If on a March Afternoon a Traveler

Another baseball season is here and there’s another chance to fall in love with the game. (via THOR)

It’s Opening Day, so we should start by talking about love. Pause for a moment and remember the first time you fell in love. Remember how you felt about baseball as a kid. Remember having your heart broken. How is it today? Do you feel differently about love? Do you feel differently about baseball?

I remember poring over baseball cards. Staying up too late listening to games on the radio without my parents knowing. Checking the standings when we got the paper on Sundays. Looking at who was leading the league in which categories. I played Little League and practiced as much as I could. Always hoping this would be the year I magically became good. I subscribed to my favorite team’s monthly magazine. I read it cover to cover. A lot like a first love.

I got older. I paid more attention to the minutiae. In college, the internet suddenly existed, and I learned about sabermetrics. It was my first time thinking about how I wanted things to be in baseball as opposed to how they were. And it kept going from there. A lot like growing up.

Why doesn’t my team win? Why can’t owners and players find a way to share revenue? Why are minor leaguers paid so badly? Why doesn’t baseball do more about domestic violence and other toxic culture issues? A lot like getting your heart broken. A lot like wondering if it’s worth bothering to be in love. What was it even like to be in love anyway?

I read a lot. I’m 38, and yet, if you ask me to list my favorite books, most of them are books I first read more than a decade ago. I’ve read more in the last ten years than I did in the ten years before that, so why haven’t I found more favorites? When did you read your favorite books? When did your favorite albums come out? Who is your favorite player ever? What was your favorite year for your favorite team?

For so many fans, baseball is an early love. Anyone who’s had their heart broken–anyone who didn’t end up with the first person they fell in love with–can tell you the thing about early loves. How it feels like nothing will ever be like that again.

I read a lot. I like most of what I read, but it’s not often I really, really love a new book like I did when I was 19 or 20. Last year, something happened. I started reading Italo Calvino. I’d never read anything of his before, but he’d been on my endless to-read list for a long time. The second book of his I read was If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. It opens with commands. “Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door.”

I won’t try to explain it beyond that, but I will tell you this: It gave me everything I love about literature and writing while also constantly subverting my expectations. And when I got to the end, I laughed. And I don’t mean I chuckled. I laughed. I don’t think I’ve ever had that response finishing a book before. Or maybe it had just been too long since I’d been surprised. And now, when people ask me for my favorites, I include this book I read just last year.

And why? Why do I love that book? It did what I hoped it would do…and it did something else. Something I didn’t expect. Time tries to jade us. It diminishes our expectations. It’s not so much that this song or book, this player or team, isn’t as good as what came before, it’s that we’ve seen something like this before. And then we saw it again. And there’s all this minutiae. This STUFF that isn’t baseball (or music or literature) that colors how we see it. We can’t forget that stuff, and we shouldn’t.

But I don’t think we should forget that feeling of surprise and discovery, either. Because sometimes, something happens. Something comes along–a book, a player, a song, a team, a person–and you get to feel that hopeful surprise again. And when you feel it, if you’ve been around at all, it’s going to be tempting to predict disappointment. To anticipate the letdown. But instead, “Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.” Youth has its charm. Those first loves. But there’s something to experience. To knowing when you’ve come across something different and special.

How long has it been, I wonder, since you last went to a baseball game with your eyes closed? Not knowing who would pitch or who the best hitters on either team were. Not knowing who might boot a grounder or make a diving catch. How long has it been since you saw some scrawny kid hit a ball farther than he should be able to?

Baseball love, like romantic love, gets more complicated the older we get. The world infringes and interferes. We become jaded and maybe forget what it’s like to be really in love. But then, we can close our eyes, dispel every other thought, and, if we’re lucky, find ourselves surprised by what we see when we open them again.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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4 years ago

Italo Calvino is an incredible author, and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler is one of his best books. I’d recommend reading Invisible Cities as well if you haven’t already. (I created a Fangraphs account just to post this comment because I like Calvino so much lol)

Dennis Bedard
4 years ago

Excellent. This article would have been a lot better if you were 25 years older. So let me fill in the blanks. The book that turned it around for me: Ball Four. I very quickly realized that playing major league baseball was a lot like goofing off in 7th grade. First album that I remember: In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly. Way before the internet, there was The Sporing News and Baseball Digest which were the equivalent of a heroin addict’s weekly fix (I guess that is why i never did drugs). And there was a Darth Vader before Darth Vader. His name was Bob Gibson. Broke my heart when he dismantled the ’67 Red Sox in the WS and made many a Boston fan cry.

4 years ago

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Yehoshua Friedman
4 years ago

I’m definitely going to put Italo Calvino on my reading list. I date my love for baseball only from early adolescence, but my joined-at-the-hip identity as an Indians’ fan goes back to my in utero presence at a 1948 World Series game. I was born on Nov. 16. With what they know about prenatal influence today, that’s large. But I was bad at sports. My dad threw a ball to me in the backyard and it bonked me on the head. But inevitably I became a baseball nerd. I have opinions about the game. I walk around with fictitious games going on in my head. I’m 70 and hooked for life.

4 years ago

Baseball is an early love
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