It’s just a game.
As serious as I and so many others take baseball, it really is just a game. It’s all it ever was. It was the game that we played when we were kids. I was lucky enough to grow up in an age where we still were able to go outside and play. There wasn’t that omnipresent fear of something bad happening to a child like today’s parents feel, even if their children are playing in their own backyard.
For the first part of my childhood, I grew up in a neighborhood where there was always a game going on. Sometimes it was in the streets. Other times, it was in my backyard or my friend’s house down the block. Sometimes, it wasn’t even a game. It was one of our Dads tossing batting practice. Other times, it was just me, my glove, a baseball, and my front step playing nine innings of game seven of the World Series.
It was just a game, but it was a game that was a central part of childhood. As I grew, the games got more serious. Little League fields became the classroom for life lessons on failure, success, teamwork, friendship, and dealing with expectations. Every feeling of confidence and insecurity was worked through between those white lines. Every fantasy of success was played out on the baseball fields of my youth. Every fear of failure also became a reality on those same fields.
When there were no games to be played, the pros were always a nightly guest in our house. Phil Rizzuto, Bill White, and Bobby Murcer narrated many nights in the Armida house. Don Mattingly was our constant star while the likes of Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Dave Righetti, and Ron Guidry came and went. Memories in my life can be marked with the accomplishments of Mattingly. I was nine years old when he won the batting title, 10 when he won the MVP. By the time I was a teenager really playing the game, I learned that grace on the field, especially when things were unfairly taken away from you from Mattingly dealing with his back injury and terrible teams.
It was just a game as I went to college and ran around the dorm when Mattingly homered in the 1995 ALDS against the Seattle Mariners. The eruption, cheering, and delirium, oh it went on for hours. Our guy was performing on the biggest stage — we knew he could do it, but now he was actually doing it.
For a child of the Stump Merrill years, this was the ultimate redemption, even if Edgar Martinez sent Ken Griffey Jr. streaking around the bases to end Mattingly’s career. But, those moments don’t leave. I can still hear my friend yelling at David Cone, “throw a (mature word) fastball. It’s Doug (mature word) Strange!”
A year later, the dorm would be gathered to watch this young, dominant reliever carve up batter after batter for two or three innings at a time. Little did we know that Mariano Rivera would be a figure in our lives for almost two decades. Little did we know that Derek, Bernie, Andy, and, a year later, Jorge would be there winning all those championships.
The Yankees would win the first championship that most of us really experienced. Technically, I saw the 1978 title team, however I still can’t tap into my memories as a three-year-old. But, 1996, I see that like it’s yesterday. My generation can go back to those moments in an instant.
It was just a game as we all set out to take on the world. As we began to really taste the world, we dug deeper into baseball. There were more ways to understand the game, and it made us better fans. Statistics gave us insights that we never had before: things we grew up being told by announcers weren’t as important as portrayed, and our new information made us appreciate the game more because we saw it differently.
It was the perfect parallel to our new lives. We saw the world differently than from the perspective of a child and teenager. Things that we thought were important were quickly dashed away in our twenties and into our thirties. As our forties set in, real values began to form — it isn’t always about the money. Jobs aren’t as important as family. We began to understand baseball better at the same time when we began to understand life better.
Even baseball’s darkest time was a metaphor for our lives. Our twenties are a time of great hope, almost blind hope. We thought we could conquer the world quite easily. We were never satisfied. We kept buying bigger houses instead of being satisfied with what we had. We kept spending more money, getting all of the latest technology. We thought it was what we had to do. Bigger meant better. More stuff equaled more status.
As baseball players were getting bigger and swatting more home runs, we were drawn in despite the uneasy feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Most of us spent our twenties with that uneasy feeling. As we acquired more stuff, the uneasy feeling kept coming back. As much as we felt invincible, there was the fear of being discovered as a fraud — we were always scared and unsure, no matter how big of a front we put on. Something was missing, something was wrong. We started to see more clearly as we entered our thirties and it crystallized in our forties. We may continue to pay the price for our mistakes, but we know that despite the bleak outlook, we’ll start over and be better. Baseball is out of that dark time, still paying the price, and redeeming itself with each passing season.
And, now baseball still holds that place even as life’s pressures try to move in. It is the perfect outlet for us, just like in our youth. Problems can be lost for a few hours at the ballpark or in front of our television. From April through October, the game is always there. It doesn’t matter if we tune in for the start, the fourth inning, or even the eighth. Its presence is always felt.
No matter what, you can always watch a ballgame. Baseball has always given the gift of being there to me. No matter how complicated or how great a day has been, there is always a game to get lost in. And, each game is different. Aaron Judge continues to amaze as he seemingly becomes more dominant each year. Anthony Volpe gives us the glimpse of youthful greatness and expectations. We know that there will be one player this year who gives us all a little hope that redemption can be found even after it looks like all hope is lost.
It’s just a game, but it’s still our outlet.
None of us know what tomorrow will bring. The economy is unpredictable. Our jobs are less secure. The future is uncertain for us and our children. Families are struggling to hold on. We are still recovering and rebuilding from our past mistakes and hoping that the craziness and injustice of the world can recover. Yet, we still get lost in the game like we did when we were kids. Maybe it’s the connection to a simpler time. Or, maybe it’s the one thing that we can get completely lost in for a couple hours. Either way, the sport is still a major force in our life. It may no longer be the backdrop to life lessons like it was when we were younger.
Its new role is no less important. There is a comfort that we need. There is a need to escape, even if it’s just for a little while. We can get back to that whole real world thing in a bit. That will still be there.
After all, it’s just a game.
Editor’s note: This was Gary’s final piece for Pinstripe Alley. We wish that we had him longer than just an offseason, but we send our best to him going forward!