Ride Along

From the time I was a little girl, I was accustomed to everything stopping instantly when our local fire department’s tones dropped on the scanner in our living room or, if we weren’t home, from the portable radio that was always at my dad’s side. My dad was born to be a first responder. He was a volunteer firefighter from the age of 16. He dropped out of high school to get his GED and then became an EMT and ambulance driver. He transitioned to being a career firefighter and progressed up the ranks through various departments, and when I was twelve years old, he became the chief of the volunteer fire department in my very small hometown. He tried his hand at other jobs when he was younger: 911 operator, which was too stressful for him because he couldn’t be the one to respond; owner of his own carpentry shop, where he made beautiful furniture and which let him respond to any call that came during the day but didn’t earn enough money to make a living. Eventually, when he grew older, he transitioned to building inspector and fire marshal. But even then, and even throughout the few years he got to enjoy retirement, he lived and breathed his role as fire chief.

I spent a lot of time as a child around the fire station. I remember being indignant as a toddler that one of the fire trucks was painted blue and not its proper red. I begged to ride along in the fire truck during every town parade. I knew the other members of the fire department as well as my own family.

But the sound of that scanner was a different thing. The scanner was constantly relaying radio calls from around our very large and rural county. It was background noise that I almost didn’t notice unless I heard a familiar voice or until Dad would mute the TV because he would know some other department was responding to an interesting call. And when our own tones dropped? Dad would slam down the foot of his recliner and leap up. All of our hearts would start racing as we waited for the call. Early in my life, I knew the codes for car accidents and structure fires and grass fires. I knew which trucks would respond first and which departments would be called for mutual aid.

In the middle of the night, if I heard the tones and the familiar rustling of my dad changing clothes and pulling on shoes and grabbing equipment, I would open my bedroom door and stand in the doorway and call out, “I love you! Be safe!” as he rushed out the door. I always wanted him to hear my voice as he left to go help someone in need.

And sometimes, if we were away from home or if Dad deemed it safe, I would get to ride along. Sometimes, when I was older, I would be left at the fire station while Dad drove an engine to some call. If I was lucky, he would let me ride along in his pickup or even in the engine or rescue truck. My brother was even luckier. He joined the fire department as a junior cadet when he was 12 and got to ride along far more often—for training purposes, of course. I was the bookworm and the scaredy-cat, too afraid to join even though Dad would have let me once I was a little older and could officially decide for myself. I was, instead, content to bring along my book and sit for hours in the cab of the truck, just watching the lights and the men and women who were first in line when someone was having the worst moment of their lives.

Until three years ago, I thought there was nothing my dad couldn’t fix. You were in a car accident? He would lead the team who would extricate you. House burning down? He’d put it out. He could fix anything or, if he couldn’t, he knew the right person to call who did.

But then my dad got cancer. And no one could fix it. And he died, early one morning in July.

When dad was sick, life slowed down. He stopped responding to so many calls. He still spent as much time at the fire station as he could, but he handed off a lot of responsibilities to his assistant chief. And after he died, we turned off the scanners and the radios, and we haven’t turned them on in the three years since.

But sometimes, we get glimpses of that life. One night, a year or so after my dad died, Mom and I were driving into our small town when we spotted a car on the side of the road. She called 911 while I tried to call the fire chief, and we waited while the department responded to a drunk guy who had careened across Mrs. Cynthia’s front yard and gotten himself trapped in the ditch. It felt normal and right to see these familiar faces, driving these familiar trucks, doing what they do best.

And my brother is still very much involved in the fire department. He is a career firefighter, so even on off-days, he sometimes gets called back for big events. One day last summer, I was with him at the store. We were getting food and snacks because he had a huge paper, and I was teaching him how to cite his research, which might take all day. Instead, standing in the freezer section of the Family Dollar, he got called back to the city where he works for a man trapped in a silo. I didn’t have a choice that time: I was forced to ride along, at very high speeds, while I prayed I wouldn’t throw up. It was the most exciting ride along I’ve ever had, and when we arrived, it was followed by about eight hours of sitting in the cab of his truck, reading a book or scrolling through Twitter or occasionally leaving to pick up lunch and snacks and more water. I didn’t mean to stay that long, but I didn’t want to take his truck and leave him there without a ride. And at the end of the day, it was kind of cool that I’d watched the whole event unfold: a man who could have died, crushed under the weight of tons of corn inside that silo, a man that my brother and the many other first responders were able to save.

