A Baseball Life

Loss.  Separation.  Heartbreak.  They’re all unavoidable parts of life and baseball, but that doesn’t make them any easier to deal with.

I’ll break your heart right off the bat.  One day, in ten or twelve or fourteen years, Jacob deGrom will retire, and we’ll all look back on that youthful, twenty-something kid with the flowing hair, and wonder where he went.  Then we’ll look at the rest of the field, and see our hottest prospect, 22 years old and just called up from AAA.

Right now, that prospect is ten years old.

That’s just an example, of course, and it’s one of the more jarring ones to consider for good reason.  Saying goodbye, and moving on, is part of baseball.  It’s part of life too, but among the kind of people whose hearts are broken at the thought of Jacob deGrom’s retirement, it’s most likely to be found on the diamond.

Sports: Illustrated ran a piece recently about the possibility of the National League adopting the designated hitter.  I hope they don’t; I suspect they won’t; I worry that they will.  But it doesn’t matter.  I only cite the piece to put forward a quote from the article.

“I say true baseball fans,” wrote the author, “not to claim some higher ground among tweed-jacket-wearing, baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life traditionalists.”

Traditionalists have been disparaged by the sabermetrics crowd, and rightly so: you can’t run a ballclub on nostalgia.  But while there’s certainly little space for Roger Angell in the front office, why not in the stands?  Why, even among fans, are “baseball-as-a-metaphor-for-life traditionalists” disparaged?  Portrayed as nothing more than naive, irrational fans, desperately clinging to the last vestiges of a game that has moved inexorably forward?  What did traditionalists ever do to you?

I’ll call myself a traditionalist in a second, and be damned proud of it.  Is baseball a metaphor for life?  Absolutely it is.  Career arcs, season fluctuations, and team histories all mirror the highs and lows of a long, full life.  And all the emotions of life are present, in more than ample amounts, on the baseball field.

Field Of Dreams.  The Natural.  For Love Of The Game.  There’s a reason traditionalists are moved to tears by some of these movies.  We see our lives, as children, young adults, and old, grizzled veterans, played out on the screen.  We feel the emotions inspired by the raw energy of the game – America’s game, that is, or in other words, Baseball – and remember the lives that we’ve lived.  And more likely than not, baseball has played a prominent role.

Even the little things, the moments that end faster than you can see and repeat themselves relatively rarely, tap human emotions.  Jose Reyes leaving for the Marlins.  Daniel Murphy leaving for those damn Nationals, despite a public desire to stay.  It’s happened to all of us.  A friend leaves, for reasons beyond either of our control, and while we respect their freedom, and know that they’ll do whatever is best for their own selves, we can’t help but want them to stay forever, or at least as long as they can manage.  A family member moves across the country, and we wonder whether we’ll ever see them again even as we try to convince ourselves that nothing’s wrong.

And you’re going to tell me that baseball is anything less than the perfect metaphor for life?

Of course, that may not be why we watch.  We travel to Citi Field in droves and watch our guys do battle with malevolent opponents because it’s a good time for all.  It’s fun, relaxed, friendly.  Everything a life well lived should be, in short.  But while we’re watching deGrom shut down the Phillies, or Colón implode against the Braves, we’re not – probably – thinking about overly deep emotions.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Being too swept up in a whirlwind of a season to notice the symbolism behind it is no crime.

The offseason – that’s when the metaphors kick in.  Watching as old players leave and new ones enter, just as old friends drift apart and new ones enter the picture in ways you had never expected, it’s impossible not to feel.  Some deny it.  Some call it silly, or misguided.  Some say they’re the mature ones.

Others are honest.  They’re the hardcore baseball fans, and they alone recognize the full depth of the interconnections of emotion in baseball and life.  And having experienced both a lifetime of everyday, normal emotions, and a lifetime with the emotions of a Mets fan, it’s hard to separate the two of them.

In 2015, the Mets, finally, were aggressive.  They were forward about exactly what they wanted.  They wanted an outfielder, so they went out on the market, made their intentions clear, and failed to get one.  And we all thought they were the same old Mets.

But then they caught our attention, and made a game-changing move.  The kind of move we didn’t think they could make anymore.  The kind of move that can turn a season around.

Around the same time, or perhaps slightly after the Mets attempt at forwardness and aggression came up just short, I did the same.  For the first time, I made my intentions clear.  I was open about what I wanted, and I put my thoughts on the table and waited for a verdict.

Like the Mets, I came up just short.  But I tried it out, and it worked.  It worked better than convincing myself that Brad Emaus could be a legitimate second baseman, and far better than pretending that Eric Young Jr. had a chance to develop into an outfielder for a contender.

It’s the oldest cliche in the book, so old and tired that I’m wary of using it even with the disclaimer that I’m not using it genuinely.  But somehow, after however long it’s been, it still holds true.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

We aimed high, and we didn’t get there, but when all the dust has settled, we’re pretty damn close.  We were finally forward about what was and wasn’t a suitable, playoff-caliber baseball team, and having taken that step, we’ve got one.  And as for me…well, it’s a long story, much like our Mets’, that didn’t end entirely the way I’d hoped.  But I took the advice, and now I’m among the stars as well, no World Champion, but no perennial cellar-dweller either.

Baseball doesn’t have to be a metaphor for your life, but don’t insist that it can’t fill that role for anyone else.  Plenty of people – you could call them “traditionalists,” I call them true fans – have lived the baseball life, and will gladly attest to it.

No, you don’t have to accept the emotions of baseball as a profound, long-enduring representation of the ups and downs of any fully-lived life.  But please, don’t think less of those who do.

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