When we were both very small, my sister and I learned how to bat left-handed. My father spent weeks with us in the backyard, trying to perfect our swings from the wrong side of the plate. As a natural southpaw this didn’t seem an odd idea to me. If batting right-handed was going to be as hard as trying to use righty scissors to cut construction paper, then I didn’t want any part of it. The concept was a little less natural to my right-handed sister, but Dad was determined. We would learn to bat as lefties. If we bothered asking why, my dad answered in a very logical tone, “Because you’ll be one step closer to first base.”
I doubt now that my father had a vision of a re-established professional women’s baseball league, and I’m deeply skeptical that he imagined us breaking into the boys’ club of Major League Baseball. I’m not sure he even planned for us to play on an organized team of any sort. Teaching us to bat, and handing down the secrets of the game, was simply the fulfillment of his duties as a believer in baseball, or what the movie Bull Durham called, “the church of baseball.” He taught us how to throw and catch and hit with the same calm intensity he used when drilling us on the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed or the Ten Commandments. When I was baptized as an infant, I know that my parents made a promise that they would raise me to know God and the power of faith. I suspect that, shortly before or after, my father also made a silent pact to teach me about Harmon Killebrew and the sliding curveball. To him, understanding the rules and practices of baseball was akin to mastering the tenets of a happy and successful life.
My dad was not especially close to his own father, Earl. Like many men of his generation, my grandfather equated fatherhood primarily with providing for one’s children. Words like “self-esteem,” “quality time,” and “affirmation” were not part of his paternal vocabulary. He was considered a solemn, quiet man, even among his rural Minnesota neighbors, a group that generally boasts the emotional extroversion of peat moss. Earl died when I was ten years old, and aside from a few hazy memories of whisker burns and excrutiatingly long readings of the Sunday paper, most of my knowledge of him comes from our family’s short oral history. I have never heard my father or any of his three brothers tell a story about my grandfather that involved anything resembling silliness. Stories about Earl center around three things: golf, fishing, or baseball. It’s easy for me to envision Earl trolling on Lake Kandiyohi or teeing off on the trickiest hole of his local golf course. These are, after all, quiet, solitary sports that require stoic patience and a calm, controlled bearing. What I can’t imagine is my grandfather, so deliberate and fragile in the days I knew him, throwing a perfect fastball or fielding a speeding grounder.
And yet he did. Despite dropping out of high school to help support his younger brothers, Earl was spotted by a scout and recruited for the Philadelphia farm team. Actually taking the scout up on his offer was impossible; even in his youth, my grandfather felt a bond of familial obligation that no offer of fame or fortune or freedom from farm life could break. I doubt that he expressed his frustration or disappointment to anyone at the time, and I’m assured that he did not dwell on the missed opportunity in his later years. The only evidence of his regret was displayed when his oldest son, then a seventeen-year-old catcher with decreasing patience for backyard catches with his dad, failed to hide his boredom during an afternoon volley. On his next throw, Earl fired the baseball at his son with all his strength and surprising precision. The ball stung the boy’s hand, and as he shook the fire from his palm, my grandfather walked into the house, saying “If you’re going to play, play.”
Earl believed in baseball. He believed in its power to bring men together, to help them share feelings and fears that could never be spoken in the company of their wives and children. In his quiet way, he taught the doctrines of the game to his sons. My father, once the petulant teenager with no time to play with his dad, grew to be a man whose day can be brightened or stained by the success or failure of his favorite team. The only times I can remember my parents allowing me to skip school for non-illness-related reasons were in the Octobers of 1987 and 1991, when we went to downtown Minneapolis to watch the Twins World Series Victory parades. I don’t remember even asking for the days off. It was simply a given that we would attend the celebrations. In our home, they were not simply parties. They were pilgrimages.
Unfortunately, like any other denomination, the church of baseball has its flaws. Corruption has been documented practically since its conception. Those with power don’t always have the believers’ best interests at heart. Some ask how God can allow famine and war and disease. I ask how She can possibly tolerate Astroturf, multi-sport stadiums, and $6.00 hot dogs. These are the questions that try a believer’s faith – but what, after all, is faith without trials? Any petty complaints I might harbor are lost during the frequent transcendent moments that constitute this game’s history. Grumblings about free agency’s destruction of baseball’s purity are forgotten when I sit at a Little League game and see the expressions of utter joy on the young players’ faces. Fears about soaring salaries are waylaid when I watch a Triple A team board the bus for an overnight ride to their next double-header. And my occasional mutterings about the game being too boring for this era are silenced when my kids put down their screens and have a catch. These moments renew my faith.
Baseball’s First Commandment is simple: If you’re going to play, play. I’ll always be grateful to my dad for putting me one step closer to first.