This essay was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on August 7, 2013
I took my first baseman’s mitt to U.S. Cellular Field Monday night for the opening game of a three-game series between the White Sox and the Yankees.
I probably should have been a bit sheepish about doing so, but baseball fans seem to have a great tolerance for a guy in his 60s channeling his inner 10-year-old.
Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that bringing my mitt to the game was something other than childish. In some way, it goes to the heart of why anyone is a fan of any sport.
It also goes to the heart of the betrayal of Alex Rodriguez and the steroid era.
It’s about hope.
The little girl a few rows ahead of me brought her mitt to the Sox-Yankees game for the same reason I did. We were hoping to catch a ball. We were looking for a relic of the institution that is baseball.
Actually, “institution” isn’t quite right. For a fan, baseball is something a religion. (I’m sure it’s the same for fans of other sports.)
There are miracles that occur on the field. (Robinson Cano made a play at second base that night that never in a million years would I be able to do.) There are sacred texts — the endless pages of statistics, the annual and all-time lists of top 10 and top 100, and the very short roster of players who have been granted entry into the hallowed precincts of the Baseball Hall of Fame. And there’s the quasi-spiritual loyalty of fans.
Fans are fans, of course. And players are players. But, when a foul ball or a home run comes into the stands, the fans, suddenly, become players — reaching, stretching, surging in an effort to make a catch. To grab, literally, a piece of the game. And take it home.
That’s what the little girl with the mitt was hoping for, and so was I. In catching the ball, a fan becomes, for a moment, akin to the player on the field. In catching the ball, a fan can, in the tiniest way, identify with that player.
Why do you think there were so many fans at that game who were wearing player jerseys and t-shirts? A fan develops an affection for a particular player and wears that player’s name and number on his back.
I brought my first baseman’s mitt to the game because, many eons ago, I played first base in Little League. And the main reason I played first base was Lou Gehrig.
Although I’m a Chicagoan born and bred, I have been a Yankee fan since the age of seven. In large part, that’s because I fell in love with Gehrig, the quiet, unassuming, spectacularly gifted Yankee first baseman who was cut down in the prime of his life and career by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (called ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease).
I never saw him play. He died eight years before I was born. But his life has long been an inspiration to me.
So, in addition to my mitt, I also went to the game wearing my Yankee pinstripe jersey with the number 4 emblazoned on the back, Gehrig’s number.
I was sitting far down the right field line, and there were many other Yankee fans around me, some wearing t-shirts and jerseys with the number 13 and the name “Rodriguez” on the back.
In the decade that he’s been a Yankee, I’ve never warmed to A-Rod. He exuded a sort of negative charisma and came across as the Richard Nixon of baseball. Yet, I cheered for his home runs and was happy enough when he helped the Yankees win.
It pains me that he cheated in the way he did. Who knows how many of his homers were because of the magic of chemistry and how many because of his undeniably great talent? And, of course, not only him. Dozens of players have been penalized for using steroids and other illegal substances, and scores of others — including a goodly number of Hall of Fame candidates — are strongly suspected of having doped up.
That should be enough to shake anyone’s faith in the game. Yet, there I was, that night, carrying my first baseman’s mitt and wearing my Lou Gehrig jersey to the Sox-Yankees game.
Like the little girl a few rows up, I was hoping for a foul ball. I was also hoping for the game of baseball to finish cleaning itself up and for the players to stop cheating. I was hoping for more Lou Gehrigs and fewer A-Rods.
That’s not too much to hope for, is it?
Patrick T. Reardon batted something like .098 for the Indians, his Little League team, back in the early 1960s.