.
There were many that criticized those of us who lamented the loss of sports during the pandemic. How could anyone grieve the absence of a basketball or baseball game when there were people losing family members to a deadly disease? Were we completely out of touch with the realities of the tragedy that so many suffered? Were we a callous bunch of morons? (Editor's note: I think "callous bunch of morons" might be the kindest of terms when considering the name-calling we saw on the Internet this year.)
I understand the criticism. Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time feeling profound loss at the absence of sports during the pandemic and had more gratitude at its return than I ever could have imagined. So I had to think through what the loss of those games actually meant. As the world began to open up this summer and I was able to spend countless days and nights in the bleachers again, I began to understand a little bit of why I grieved it so. In simplest terms it was because of what sports represents to me - a place of community, a place of comfort, and ultimately a place of surrender.
For me baseball is community. I have been a stay at home mom for years. When the boys were little, I had days when I felt like I was drowning in Star Wars movies and Nerf Gun Battles. With a baseball team, came baseball moms. We didn't have to make dinner reservations or sync up schedules. If there was a game at 6:00 pm at this field or that field, a group of women friends would be there, often toting blankets, snacks, and toys for the younger siblings. Years of spending weeks at the ballpark brought me some of my very closest friends.
As most of my kids are out of the house now, I spend my days alone at my desk as a writer - which is to say I spend a whole lot of time in my own brain. An evening high school baseball game is a time to get out of my head and to speak words out loud to live human beings. It's a chance to focus on someone else - my kid, his teammates, his coaches, my friends. The pandemic didn't just steal a silly game from me. It stole my community.
Another thing I found that I love about baseball is the comfort I find in its predictability. The world seemed completely out of control this year. Although Covid didn't affect my family personally, both of my parents were diagnosed with serious illnesses. I spent a lot of time traveling away from my home to be with them. In the past six months, whether I was turning on the tv news or waiting for a medical report from a doctor, I seeemed to be perpetually holding my breath wondering what new challenge was coming.
When we finally got back to baseball, I realized that it blessedly remained the same. At its very core baseball is about tradition and continuity. We've spent much of the past year and a half wrestling with the unknown. I have questions big and small with no clear answers. But as I sat at a baseball game there were things I could count on.
I knew that Christian would lead off, Griffin would bat 2nd, Mason would be in the 3-hole, and Eli would hit clean-up. I knew that after Luke struck out a batter, he was going to walk the perimeter of the pitcher's mound exactly once before he got back to his position. There would be seven innings and six outs per inning. I didn't know if my mom's cancer was spreading or how sick her treatments would make her. I didn't know if we'd be allowed to attend my oldest son's college graduation in person. But this game and these players? I knew that I could rely on them. There was no race against the clock. No buzzer signaling that time was up. No ties. We played until there was a winner and a loser. I have never been more grateful for the unchanging nature of baseball.
The final benefit of watching baseball this year might seem far-fetched, but I found it completely true. In 2021, watching a baseball game became a symbol of surrender. Americans love to be the masters of our own destiny. We felt completely out of control this year and we didn't like it one bit. There were so many circumstances we wanted to change. We tried to manage this virus. I tried to manage my mom's medications, my dad's emotions, and my family's ability to thrive while I was away from home. And yet, I had no delusions that I could control the baseball game from the stands. Try as I might to believe in the power of a lucky shirt or sitting in the right spot in the bleachers, I am fully aware that I have nothing whatsoever to do with a win or loss. There is freedom and peace in knowing that my only job is to watch. What a blessed relief.
I've spent a lot of time at baseball games. Our family has put significant energy and money into this sport. Some would say too much. The last 18 months have taught me that I'll never regret a single moment. I am incredibly grateful for the way baseball has brought true community, comforting predictability, and a sense of peaceful surrender to so many of my days. I know now more than ever that when life feels overwhelming - as it certainly will again - there is some where I can go that will bring me at least a few hours of respite from this broken world. I'll set aside my worries for a bit, look at my husband and kids, and say, "Take me out to the ballgame."
Jennifer is a Texas-native living in Northern Virginia with her husband of 25 years, Steve. A free-lance writer, most of her musings recount her 17 plus years as a baseball and basketball mom to her three sons, Joe, Kyle, and Drew, on her blog, The View from Behind Home Plate. Outside of racing between basketball courts and baseball fields, she spends her time as a Women’s Bible study leader, childhood cancer advocate, and rabid Texas Longhorn fan. Her writing has also appeared in columns for Arcola Methodist Church, the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League, the Dadvocacy Consulting Group, Dysautonomia International, and the pediatric cancer advocacy organization, Kyle’s Kamp.