My son used to hit baseballs for hours on end, day after day. It was his first true obsession. Then he turned four and lost interest. He is now five-and-a-half and for some magical reason, in the final stretch of this season, and especially in the postseason, his interest in baseball has reemerged, only now it’s rooted in being a fan.
Every night for the last month we have watched baseball as a family, and every morning, over breakfast and on our way to school, he has wanted to recap how each game ended and talk about where that leaves the standings. After school, it’s more of the same. Who is playing tonight? Who is pitching? Are any teams facing elimination? It has helped that we are Dodger fans and they were in it until the very end, but our attention has always been on the entire show. And for the first time in his young life, I have watched my son take it all in. Every team, every game.
I loved every minute of it, of course, but one painful truth did emerge: by deploring the Yankees, I was teaching my son to hate.
That there are different players and they all belong to different teams was not news for him. He has seen plenty of baseball and has long had his favorite players and even fully embraced identifying his favorite teams.
What was new for him this postseason was that we, as a family, have strong opinions about all the other teams, and that these opinions shift depending on current matchups, and most significantly, that we go so far as to actively hate certain teams. That the Yankees are the Evil Empire was news to him; that we could so vehemently oppose a baseball team was something he had never really considered before this October. What’s worse is that we were boastful and obnoxious in our aversions.
I have grown so relaxed in my dislike of the Yankees that all of this was lost on me. And it would have been so easy to see if I had just been paying attention. He actively struggled to understand the Yankee thing all the way from the wildcard game to their exit in the ALCS.
He asked us endless questions about why we hated them so much, and in some small way, he even reveled in our disdain. I mistook his inquiries for interest and thought of the implied truths as inevitable. At some point, isn’t it a position we all come to? It felt harmless.
Of course, he was processing something much deeper than the Yankees being easy targets. He was piecing together something more sinister, more damaging, and sadly, it took me too long to see what it was to be able to do anything about it.
Suddenly, there it was, obvious as could be. I was sitting on the couch and he was watching from the floor. It was game 5 of the ALCS and he was watching intently, asking about this, observing that, all with the intention of figuring out what was so bad about the Yankees. Just like that, it clicked for me: in his mind, until now, every team was more or less the same.
Never before had he felt the need for there to be heroes or villains in baseball, and now, suddenly, through watching me, there that need was, coming through loud and clear.
I had left no room for what was most obviously true about Major League Baseball, that every team has a hometown, and that every team has their own set of diehard fans. He saw himself in all of the little boys and girls in the stands on TV, and simultaneously he was watching me, his father, squared off in opposition to them. The disconnect he must’ve felt with my groaning in agony every time they were leaping to their feet in joy. What that must’ve instilled in him.
I had been thinking all this time that it was my enthusiasm that was contagiously reaching him; I honestly thought that it was due in part to how “into it” I was that made him love watching these games. Damn, was I wrong.
Going into game 7 of the World Series, he was determined to stay up. All afternoon he kept asking why Kershaw wasn’t starting pitching and if Justin Turner was going to hit a home run. Despite his best efforts, he faded to sleep somewhere in the seventh or eighth. First thing he asked me the next morning was, “Did the Dodgers come back and win?!”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
He looked down in sadness for a minute then perked back up again. “Well, at least we like the Astros too and that means they won the World Series, right?”
“Yes, son, you’re absolutely right.”
It breaks my heart to think that I have inadvertently put the idea in his head that any single team matters more than the sport itself, or that there’s nobility in hating another team simply because they are “other” than us. In my defense, I can speak with reverence of the beautiful ways in which baseball will break your heart and how it is in the agony of losing that we fall in love.
But that’s really not the point. Not here, anyway. What matters above all is the game itself and the joy it offers. The final box score might hold a record of what happened, but lost to it is the endless possibilities that existed every time the pitcher threw the ball. We might triumph when our team wins, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also be graceful when it is our turn to lose.
I didn’t teach my son to love baseball. He found that on his own. What I taught him this October is that we like and dislike teams for what are ultimately arbitrary reasons, and that we pour our emotions into those positions as if our wellbeing depends on it. What a disservice I have done. What an unfortunate twist of fate.
Sure, my affection for the game will also land on him. That, I’m not worried about. That, I get to celebrate with him for the rest of our lives. What pains me is that I have taught him how mean-spirited we can be and how much we crave seeing our opposition fall. He does not wear meanness naturally. I have taught him how to put it on; I have made him believe that it should feel good to wear.
Baseball deserves better. Our children deserve better. Our hearts deserve better.
My friend sent me this quote the morning after the Dodgers lost the World Series, and I will end with it now. Through the gentleness of its message, through its eloquent hat-tip to the significance of the game that I love, I have found a salve for my aching heart.
“Spring comes in America not on the vernal equinox but on opening day; summer sets in with a Memorial Day doubleheader and does not truly end until the last out of the regular season. Winter begins the day after the World Series.”