There are lots of stereotypes and general-knowledge notions that I have never been able to identify with, such as the statement that Kansas is flatter than a pancake or just one large expanse of farmland; moms who do their daughters’ hair; or the idea of baseball and apple pie being the two loves that make people American. Of course, the reason I couldn’t identify with these supposed common-experience notions was that they didn’t match up with my experience growing up.
For instance, has anyone who calls Kansas flat ever visited Lawrence? Or Atchison? Or Kansas City (on the Kansas side, of course, although the Missouri side has its fair share of hills too, as any runner knows)? I can only assume not. Furthermore, I grew up in a suburb of Kansas City. The nearest farms were at least an hour south of us, and we never went south. Why would we? The city was north. When I was young, my dad crimped and curled my hair for big events like school pictures or church; my mom never laid a finger on my tresses. She wouldn’t have known what to do if I’d asked her to.
And as for baseball and apple pie… Are you kidding me? When it came to dessert, chocolate ruled the day in our house, and when we wanted to be entertained, well, we were a book family (as any loyal reader of this blog already knows). Once a year, in the smack-dab middle of the summer, right about the time our sans-school ennui hit, our family ventured to Kauffman Stadium (a torturous, 45-minute drive away) to take in a baseball game. We sat way up high, had no idea of any of the players’ names (except George Brett, of course), and expected to see the home team lose. It was a good night if my parents sprang for cotton candy. If they declined our vendor-related pleas, the night could not achieve a higher rating than mediocre. For me, the most fun part of going to the baseball stadium was getting to walk down the spiral ramp at the end of the game.
My second favorite part of going to the baseball stadium also happened once the game was over. And it was my dad’s least favorite part: the parking-lot traffic jam. I loved staring at the long lines of cars and brake lights illuminating the night as we waited to get back out on the road. I think my joy over the long wait only exacerbated my dad’s aggravation with it. My third favorite part of a baseball outing was definitely the coveted cotton candy, if I was lucky enough to get some. If not, the game itself could slide up to take a comfortable third place in Audra’s Personal-Enjoyment Rankings.
With the combination of a losing home team, a non-sports-interested family, and the crowd-control factors competing for my affection, one can easily deduce why I’ve never been able to identify with the old phrase “as American as baseball.” And, since I already couldn’t identify with the other American-defining phrase, the one about apple pie, I had no choice but to conclude I was an alien forced to spend my days in this country where they made such errors in judgment as preferring apple pie and baseball over chocolate and traffic jams. And thus I lived, happily – or so I thought – for 27 years. (It seems like I mention my age a lot in my blog posts. I wonder if that’s to remind people that I’m still young, or just to help me keep track of where I’m at in life?)
And then April 2012 came, and through a confluence of factors, I came to be interested in the sport of baseball. Those who know how this story ends might not believe me when I say it started out as a perfectly mild, even casual, interest. In fact, it was less than that. It was purely perfunctory. At that juncture of my life, I was spending a lot of evenings and a lot of carpool rides with a couple of boys who had baseball on the brain. In the evenings, my choices of conversation were baseball or book spines. On the rides to and from work, my choices were baseball or obscure music. I thought their chances of maintaining my interest were better if I chose baseball in both cases, so I began to study and read up on the Kansas City Royals. I also took a few opportunities to attend home games, since the tickets go for as cheap as seven bucks sometimes.
As it turned out, I was a bit overwhelmed at first by everything there was to learn. I had previously thought all there really was to know about baseball beyond what I considered “the basics” were all the players’ names and numbers. (I later found out jersey numbers matter very little; position numbers are what’s important.) To me, the basics were the multiples of three: three strikes, six outs per inning, nine innings, nine field positions. These things are important, but with each game I experienced, whether at the stadium or over the radio waves, I found there was still so much I didn’t know.
So I subscribed to a Royals-specific blog and read every post faithfully, which was exhausting at first because they posted multiple times a day during the season, and some of them were so full of statistics I could barely get to the end of a sentence and still understand what was going on. And if I missed a couple of days of checking Google Reader, I could have as many as eight posts backlogged. In those early days of blog reading, I clicked a lot of outside links to extra information and performed a lot of Google searches to suss out the meanings of various terms and stats.
At first, I took everything the blog posted as gospel truth and verbally quoted it (sometimes without citing my source – gasp!) in conversation, until I started noticing that, due to the number of games I personally attended and listened to, I was beginning to form my own semi-educated opinions about certain Royals players and certain managerial decisions, and sometimes those opinions differed from what the Royals bloggers posted. And I learned that was okay because we’re all just fans, and we don’t have to agree. Plus, other baseball fans were starting to notice my opinions on Facebook, and interesting conversations began to blossom!
Around midsummer, I again thought I had pretty much figured things out as far as batting strategy and basic fielding and defense were concerned, only to learn that there was more to offense than I realized: Pitching theories and techniques were an entire dimension I hadn’t even begun to explore. I had just gotten the hang of the field position numbers when I learned that position numero uno contained far more than met my eye. It seemed like I had a whole new roster to learn, what with starting pitchers and bullpen pitchers, both of which could be categorized further into left-handed and right-handed pitchers, #1-#5 starters, long relievers and short relievers, innings-eaters and closers.
I began to get dizzy when I tried to think about all the different types of pitches that could be thrown. Curveball, fastball, slider, change-up, knuckleball, and on and on and on. So, to borrow a metaphor from the sport that is played in Kauffman’s neighbor stadium, I tackled this problem head on by pulling up YouTube videos of good pitching. I listened to the announcers call the pitches and tried to see how the ball changed speed or direction as it went over the plate. It was tough to figure out, and it was especially difficult to try to apply my knowledge at live games because I didn’t particularly want to watch the pitch; I wanted to watch the runners stealing, the batters making contact, and the fielders playing the shift. And, besides all that, depending on where I sat in the stadium and what angle I had over the pitcher’s mound, I was darned if I could tell without the help of an announcer how fast it was going or how sharply it curved over the plate.
