The fraxinus Americana crack of Josh Hamilton’s bat had the crowd in a holler. And there I was, cached in bleachers behind home plate, taunting the naysayers on all sides, letting them know they couldn’t keep “Hambone” down. All of a sudden Hamilton appeared, in a visionary vignette, crossing home plate with an indigo stitched “TEXAS” headed straight towards me. He arrived, gave me a fist-bump and said in the most serious manner, “Thanks man”. My response escapes my memory, dreams being like that. I remember only acute anxiety as the big 32 on the back of his jersey slowly vanished into a labyrinthine dugout: “I just let this moment pass without getting an autograph, dammit!”
Lately my subconscious has been taken over by baseball. I recently had to confess to my wife that I bought a pack of Topp’s Allen & Ginter baseball cards in the drugstore checkout, and more embarrassing, I attributed a quote by Thomas Mann to Terrence Mann on a job resume profile—further evidence that my mind resides somewhere between the Magic Mountain and a Field of Dreams.
The explanation for the dream is simple: I recently plowed through Josh Hamilton’s autobiography Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back, a Dantean journey through the hell of drug addiction, ending with him becoming arguably the best player in Major League Baseball. But that an altogether renewed—seemingly out of the blue—interest in baseball has burgeoned in my waking hours, that’s a bit more complex. It has a lot to do with my dad. But also the fact that I am now a father, with two boys beginning their fascination with baseball. My father spent most of his life fighting, and succumbing to, addictions. How do I resist the same temptations? He lost the battle and died suddenly at 46. He loved baseball. How does life go wrong for a man, what causes him to chose one way rather than another? How do I choose? Baseball, perhaps, is the heuristic framework within which I might learn virtue, the virtue of fatherhood.
I should hardly be surprised, then, that at the point in my life when I’m finally okay with remembering my dad, I should find within the game of baseball the right structure through which to think of him. It’s the years of playing baseball with him as my coach where memory truly forgives best. Or memory’s soothing reel of his dark pomegranate knees joyously kissing his chest, and the thundering release of these giant leaps upon our mobile home’s hollow floor: he couldn’t believe my home state Diamondbacks (in the most hideous uniforms in baseball history) had just miraculously pulled off game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the Goliath Yankees. Time had stood still, and he was present.
I’ll never forget 2001. It was a hard year. My father and I were searching for different worlds, worlds beyond our own egos. Perhaps we were looking for each other, I don’t know. We didn’t know that we didn’t know, perhaps that was the tragedy of it all. We lacked learned ignorance. We thought we were in control of these knuckleballed wills of ours, we thought we were blacksmiths in self-worlding; we were iron against iron. And it hurt, like a little hell was leeched in our synapses. But he seemed to know – the only one to really know – what was going on after I dropped out of college, leaving my football scholarship in ashes. He fought the mania and lows for years, he had had certain solidarities with the bilious clouds whirling in my mind. He tried to smile. I tried to smile. Game 7 smiled, and we crawled out of our withered heads for a moment, for a change. We came to a rest, and we saw that it was good. We were there, here, in more ways than the spatiotemporal.
It’s as if when my dad stopped coaching baseball—which was precisely the year, to my dad’s great disappointment, that I gave the diamond up—he also forgot all those virtues of learning to play the game he taught us kids. Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t swing at bad pitches. Step up to the plate. Pitch by pitch, son. All the standard baseball metaphor clichés that have become, as Nietzsche would’ve said, “like coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins,” may also be the very antidotes to self-destruction; the simple wisdom that alters an entire life’s course.
For some mysterious reason he lost sight of the ball. He moved on to his third woman and was no longer a boy with a son, but merely a man with sons. One son he forsook, meeting him only once as a young child. My brother, my only brother, is a fatherless man, always was. No bat. No ball. No hat. No glove. Foolish man, our father, he should have known that only boys can grow up, only boys can hope. Men are unmalleable to time, merely beings toward death, whereas boys are time’s reflection of eternity. It is fitting, then, that baseball lovers are “boys of summer.” Let winter’s men bury their own dead, while the boys await the eclipse and cloud of spring’s wink, the yellow rose of summer throws, autumn’s “yellow feather in the boughs.”
“Baseball is a game of failure”, writes Josh Hamilton, reflecting on the similarities between fighting drug addiction and stepping up to the plate with new resolve. It schools us in that vital virtue of hope, that idea that everything just may not be infinitely lost after all; that not every batter’s box in life has “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” grafted in its foundation. The nature of the game, as in life, revolves mostly around how we respond to failure. In baseball, if you fail 7 out of 10 times at the plate you’re considered a good hitter. According to this statistical structure our dads may not be as fucked up as we thought. But that all depends on how we perceive failure, and how we think about success. Perhaps it even requires an idea of grace.
It is, though, the how we think that is most difficult to change. It is this how that constitutes the very structure of our thought. It determines what we deem possible or not. But it is so close to us that we are often unable to see it in order to identify it, in order to see it as something that needs to be changed at all. “98 percent of hitting is mental,” Hamilton says in response to a question about a hitting slump. Hitting is about focus, attention, and discipline. It’s about choosing rightly, remembering rightly, and forgetting rightly. Everyday you wake up, every time you step up to the plate, you have to learn the imponderable habit of knowing what is truly worth thinking about; what is really worth one’s memory and, most importantly, how one is going to remember. “The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave your attention to vs. what you willed yourself not,” writes David Foster Wallace in his unfinished novel The Pale King.
Years ago, when the poisons of melancholy first began coursing through my veins, my mom would try to calm my mind before sleep. She usually just prayed. But one time she told me an age-worn cliché that has ever since oscillated in my memory: an idle mind is the devil’s playground. Are there two playgrounds of thought vying for our attention? One like a diamond, fractal in its beauty, with bases, a home, a dugout, straight lines and curves—and most persuasive, a beauty beyond the confines of the ballpark, the transcendent joy and revelation of a homerun. And, on the other hand, the devil’s monkey barred playground: back and forth, back and forth—legs dangling over the abyss—in straight lines that lead precisely nowhere.