It is Sunday morning and it is happening again: that tightness in my chest that I cannot unclench, the weight on my head that I cannot tip to one side and let fall to the floor. I am thinking about dying again. Today’s trigger? My wife’s left hand. We are sitting in church, and she is sitting two seats to my right, our son between us. Her arm is around him, and I am holding her hand, and my brain, ignoring the usual feelings of warmth and love, instead fixes itself to this phrase. “Someday she will die, and you will never see her hand again. You will wish you could come back to this moment, but you won’t be able to. Furthermore, you’re wasting it right now thinking about dying.”
So of course the next thing I think about is Jason Grilli.
“It’s a beautiful career. I say to my kid, he’s from the Dominican, it’s a baseball country, and it’s a hope for everybody. Every family that has kids, they want them to play baseball because it’s a way for them to be successful, and you can retire at 35, 40 years old and have your own life to spend with your family. (Even) if you don’t have the ability to play (as a career) but they teach you the discipline, how to prepare, how to get ready, how to be competitive, that’s going to help you in whatever you decide to do in your life.” – Carlos Gomez
It is August 11th, 2017, and Grilli is pondering my question. At 40 years of age, he is the elder statesman of the Texas Rangers, who were his fifth and are now his tenth Major League team (not counting the Giants, Indians, or Phillies, for whom he was employed but never threw a pitch in the big leagues). He made his debut in 2000, precisely sixteen months before 9/11.
I had asked him the same question I had asked many of his teammates. “Why does baseball matter?”
That’s a strange question to ask baseball players, and I know it. That’s why I asked. At least I didn’t start it by saying “Talk about…“
“I think this game matters because of all the lives that this game has transformed. I believe this game emulates life to its fullest extent. The trials and tribulations, the ups and downs. I think it matters because it’s a resemblance of every single person. I think this game matters because it never gives in, it never stops even when we’re gone. When (Beltre) leaves this game, it won’t stop: the doors will be open for (his son) A.J. When I’m done playing, the doors will be open for my child. For Grilli’s son, Martin Perez, Robinson Chirinos, Choo’s son …I think that’s what the game means. It’s a cycle.”
– Keone Kela
As Grilli feels around in the universe for an answer, he speaks in an accent that bears more witness to his current Pittsburgh residency than his mid-state New York upbringing. He ponders the uniqueness of a sport that mirrors the working man’s every-day work schedule. He admits that he will mourn the loss of the sport when he does retire. He looks up at the television for a moment before opining on the purity of Little League baseball. I glance at the television and see that kids from Washington and Montana are playing in the regional round of the Little League World Series.
“My grandfather charged me with this when I was young and playing: he told me ‘You need to play the game for those who can dream, and those who can remember when.’ And I walk out there every single night, and I see these young fresh faces of kids who are dreaming. They can’t wait to shake your hand or get an autograph, or be close to these players. I was the same way as a pre-teen, going into the Astrodome. I couldn’t wait to see Johnny Bench play. Couldn’t wait! Just to get within thirty feet of them, because I’d heard all these stories. Sneaking into the Astrodome to watch Nolan Ryan pitch, and I couldn’t wait to get down to the rail and be within breathing distance, and hear him grunt and throw it 100mph and dream… one day.” – Jeff Banister
Adrian Beltre’s eyes narrow a little as I ask the question, as if I might be trying to trick him. I assure him I am not. “It’s simple, but it’s difficult,” he admits. “I don’t know where to go with it.”
Beltre’s skepticism is at least tempered by having seen me every day in the clubhouse for two years. I have earned no such credibility in the opposing clubhouse.
“Why would you ask me that question?” Jarrod Dyson begins in a tone of voice that suggests I have hurt his feelings. He seems sincerely confused and a little defensive. He is soaking his ankles in a bucket. I assure him that I do believe it matters, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Danny Valencia is laying on a couch nearby with a towel over his head and the conversation has annoyed him now, to the point that he sits up. “Why does your job matter?” he asks dismissively. “What kind of question is that? Why does baseball- Who are you? That’s the dumbest f***ing question I’ve ever heard. Why do you matter?!”
Dyson, at least, gives me the courtesy of politely declining to answer the question. I venture back into friendlier territory.
“It’s hard, because you get to that line of ‘are you defined as a ballplayer, or are you a person outside of that?’,” Tony Barnette tells me. Baseball has taken him from Alaska to Arizona to Japan to Texas. “It’s what I’ve done my entire life, so in that respect, at 33 years old, it’s part of me. It’s part of my family tree now.”
If baseball has taken Barnette on a journey, it has taken Austin Bibens-Dirkx on an odyssey. “My parents divorced, and I thought the world was ending,” the rookie tells me. He has played twelve years in leagues-not-named-Major before making his MLB debut in 2017 at 32 years of age. “But baseball has taught me that (even though) things happen, you can grow from it, you can learn from it, and hopefully not make the same mistakes that they did. Baseball is a game of failure, and how you overcome that is kinda what defines you as a baseball player, and it can be the same thing in life: how you overcome your failures can define you.”
“I was born in baseball. All my family plays baseball, on both sides. This is the only thing I know how to do. It’s a great sport; you run, it helps you physically. It’s fun to play, it’s fun to watch. You have to have fun, but at the same time, you have to be serious, too. It’s a fun sport.” – Rougned Odor
Jason Grilli has now been answering for nearly four minutes, and is referring to baseball as an addiction. He slows for a moment and begins to circle his conclusion like an old lion sneaking up on an unsuspecting epiphany.
“It’s a loaded question,” he says with a hint of a smile. “Why it matters is because it matters.”
I look down again at my wife’s fingers three months later, and I realize that he is right. I remember when I was a child at Arlington Stadium and my two brothers and I chanted until we got Ruben Sierra to wave at us. I remember running in circles around my neighbor’s yard when Rickey Henderson whiffed and Nolan Ryan had his 5,000th strikeout. I remember dancing in a friend’s house in Nashville when another pitch on the outside corner—this one from Feliz to A-Rod—sent Texas to their first World Series. I remember a million white baseballs and a thousand familiar faces, and the magic of each of those moments—moments that didn’t stop for anyone, but left an indelible footprint in my existence as they danced past.
Just like this one.
Why does baseball matter? “I can tell you why it matters to me, but I can’t speculate for other people,” Adrian Beltre eventually decides. For him, it was that it was something he loved to do that eventually became his job. “Besides family, it’s the one important thing I have,” says the future Hall of Fame third baseman.
For the journeyman rookie, it contextualizes his failure. For the kid who grew up without a dad present, it is the cycle of father-to-son relations. For the manager who beat cancer and a broken spine, it is the inspiration for the past and the future. For the self-proclaimed “troublemaker”, it is discipline.
And for the writer who hears death’s echo in a held hand? Baseball matters because it helps me remember how to enjoy the little magic of a moment without fearing what comes next.