SPORTS

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April 6, 2012

Rekindling a lost love: A baseball story

Baseball was my first love. Or it was my dad’s. He came over from Venezuela when he was eighteen and played ball as an exchange student in his newly found high school home. The sport was passed down to me and I really did love it for a while. Looking back, I’m not sure what happened.

In Venezuela, the ballpark is the people’s “Sports Mecca.” Soccer, the arena that reigns supreme in the rest of Latin America, is just an afterthought in Caracas. Sports like basketball and boxing aren’t even on the radar. The country boasts a lineage of Hall of Famers and future HOF’s like Luis Aparicio, David Concepcion, and Omar Vizquel. In today’s game Venezuela hasn’t shown signs of slowing either—check out Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Maybe I’m a little biased on the topic of Venezuela’s place in the Big Leagues, but my passion is not misplaced. Just ask Ozzie Guillen.

So when I got old enough to hold a bat, kick a ball, or shoot a hoop, you can imagine which field I wound up spending my weekends on. And my dad was the coach. From a current UChicago athlete’s point of view—I play football for the Maroons—I’ve got no problem stating my humble beginnings in little league. Let’s just say I was our team’s last batter back when we hit off the tee.

Sucking at sports way back when actually turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for my growing baseball love, for my sports career, and for my relationship with my dad, though.

When I’d get home from school, as far back as I can remember, my Dad was always waiting for me with a crate of baseballs, two freshly oiled mitts—straight from under the mattress—and a pair of caps (usually the Florida Marlins). We’d play until sundown in a lot across the street and we’d set up the unused glove as home plate.

I’d take swings until the crate was empty and the balls were scattered across the grass and onto the street. Then we’d pick them up, head inside, and talk about how excited we were for Saturday to come. That’s what I loved about baseball. It was the daydream that kept me awake through science class and the birthplace of the nerves that always managed to crawl up my back as I headed for my first at-bat. I don’t really think you can beat those feelings that a sport brings you as a kid.

After a few years of repeating this practice cycle I wasn’t in the outfield anymore—I was at second (all that hard work still didn’t garner me a strong arm)— and I was batting third. My Dad was still the tough coach he always was, a real little league Guillen—who in those days was at third base for my hometown team. I’d still hear him scream from the dugout whenever one of those infamous ground balls bounced between my legs and into the outfield or whenever I struck out swinging, but the more he pushed, the less errors I’d commit. And the less errors I’d commit the more I wanted to be out on the field. Sometimes I’d cry and others I’d want to yell, but in the end my dad and I always wound up riding home, smiling. And we’d get back to work on Monday. Looking back those were my most important moments as an athlete.

The passion I had for baseball on the field extended off it. My dad and I would drive to Target after games—to the aisle with all the sports cards, by the register, behind the 16 ounce sodas. I’d look at all of the flashy plastic paper with the big leaguers on them and my eyes wouldn’t know where to look. On the way home I’d open a pack and at the house we’d read off the players and slide them into the seals of a BIG red card booklet. By the time my baseball days were all said and done that booklet had housed more big name players than the Yankees clubhouse. This thing was so huge its insides looked like a protruding stomach trying to squeeze into a size small shirt. I knew every player, every stat line. I was the kid almanac of baseball in my class.

One day, though, I met a new girl—football. I picked up the pigskin and it all came naturally. She was sleek and cool and a little bit rough. I slowly forgot about the baseball diamond. I stopped collecting cards and switched to fantasy football. Instead of my Marlins cap, I would wear my “U” apparel. My BIG red binder got placed on the top shelf of the closet, where it’s too high to reach and where it started its dust collection.

I never hated the game, like so many of my friends claimed, but it didn’t catch my eye like it used to. I’d turn on a Marlins home series, but I’d never make it through a full inning without flipping the channel. And as such, my baseball knowledge became outdated. When I turn on a game now, I don’t know a soul, except some of the old timers who are fighting retirement—the Chipper Joneses of the League.

Thankfully, my dad made the transition with me from baseball. He still watched all my games—still does—I’m just in the backfield, instead of the infield. He still yells just as loud, though by this time there isn’t as much to yell about. Even though my obsession with his first love has faded, the relationship it created between him and me hasn’t, and that’s why I never had an urge to go back.

I’m not sure what it is this year, though. I’m not sure if it’s the Marlins bringing back Ozzie or getting Reyes. I’m not sure if it’s the new straight-out-of Back to the Future ballpark. I’m not sure if it’s my little brother hitting the heart of his little league career. Actually, I think it may be the latter. But I miss baseball.

Whenever I go to his games, I feel a lump rising in my throat, a yell that’s trying to make its way out, like the ones my dad used to give. I feel an urge to drive my brother to Target after the ninth and to put his mitt under the mattress.

I watched my first season opener this week, the Marlins in Miami Marlins Park—yup, I’ve been gone so long they even changed their name. And for my little brother’s birthday—it just passed—I went and bought him so many cards that he sat there confused not knowing what to do with them, since he couldn’t plug them into his PS3.

When I go home this summer, I think I’m going bring down that BIG red binder and dust it off. I may head out to a game or two when the Phillies are in town. And when my little brother is on his way home from school, I’ll be waiting with a crate of baseballs. Because I want to find that game I lost and I want to introduce him to it.

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