The month I started writing this piece I got into my first bike accident. The only really notable thing about my tumble was that it was long overdue, a collision with concrete pretty much a rite of passage for any long-term Toronto cyclist. All told it was a pretty standard spill, the kind bike commuters endure and then speak of like a war story over beers with the uninitiated. Turning left into an intersection, my front tire caught in the streetcar tracks and I was thrown forward, landing on my palms and knuckles, then on my (thankfully helmeted) head, and then on my knees. Aside from some colourful bruises, a ruined pair of jeans, and worry from an overly concerned mother, I came out pretty much unscathed.
Kindly strangers who saw me fall pulled me to my feet and helped collect my belongings, wheeling my bent bike to the safety of the sidewalk. A U of T student scrambled into traffic for my phone, wallet, and earbuds, and placed them all in my scraped hands, repeatedly asking if he should call an ambulance. A hot-dog vendor kindly offered me a free bottle of water. A woman joked that my just-purchased bottle of Prosecco made it out alive. I popped it later to celebrate how lucky I was that I did, too.
In the thick adrenalin of the moment, my hands streaked with black road filth and blood, I remember having an entirely misplaced, hilarious thought after I collected my shaky self off the asphalt.
“What if it had been worse? What if I couldn’t go to baseball games anymore?”
I’ve been going to see the Toronto Blue Jays since the early eighties, when they were still at Exhibition Stadium and I was in diapers (which is more fact than brag.) But it wasn’t until the end of 2011, during a period of particular hardship, that I developed this inexplicable, full-gut longing and heartsickness for it all, the kind of love that means it’s the first thing I think of in the morning, or even when splattered on the pavement. The emotion baseball stirs in me is an itch I’ll never be able to entirely scratch, a feeling I’ll never really understand. The closest I’ve gotten is likening it to a brand-new crush that doesn’t fade over time, a forever-unrequited, deep-bone affection that spurs me onward instead of demoralizing me. Most of the time, I’m simply happy that I care about something that much.
Since 2011, the boys of summer have come to dictate how I navigate most of my days, even the ones during the long, dark offseason when diamonds across the US are piled with snow. I scour the news for their stories daily, these strangers who’ve devoted their lives to a child’s game. I’ve learned how Toronto Blue Jay Mark Buehrle loves his pitbulls, how Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton bounced back from a drug and alcohol addiction, how Milwaukee Brewer Adam Lind’s wife is from Scarborough, Ontario. I check up on the stats of my favourite hitters and pitchers, sneak game updates on my phone at social events, and cultivate a small community of similar devotees to share stories with. I’m not in any way resentful of baseball’s strange grip on me, but rather am grateful, and would even go as far as to say that my need for it saved my life.
I have not been well over the last five years. I’m not even sure if that’s a hard thing for me to admit in print – my lack of wellness often feels abstract, even apart from me, like I’ve been watching someone else suffer through this thick fog of sadness that first overtook me in 2011, during the 107th World Series. (In case you were wondering, the Cardinals beat the Rangers in seven.)
At the age of thirty-two I suffered my first full-blown depression, the kind that made the contents of my fridge confusing and made it impossible for me to want to do anything other than stay in bed. I’d experienced mental illness before, being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in my mid-twenties, but the irrational fear of dying that was always present in my buzzing, twitchy brain suddenly gave way to a terrible, terrifying desire for it. I recall quite vividly a moment, while sitting in the shower, that I craved death’s release, and the stray thought scared me so completely that I got myself into crisis counselling immediately.
Thankfully, I had long been adept at projecting the illusion of togetherness, but during that year’s off season I faced a long-overdue diagnosis of PTSD – the result of culminating life events that started with a sexual assault I endured as a teen. That means I’ve since been in and out of rape counselling sessions, been intensely questioned by a psychiatrist, been prescribed various drugs by doctors, attempted mindfulness, meditation, acupuncture, deep breathing, and even boxing. I’ve been claustrophobic, agoraphobic, anxious, depressed, and viciously afraid of a laundry list of mundane things and activities that many would find laughable. Crowds scare me. Subways scare me. Elevators scare me. Sitting too far from an exit scares me. Walking down the street, day or night, scares me. Yet through all of it, the one thing that has buoyed me is baseball: its tiny dramas, its compelling backstories, its Powerade-drenched victories, its hot, sweaty mid-summer slumps.
Crowd-pleasing Munenori Kawasaki’s first home run as a Toronto Blue Jay. Legend Derek Jeter’s last at-bat with the New York Yankees. Washington National Max Scherzer’s near-perfect no-hitter a few years after the loss of his brother to suicide. Steer-roping Madison Bumgarner leading the San Francisco Giants to a World Series championship. A rookie’s first major-league hit with his whole family cheering from the stands. A hug shared between a pitcher and catcher after a game-winning strikeout. The dugout-clearing joy of a walk-off homerun. A bat flip that became legend.
