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On having the good fortune to write about the boys of summer

The (not-so) classic narrative of growing up on the baseball diamond, covering the Aaron Judge Yankees, and how one well-loved book gave one writer some much-needed perspective.

New York Yankees v Cleveland Guardians - Game Two Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

With the Yankees’ season over and no real desire to watch the Astros win again, I recently started reading Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer for either the third or fourth time. It is, among other things, a recollection of the author’s relationship with his father in the shadow of their shared love of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s probably my favorite baseball book of all-time, if not my favorite piece of sports writing, and deals with far loftier and more important discussions than I’m going to open up here.

Memories of a time gone by

When I was about three or four years old, my dad put a comically oversized glove on my left hand, sat me down on the stairs, and started gently tossing a tennis ball at me. It was my first baseball lesson. He taught me how to react to a ball in flight, and how to use my glove to prevent it from hitting me. I was, apparently, all about self-preservation in the early days.

Eventually, the tennis ball became a real baseball, and our spot on the living room stairs moved to our backyard. What were once lessons in the basic tenets of the game quickly became an after-work or after-school ritual for eight or nine months of the year.

Before long, my parents enrolled me in T-ball, and then rookie ball, and so on and so forth. During the summers, I played both softball and hardball for multiple teams and at different levels, somehow finding my way to the pitchers mound for each team despite being a shortstop by trade. No matter what level I played, though, one thing remained constant: My dad and I would get to each game much earlier than the rest of the team, and we’d have a catch to warm my arm up.

When the baseball season would come to an end and the chilly late autumn air would begin rolling in, my neighbors and I, bundled up in heavy winter coats and toques and boots, would play Pickle long into the doldrums of the Canadian winter.

It was only when the first major snowfall came that the bats and gloves would go into storage, and I’d eagerly await the first sign of spring to retrieve them.

The boys of summer

Relatively early on in The Boys of Summer, Kahn details the Brooklyn Dodgers’ dramatic pennant loss in 1951. “For the second consecutive year,” he writes, “the Dodgers had lost the pennant in the last inning of the last game of the season.”

But in the very next paragraph, in a way that only Kahn and maybe a handful of other baseball writers were able to do, he goes on to write something quite profound, if not peculiar:

“Defeat, particularly dramatic defeat, confirms our worst image of ourselves. We are not effective, after all, not truly competent, not manly in crisis. We may dismiss a coach, but we cannot elude blame. We have failed. Everyone knows we have failed. We know it ourselves. We stand naked, before an unflattering mirror, hearing hard laughter that includes our own.”

Reading this in the shadow of what just happened to the Yankees 2022 season hits different.

The reactions from around baseball are tough to swallow, of course, but no reaction has been worse than our own. I mean, just look at the in-fighting on these comment boards. We look inward and cast blame at whoever we can grasp on to when we know this isn’t who we are, both as an organization and a fandom, and that this anger we feel won’t be productive in even the slightest way. This type of loss — or, rather, this string of heartbreaking losses — has opened up a peculiar type of psychic break that we will continue to come back to, long after the hard laughter of other fan communities dissipates and we settle in for the cold, harsh winter.

Hanging on by a thread

“You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.”
— Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

In September 2009, I was slated to pitch the championship game for one of my hardball teams. I had played in this league since I was about seven or eight, but as a 17-year-old aging out of the program, it would be my last game.

During warm-ups, I struggled to get any velocity on my pitches. I didn’t really think much of it, though. After all, it was a particularly brisk autumn evening, and pitching in my final championship game gave me a bad case of the nerves.

My first two pitches of the night, both fastballs, were way outside the zone and went straight to the backstop. I had always been one of those effectively wild pitchers who threw hard with limited accuracy, but these pitches were wild, even by my standards. The velocity I had lost during warm-ups had come back, though, so I stepped off the mound and took a bit of the breather.

After a moment or two, I stepped back on the rubber, got the sign from my catcher — another fastball — and got into my wind-up.

The next thing I remember is coming to on the dirt, with my dad crouching down beside me asking if I’m okay.

In the last game of my last season in organized baseball, my right elbow gave out.

13 years later, I’m still unable to throw a baseball properly.

Finding renewal in our measure of ruin

“Surely these fine athletes, these boys of summer, have found their measure of ruin. But one does not come away from visits with them, from long nights remembering the past and considering the present, full of sorrow. In the end, quite the other way, one is renewed.”
— Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer

A few short weeks later, the Yankees would go on to win the 2009 World Series. I would never play organized baseball again, but at least the boys of summer who informed everything I did on the field, from my wind-up and my batting stance, to the way I wore my hat and the number on the back of my jersey, felt glory once again.

They haven’t been back since.

Growing up in the ‘90s, the one thing I remember about my childhood in baseball more than anything else was Yankees victory. By the time I was eight years old, I had been alive for four World Series titles. Now, after being on this planet for 30 revolutions around the sun, I’ve seen five.

After a thirteenth-straight season ended in disappointment, I wrote an article that didn’t really have the more upbeat, optimistic tone that I try to incorporate into all of my writing, whether about baseball or otherwise. I know that its reach was fairly limited, but it’s a piece that I’m not particularly proud of, for no reason other than the fact that it’s not representative of the way I typically approach the game.

In search of some positivity, I turned to The Boys of Summer, once again, and found the perspective I so desperately needed.

Revisiting this season now, I don’t come away with sorrow, to stick to the immortal words of Roger Kahn, but rather a sense of gratitude — for being able to see my favorite player break a heralded record and have the opportunity to write about it; for being reminded of the magic of the game; and for discovering a way, if only small and fragile and temporary, to manage my chaotic, messy brain.

Above all else, though, when I think of this season, especially in the context of the immense loss and hurt we have all felt over the last few years, I feel gratitude for being fortunate enough to have watched it all unfold with my father.