The steady breeze cools the skin, making the hot summer afternoon bearable. The sun is slowly starting to slip the first base grandstand, bathing the field in a variety of shadows. It is late afternoon and the players have finished their stretching routines, sauntering off into their cliques as the daily ritual of batting practice begins.
As he approaches the batting cage, a player engages in a philosophical discussion on hitting. He works earnestly on his timing at the plate, searching for answers to his increasing number of strikeouts. The discussion begins with the placement of his foot and the shifting of his weight, evolving into the psychology of his overaggressive mindset. The combination has left him locked up, taking pitches for strikes instead of swinging confidently for contact to put the ball in play.
But the earnest work isn’t always serious, especially for the players getting a day off from the lineup. They goof around like sidekicks in a bromance movie and the challenge becomes stifling your laughter while watching them act like your younger brother did back when you were 12 and he was 8.
There are days when I arrive at batting practice with a task. I’m looking to talk with the manager or a player. The relaxed atmosphere makes it a perfect place to talk unhurried, giving myself an advantage for the game story I will be writing on deadline a few hours later.
But most days, I come to the ballpark early simply because it makes me happy. Batting practice has become one of my most cherished places of zen. It’s vital to my sanity, both as a sportswriter and as a human being.
I begin my workday in the press box, filled with notes and statistical packages with numbers and equations that break down and explain everything in (allegedly) objective mathematical terms. Batting practice gives personality to the numbers. It’s where narratives emerge. And baseball is at its best when there’s a balance between the two, between the statistics and the stories, between the science and the art.
The pace of batting practice creates a meditative effect for me. It allows me to be myself, in all my glorious complicated contradictions. It connects me to home, reminding me, in powerful ways, of my grandparents.
Sunday summer afternoons were often spent on my grandparents’ gigantic porch, which spanned the side of their first-ring suburban home. It served as the staging area for all things summer and was the primary source of my baseball education. No matter what transpired – visits from neighbors, unwanted relative drop-ins, grandkids noisily running through the sprinkler – my grandfather had his transistor radio next him tuned into the Buffalo Bisons game.
Baseball play-by-play was the soundtrack to my summer vacations.
It was on the porch that my grandfather taught me how to keep score. He would take paper and a ruler and create a scorecard, filling in the lineups and demonstrating how to diagram the game as it moved from batter to batter, inning to inning. It took me some time to remember the numbers for the different positions and I often used a cheat sheet. Still, it took me a while to understand that just because the play at happened at second base did not mean the second baseman made the play. (I never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the box.)
Back home, I would watch the Toronto Blue Jays on CFTO-TV and practice scoring, almost always upset that the starting lineups were flashed too quickly for me to write them down. Inevitably something would happen during the game that baffled my novice scoring abilities. I’d call Gramps, describe the play and he would walk me through how to mark up my scorecard. If you want to know how I learned the game of baseball, look at my scorecard.
But if you want to know how I learned to love the game of baseball, that lesson came from my grandmother. While I was learning how to mark singles, walks, strikeouts, and the occasional balk, she was sitting in her designated porch seat, staring into the past and telling her own baseball stories.
There were stories of double dates to the ballpark for Bisons games in the early 1940s, before World War II changed everything in their lives. She talked about the teams and how she could get to know the players because they played with the Bisons year after year, before the reorganization of affiliated baseball made Buffalo a temporary layover in the nomadic nature of professional ball.
The story she told most frequently was from her days growing up on the East Side of Buffalo in the late 1920s and 1930s. Her family migrated from rental property to rental property on A Street, B Street, C Street and finally, Peterson. It was about two miles from Offerman Stadium, nestled on the corner of Michigan and Ferry Streets. She and her two brothers, Frankie and Eddie, would walk to the ballpark early on game days. They’d scour the nearby streets for baseballs driven out of the park during batting practice. If they turned the baseballs in to the usher, they would get into the game for free. Sometimes, she said, he would slip them a nickel to buy a treat at the concession stand.
When I heard the story, over and over and over again until I thought I had actually been to Offerman Stadium myself, I assumed she was telling me a baseball story. And on one level, it was. But as I’ve replayed and revisited the story, I see how it’s much more than that. Gram loved the game, that’s for sure. And she loved it, in large part, because it was a safe space for her. It was a place to escape her family’s financial insecurity. It was a place to escape her abusive father. It was a place to be, without expectation, or demands, or sadness, or fear.
Baseball was always a safe space for our relationship, too. When we clashed over my life decisions, I could steer the conversation back to the Bisons, ask her about the time she caught foul balls in exchange for a ticket, and the passive-aggressive argument would morph into another nostalgic episode.
The shadows grow longer as batting practice continues. In two generations, we’ve gone from standing outside the stadium, hoping for a stroke of luck to earn admission to the game to standing on the field, contractually obligated to be at the game in return for a weekly paycheck. What hasn’t change is the feeling created by being here – a sense of safety, of peace, of gratitude. It remains our place of zen, where intuition dominates and the only requirement is to be ourselves, observe the world around us and smile.
In a few hours this sense of peace will be replaced by panic as I furiously write, delete and rewrite my story about the game. This is the tedious work of the real sportswriters of minor league baseball, synthesizing a story on deadline to inform and entertain. My grandparents never had the opportunity to read much of my baseball writing and I can’t help but wonder what they would have thought of my work in the morning paper and my tales of day-to-day life on the baseball beat. I can hear them on the porch, my grandfather full of compliments, my grandmother tempering her subtle praise with a dose of critique. She never did have an unexpressed opinion, even if it was delivered by the contour of her face and her corresponding body language.
Constructing my story is as much about my personal history as it is about the game in front of me. There are dozens of ways to approach writing, different angles and slants from which to frame the game. But I’ve learned that if I try to be someone I’m not, if I try to write my story in someone else’s voice or through someone else’s eyes, the inauthenticity leaps from the page. I can’t separate myself from myself. Objectivity, in this regard, is a myth.
And so I come to the game and then to the blank page with my own experiences playing as background music. It is filled with those moments of learning to score with Gramps and those moments of memory crafted by Gram. It’s still a combination of statistic and story, of science and art. It is a balance that makes me love baseball, makes me love writing, and makes me love writing about baseball.