Sometimes, all it takes is once. Just one experience at exactly the right time, to make a lifelong baseball fan out of anyone.
The first time I took my son to a baseball game, it was a disaster. I’d forgotten to bring him sunglasses or a hat. He had no idea how the game was played or who the Chattanooga Lookouts were and wouldn’t throw his peanut shells on the ground for fear of getting in trouble. His sister wouldn’t stop screaming because she was certain the mascot was coming for her hat (curse you, you giant red monstrosity). Unsurprisingly, I am not the only one who has it out for Looie; the mascot’s costume was recently stolen. In the news article, the Lookouts’ president wondered aloud why someone would do such a thing. To the perpetrator, I just want to say: it was wrong, but I get it. I get it more than anyone.
Since we lived in Haiti, Looie had just stolen my one opportunity to get my kid to love baseball. Soccer was all the rage at home, and while there’s nothing wrong with soccer, soccer isn’t baseball. Baseball has sunsets. It has summer and foul balls and the dramatic crack of the bat when it connects. Baseball is slow in a delicious way, slow enough that you have plenty of time to get ice cream without missing the sole scoring play of the game. I’m just saying.
But when we moved back to that States in 2020, I was ready to try again. After all, this was the major leagues, and I haven’t been since high school. Barreling down the expressway from the lake house toward Milwaukee, I decide to make sure this isn’t going to be money wasted.
“All right,” I say, clapping my hands, “let’s talk about the rules of baseball.”
“We know the rules, Mom,” my son says. How he accomplishes such vicious eye-rolling without hurting himself remains a mystery. In case you’ve forgotten, eight is a magical age. He’s old enough to want to go to the bathroom by himself, but not old enough to be willing to sit next to strangers. Old enough to understand what he’s cheering for, on the field and off, but perhaps not why. But certainly old enough to resent lecturing by those who created him.
“Wipe down your seat when you’re done sitting in it,” says my daughter, and I realize how deeply I wish that was an actual rule.
“Good try, but no. The rules of the game. How do you win at baseball?”
“Three strikes and you’re out,” my son puts in.
“Right. And how do you get a strike?”
Silence. This is going to be Chattanooga all over again, I think. My parents argue over where to park, and I try to stuff a little more vocabulary into their heads while we inch forward in line to the economy lot.
“Do you think it’s going to rain?” my son asks, sticking his head out the open window to look at the slate sky overhead.
“I don’t know,” I sigh, knowing now what a Looie-sized mistake I have made yet again. “But bring your coat.” My brother-in-law drove the second car and still somehow beat us (he does not have a healthy fear of state troopers in any state, apparently). We meet up with them just as it starts to sprinkle and press our way into the stadium. The Milwaukee Brewers, God bless them, have a field with a roof, so it is humid inside, but we remain dry as we find our seats. I can’t say the same for anyone coming in late: by the time they pan to the flag for the National Anthem, it’s pouring.
We’re sitting on the Giants’ side, in a sea of orange and black. Garth Brooks blares over the loudspeakers, a millionaire reminding us how he’s got friends in low places. My daughter wants to know if she can go get ice cream, which I am fairly sure is the only reason why she came. Knowing that she’ll want to go home once that’s accomplished, I say, “Not yet.”
There are six first pitches. As a teacher, this grates against my sense of numerical and grammatical possibility. The guys sitting next to my dad worked with my aunt, who is also a teacher, seated farther down my row. How is it that we managed to find friends, even so far from home? Baseball, that’s how.
Every baseball fan remembers the first time the magic of the game struck them
Finally, finally, the game starts. With the play now in front of us, I can clear up some misconceptions: you don’t score every time you hit the ball. The big board shows you whether it was a ball or a strike in case you don’t know what the umpire said (I never know what he said).
“Which side are we rooting for?” he wants to know.
“Whichever side you want,” I say. “The Brewers are the home team.”
He thinks for a long minute, then says, “I’ll cheer for the other guys.” When the other guys get a home run, he jumps to his feet with his fists in the air in triumph, silently glorying in their prowess. Hope is starting to creep into my heart.
But then my mom buys them the promised ice cream. Which prompts spills and sticky fingers, which prompts bathroom trips. He’s still riveted every time we find our seats, but she’s…not. I glance at the time; we’ve only been here about ninety minutes. I discussed with my dad ahead of time that we might need to head out early, and he was fine with that. I estimated they’d last about two hours. In the fourth inning, my daughter pushes her way past everyone else to sit on my lap.
“I want to go home,” she says in my ear. “It’s loud here.”
Because of COVID, we haven’t been out in public like this in so long, and I forgot. I shouldn’t have: I’ve had two kids with sensory processing disorder long enough to know better. But I didn’t account for the roof, holding in the noise. My husband usually brings the earplugs, since he uses them, too. But he’s not here.
I turn her to sit sideways and press her head against my chest, covering her other ear with my hand, hoping to hold her off. It calms her down a little, but I can see it’s not going to be enough. It’s an hour past bedtime already.
“He needs a run here, Mom,” my son informs me, since he is now an expert on the game.
“He does,” I agree, rocking my daughter. But the ice cream is gone, and her patience is waning. Much like the ice cream, she’s going to melt–I can see it on her face when she sits up. I wish there was a quiet place I could take her, just for a few minutes. But going outside means we can’t get back in. I lean over to him.
“Buddy,” I say as gently as I can, “I think we’re going to have to go soon.”
He scowls at the board. “But it’s only the fifth inning.”
“I know, but–”
“You said there’s nine. Nine innings, maybe more.”
“Yeah, I know, buddy–”
“So why do we have to go?”
“Soon, bud. Not now.”
“But why?” he presses, even though I think he knows. There’s one more home run, and the whoops and cheers are pushing her over the edge. I give my parents the “let’s go” sign, and they collect up our stuff without complaint. My son, however, is not so understanding; I get a short reprieve while my dad takes him to the bathroom one more time before the long drive back to the house. The time apart has not earned me any empathy.
“Why did we have to leave?” he shouts as we exit the stadium.
“The noise was too much for your sister,” I tell him quietly. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.”
“We should do what everyone wants to do, not just one person!”
“Dude, you know what it’s like to be overwhelmed. She’s having a sensory moment.”
“No, I don’t!” he yells, but I can see the conflict on his face. He’s too mad to think clearly. And I get it. I wanted to stay, too. “This is the worst day of my life!” he announces as he takes off down the sidewalk. It’s for the best: he shouldn’t see me smile. In the car, I will promise him that next time, we’ll leave her at home and bring the earplugs. I will promise him that he’ll get to sing Take Me Out to the Ball Game next time and stay to the bitter end, dragging ourselves home yawning like when I was a kid. I will open up my phone and let him watch the runs scored as they come in.
But right then, I can’t blame him for being upset: fans are passionate. And that’s what he is now: a fan.