We made it. The 2013 Major League Baseball season is right there in front of us, a vast expanse of fastballs and line drives, diving stops and crisp throws, attaboys and errors, beers and hot dogs. The postseason is still just a smudge on the horizon, blurred beyond recognition by the quivering heat of July and August. And you expect me to accurately predict the fates of thirty teams assembled by committee? Okay, sure. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I didn’t fall in love with baseball for the short-burst glory of the postseason. It’s the months of unpredictability before the playoffs that hooked me.
Baseball is about homestands and road trips packed with unpredictable moments. Some of them are even unforgettable. When I think about the moments that have lingered for the nearly forty years I’ve been a fan, very few have anything to do with how my White Sox finished. Winning it all in 2005 isn’t something I’d ever give back, but seeing the final out of that World Series was special because of all the small moments that preceded it that season and the other thirty seasons I’d been a fan. For instance, those moments back in 1990, when a friend and I took our sweet time leaving old Comiskey Park after the final out of the last game I’d ever see there, my first as an adult. An usher spotted us lingering at the rail above the box seats. He waved, encouraging us to walk down to the seats behind home plate. He knew this was where I’d been introduced to big league ball, where I’d become a fan. He must have. “Have a seat,” he said. “There’s time.”
Those front row seats were about three sections and five years removed from another unpredictable moment at that great old ballpark. Returning from the concourse to the seats Grandpa had bought for us, I froze when a foul ball humpbacked in my direction. I didn’t know what to do. Drop the Coke? Make a one-handed grab? Duck? In that instant of indecision a man bumped me out of the way and made the catch.
I don’t remember my first-ever Comiskey Park visit, but I remember my first trip to Wrigley Field. I was seven. For most of the ninety-minute drive to Chicago Uncle Joe stressed the magnitude of the event. “You’re gonna see the best pitcher in the majors today,” he told the carload of cousins and neighbor kids. “Tom Seaver. Tom Terrific.” To be honest, I don’t remember much about the game that afternoon. But I remember it was hot and sticky humid, and I remember that I didn’t want to take my eyes off the field because Tom Sever, the best pitcher in the majors, was right there. Who could’ve predicted my bladder would give way before the 7th Inning Stretch? I sat for an inning, miserable in sopping Toughskins jeans before I told Uncle Joe what had happened.
Most of my memories are better than that, but each was unpredictable. Like that Sunday afternoon game at Coors Field in ‘96. I was with a date. We’d arrived late to our seats in the front row in center field, when the crack of the bat snapped my attention from the beer I’d slipped into the cup holder. Shouts rose and fans climbed over nearby seats. I scanned the space above the field and spotted the ball, a high line-drive heading straight for us. This time I was ready. I cupped my hands on top of the padded wall. The ball began its slight descent. It would be close, but I didn’t want to interfere, so I kept my hands still, calculating the geometry and physics of the approaching ball as best I could. Holy shit! It’s mine! Then I heard Lenny Dykstra’s spikes digging in the warning track, sh-thck, sh-thck. Then Lenny Dykstra’s glove was there—right there! And then the ball found his mitt, fff-thwap, and Lenny Dykstra crashed into the wall and I swear to God I heard him grunt and goosebumps rose on my arms and my neck and I couldn’t stop giggling the rest of the afternoon.
It didn’t matter that I was pulling for the Rockies that day, that a visiting player gave me such a thrill. That’s baseball. Watch long enough and the moments pile up. Unpredictable moments like seeing Eric Young homer on the very first pitch of the very first Rockies home game in 1993. Just seconds before he swung I would’ve sworn that nothing could make me happier than simply sitting at a Major League game in my hometown. For the first decades of my life, Major League Baseball had been something I saw only on vacation. I grew up with AAA ball in Denver. On a good day the Bears played for 15,000 fans and more than 50,000 empty seats. But on July 4, 1979 I was one of 60,000 fans who came out for fireworks and saw Tim Raines sprint around the bases for a 10th-inning, game-winning inside the park home run.
I thought about that magic night when I sat in the same upper deck of Mile High Stadium seventeen years later and watched young Barry Bonds leg out a triple. And I thought about that triple when my brother and I sat in the upper deck at Yankee Stadium and watched a not-so-young Barry Bonds crush his first home run at The House that Ruth Built.
I can’t think about Yankee Stadium without thinking about my first visit to Fenway Park in 1999, a side trip while vacationing with the woman who would become my wife. It was The Summer of Pedro Martinez, and he was scheduled to start against the Mariners. Fans waved Dominican flags and the sold-out ballpark filled quickly. The air buzzed. I knew we had good seats, Row C, but it wasn’t until the usher pointed them out that I realized we’d be sitting in the first row behind the Mariners dugout. That was just the first surprise of the afternoon. Soon the fans near us passed along what someone had heard on the radio: Pedro had been scratched for arriving late. We still saw him pitch that day, though; he worked four innings in relief and picked up the win in the final regular season relief appearance of his career. All the Pedro drama aside, it’s still one of the most memorable games I’ve attended. I made eye contact with Ken Griffey Jr., I saw a monster Alex Rodriguez home run to center and, best of all, we had front-row seats for a Lou Piniella ejection.
The moments pile up when you watch. I couldn’t have predicted that Orlando Cabrera would outperform Vladimir Guerrero when I saw the Expos beat the Mets in Montreal during our honeymoon in September 2000. Or that, while visiting Chicago to celebrate our fifth anniversary, Mrs. Flynn and I would see Vlad’s Angels beat the Sox when he scored from first on a bunt in the 12th inning. Or that I’d end up living in Minneapolis and see Jim Thome beat my team, his former team, in 2010 with the first-ever walk-off home run at Target Field.
Watch baseball and the memories pile up, or they drift away, because memory is the most unpredictable part of it all. But I’m settling into the habits of a guy in his forties now, and I can predict with certainty that I will spend most of Opening Week on a couch while dozens of streamed games wash over me like the healing waters of Lourdes. Soon after, the regenerative power of the first week of ballgames will break the inertia of the winter and I will feel compelled to see the local nine in person—never mind that they are the rebuilding Twins and my team’s divisional rival. I’ll go, again and again, because it’s big league ball, and because you just never know what’s going to happen.