Eventually I found out about a new autobiography written by MLB pitcher R.A. Dickey. I had never heard of this guy and knew very little about his team, the New York Mets, but the title of the book struck me as clever, so I checked it out from the library. If I had known I was in for a read that would compete with my choice for Best Book of 2012, I’m…not really sure what I would’ve done differently. Maybe nothing, except opened it up much sooner than I did after acquiring a copy. But once I did open it and begin reading, I was hooked. Not only did I learn about great pitching (and great pitchers, knuckleballers specifically, like the Niekro brothers, Charlie Hough, and Tim Wakefield); I learned about the life of a man who struggled with self-worth issues and personal demons that stemmed from child abuse, molestation, rape, and abandonment. I learned about a guy who became a Christian early in his life, only to find it didn’t really make his external hardships disappear. I learned about someone who didn’t have anything handed to him on a platter; or rather, had pretty much everything handed to him on a platter, when he first signed an MLB contract, and then had that platter yanked away from him almost as fast. Finally, I learned about a man who loves baseball, loves God, and loves his wife and kids (not necessarily in that order) – and is just trying to figure out how to balance all that love (and stay humble) in a life where he finally – after much struggle, toil, heartache, and disappointment – seems to have everything he has ever wanted.
And with that book, the flame of my interest in baseball was fanned into a fire that spread beyond the exclusivity of the Kansas City Royals. I spent an afternoon near the end of the season watching a Mets game that R.A. Dickey pitched. As it happened, that game was his last of the season, and he earned the win (his 20th W of the season and the first Mets pitcher to achieve that many wins in one season since 1990), throwing 128 pitches over 7 and 2/3 innings and striking out 13 batters. If you don’t know the significance of those numbers, then I promise you, the word you’re looking for is, Wow.
R.A. Dickey and his knuckleball helped me begin to understand the complexities and dynamics of pitching. They also helped garner my interest in players outside the Royals organization. From that Mets/Pirates game, I went on to watch end-of-season games for the Nationals, the Dodgers, the Braves, the Mariners (wherein I also got to see a pitching feat accomplished, the day I watched Felix achieve his perfect game!), and more. When the end of the season loomed and divisions still hadn’t been clinched, I watched some of those games to see who would make it, the Orioles or the Yankees, the A’s or the Rangers, the Dodgers or the Cardinals. I probably watched more Dodgers games than any others, mostly because I discovered a gem of an announcer in Vin Scully, who, as an octogenarian, I quickly learned, is a baseball-announcing legend.
And then, of course, the postseason was upon us, and like any disappointed local fan, I began to choose favorites in the fight for the World Series. I canceled social plans to watch postseason games and lived and breathed postseason baseball for the first two weeks of October. All of my favorites ended up losing in the division or championship series, and I had to choose a new team for the World Series. I chose the Giants based on one player who had caught my eye early near the end of the regular season, when I watched all those Dodgers games. His name is Buster Posey, and his skill blew my mind time and time again, in almost every game I watched. He caught runners stealing, he recovered passed balls faster than anyone I’d seen all year, and his batting! Whew! He hit a grand slam in the Division Series to knock the Reds out of contention. I missed the Championship Series because I was on vacation, but then he notched a two-run homer in Game 4 of the World Series, which, when combined with Scutaro’s 10th-inning RBI, cemented the Series win 4-3 in thrilling fashion – a four-game sweep! – for the Giants.
The more games I watched, the more I learned about the craft and genius and complexity of baseball. And the more I learned, the more I craved to experience and know more. My conversations with friends both on Facebook and off began to go deeper. Even with all I had learned in those short few months, those discussions still turned down routes I couldn’t follow, and I discovered that there is still a huge gap in my baseball knowledge because I know very little of the history of baseball. Steer a baseball conversation away from the year 2012, and, even if you stick with the Royals, I won’t be of much use to you.
And so, my epic quest continues. I have begun to scour Wiki sites to learn about the history of teams, stadiums, franchises, logos, payrolls, and – of course – legendary players. I do this so that, when someone brings up Kirk Gibson or Lou Gehrig or heck – even Babe Ruth – I can still participate in the conversation. (Of course, thanks to The Sandlot, I have been able to rattle off the nicknames Great Bambino, Sultan of Swat, and Colossus of Clout for some couple of decades now, but I figure it’s time to go deeper than that.) To aid me on my historical facts and legends hunt, I just recently learned that Ken Burns: Baseball is available on Netflix Instant Play, so I’m pretty excited about all of those tidbits of baseball lore just waiting to implant themselves in my brain, especially now that I’ve got a long off-season looming.
To sum up, I’ve come a long way since those family excursions to the high-stadium seats and our collective expectations of loss. I still love the spiral ramp and the traffic jams, but they’ve moved down a few places in the rankings. I also still expect the Royals to lose a lot of the time, but now it pains me to the depths of my soul when they actually fulfill that expectation. And, contrarily, my joy soars to the highest heights when they defy expectations and Billy Butler hits a walkoff home run; Jeff Francoeur doesn’t make a running error on the base paths; Eric Hosmer manages to get on base; Lorenzo Cain lays out to catch a ball and doesn’t get up limping; or Salvador Perez manages to watch a pitch go by without swinging. These players now feel like mine, somehow, and I’m grateful to the rest of the community of baseball fans, who have (mostly) accepted me and my new fandom with open arms.
Oh, and just for the record, I still love chocolate. But I eat apple pie now too. What with Obama and all, I’ve learned this country isn’t so bad after all (sometimes).