Baseball became “my thing,” and its stadiums my church, a place to pray in hopelessness, the source of a solace I couldn’t find elsewhere. I never feel more human, or more sane, than I do inside a ballpark.Admittedly, it’s hard for me to write about baseball and the feelings it conjures. I’ve written about countless difficult topics, my own rape and subsequent mental health issues included, but when I sit down to explain this rather mundane thing I adore, how it cured what was ailing me, I always struggle. Not only is it generally considered gauche in literary circles to write about what you deeply love, it’s also incredibly difficult to do it well. It’s so much easier to dash off a disgruntled diatribe than it is to explain, in a compelling way, feelings of intense admiration. For whatever reason, culturally we seem to have confused cynicism for intelligence, meaning it’s taken me longer to write this piece than any one in recent memory. How exactly do you explain how baseball cures a panic attack?
My love for the summer game could easily be dismissed as obsession, addiction, or even fetish, but for whatever reason baseball has come to rule me: over the last five years it has become my everything; my hunger for it actually alters how I live my life. When the Toronto Blue Jays are at home I feel this rising worry that I won’t be able to attend every game, that I’ll miss some glorious, legendary moment because I’ll have to work, go to an obligatory event, or get a case of the flu. I’ll decline invites, rearrange my schedule, and fail to eat properly because only hot dogs and cans of Bud will be on offer at the Rogers Centre. I’ll sleepily slump through work because last night’s game went into extra innings, and I’ll sneak video of a day game at my desk because god forbid I miss an incredible play. Once I even walked out of my downtown office to slip into the stadium because it looked like maybe, just maybe, a pitcher was going to throw a no-hitter (which was of course broken up about twenty minutes after I arrived and bought a tall can).
Baseball is one of those things I was never told I should love. No one passed it down to me like some sacred family heirloom – for whatever reason, I chose it for myself. Throughout my life I’ve certainly been told I should love certain books and films, certain bands and fashions. I’ve struggled to love the jobs I did, the men I dated, family members who were less than lovable. But unlike most people and things, baseball never asked anything of me, and no one ever demanded I be loyal to it. I never played it, my parents didn’t strong-arm me into attending games, and I didn’t have a social group that insisted it become an integral part of my life. In fact, I would say that I was consistently discouraged from loving this past-time and culture built for men and boys, fathers and sons, that’s not always welcoming of my gender. There is no real template for loving baseball when you’re a girl or a woman, so you have to fumble around a bit to make it your own. I like to think I truly love it because it made itself hard to love and I embraced it anyway. Because of that, it belongs to me in a way nothing else does.
Now every March finds me, an unlikely pilgrim, making the sacred trip to Florida for spring training. I get in a tiny airport rental car to tour the ballparks of Lakeland, Clearwater, and Dunedin, to chat with aging snowbirds who call the state their part-time home. The list of major-league ballparks I’ve seen across the US is growing – in the past five years I’ve crossed Fenway, Wrigley, Yankee Stadium, Comerica Park, Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium, AT&T Park, and The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum off my list. I’ve bought programs, drank summer shandy, and drunkenly waited out rain delays with welcoming fans from other towns. I’ve compared the quality of each park’s hot dogs, and made it a tradition to buy the ball cap of each team I’ve visited. I’ve become a person I didn’t know I had it in me to be – someone enthusiastic about something meaningless, taking pleasure in something simply for the sake of it.
And for someone who once found herself in depression’s deep well, that’s an entirely glorious thing.
For me – and I imagine for many others – baseball provides a soothing constancy. I imagine it’s a similar relationship people have with religion, this idea that there is always something predictable, a doctrine to turn to, when it feels like there is nothing left. Baseball is hope. Baseball is narrative. Baseball is a thing to do when there’s nothing to be done. And at the risk of hyperbole, the result of tomorrow’s match-up gives you a reason to go on. When you love the game this much you inevitably come to measure your life in its ebbs and flows, in its fresh starts and post-seasons, and in its thankfully predictable annual return. Each spring, without fail, it offers renewal: as everyone’s stats roll back to zero, we’re all given the opportunity to begin again. There’s no guarantee that last year’s champion will be triumphant; every hero will make room for another, and every underdog will be rife with potential.
In recovering from mental illness, I’ve learned that structure is the key to any therapeutic process. When I was finally diagnosed with rape trauma syndrome and PTSD, baseball generously provided its nine-inning, one-hundred-and-sixty-two-game framework when I needed it the most. I revelled in the fact that men play by a set of agreed-upon rules, that you could know what to expect, and that even the unexpected falls into a set framework, white lines drawn cleanly in Kentucky bluegrass.
Filling out a box score is like completing a cognitive behavioural therapy workbook: methodical and precise, soothing in its documentation of progress. Each inning is a unique chapter, and whatever happened in the second does not necessarily dictate what will happen by the seventh. Beyond that, the game’s leisurely pace and lack of clock mirrors the necessary lack of pressure needed in order to progress through recovery. It only makes sense that, sprawled out on the pavement with a bent-up bike, I would be terrified to lose the thing that always made me feel like I could get better.
There’s something about the pace of play in baseball that suggests you have all the time you need, and something about the feeling it conjures that says, win or lose, it’s enough that we’re here. It’s a long game and a long season, and it’s always possible to heal what has been broken.
From CNQ 95, the Games Issue (Spring 2016)