Today, I was grading essays when my brother called. He was at home with my two-year-old nephew and had just been toned out for a brush fire about halfway between my mom’s house and his. Would I come meet him at the fire if he brought my nephew along with him?

Immediately, those dormant reflexes kicked into action, just like when I was younger. I grabbed my shoes, my phone, my bag and called my mom on the way out the door to tell her where I would be. I drove as fast as I dared to the location of the call and beat my brother there by seconds. And then, just like old times, I climbed into my brother’s pickup truck to wait. My nephew loves fire trucks, and he’s still small enough that I can hold him tight and convince him not to go running to the engine. He watched out of every window at the engines staged near the road and as brush trucks headed back towards the fire and then came back to fill up again. And he was delighted at the bulldozers that arrived and drove past us.

As my nephew and I sat and watched, everything felt familiar, and I thought about the number of times I sat and watched my dad. And I was so grateful that my nephew has a dad and a mom who are first responders. Sure, there are going to be a lot of meals interrupted and plans changed, but he will always know who to trust, who to look for when something goes wrong, who will be there in those horrifying moments when he just needs someone to help.

He’s got his whole life ahead of him. He’ll have nights when he’ll wake up to tones dropping and his dad rushing out the door. He’ll sometimes have to celebrate Christmas or his birthday on a different day because his dad is working. He’ll have lots of afternoons spent hanging out at the fire station. And like my brother and me, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to ride along, too.

Life and Love and Baseball

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about life and love and baseball and second chances and answered prayers. Recently, I wrote this post on the night that the Braves opened SunTrust Park while I sat at home, not being where I wanted to be. I spent that weekend with a weird mix of emotions in which I was happy to be home with my family and stressed about the end of the semester and bitter that the Braves were winning games but I wasn’t there to see it and also really sad about the death of a friend.

And then Monday happened.

I barely slept Sunday night, anxious because I had to present an award in chapel in front of the entire student body (and lots of members of faculty and administration). When that was over and I got to my office to check my messages, I found a message from some students telling me they’d scored free tickets to that night’s Braves game and did I want to go.

DID I WANT TO GO?

I almost said no. With two weeks left in the semester and seemingly endless grading, I almost said no.

Then I didn’t. I said yes instead.

That shouldn’t seem like a big deal, but I am not usually a spontaneous, just-say-yes kind of person. Even for Atlanta Braves baseball. I like to have a plan. I like to know what the plan is. I like to know where I’m going to park, and how I’m going to get there, and will we get stuck in traffic, and will I have enough time to buy French fries before first pitch.

I knew none of those things, and I said yes anyway, and it was the best choice I’ve made in a long time.

That night, I spent time with some really awesome students. I teared up as we walked around SunTrust Park for the first time, and they didn’t mock me for it. We saw Freddie Freeman hit two home runs, the second of which tied the game. We saw the Padres intentionally walk a batter to load the bases and allow Dansby Swanson to get his first-ever walk-off hit in the 9th inning. Walk-offs are the best way to win a ballgame, in my opinion.

In the bottom of the 9th inning, as I cheered and swung my foam tomahawk, I thought about answered prayers.

Y’all, I legitimately prayed to find a way to make it to SunTrust Park on Opening Day, and it didn’t happen. But what I got was so much better. I made it to the Opening Series. I saw the Braves win. I chose to be a little irresponsible and to lose sleep for the sake of baseball. And I went with students who have become friends and who love baseball and who wanted me there with them on their first trip to SunTrust Park.

There are times when I, foolishly, believe that my passion for baseball is a little ridiculous. It’s a sport I’ve never played. Why do I care so much? Shouldn’t I be focusing on other, more important things?

That night at SunTrust Park, though, I had a moment when I was screaming along with the crowd and clutching my tomahawk and watching Freddie Freeman round the bases, and I had this huge grin on my face, and it occurred to me that the way I feel about baseball is a lot like (I imagine) being in love must be like.

I have lots of experience with unrequited love, and zero experience with being in love with a person who loves me back, but I’m certainly in love with the game of baseball, and baseball has given me a lot in return: monster home runs, behind-the-back 4-6-3 double plays, sliding outfield grabs, walk-off singles with the bases loaded. Time spent with some of my favorite people. And a community of nerds who can debate lineups and pitching rotations and ERAs and slash lines all day long. And an awful lot of hope.

In the madness of the Braves winning on a walk-off, there was a small voice in my head, saying, “Isn’t this better?” Yes, I could have gone alone to Opening Day. But those few days of waiting were better. The game on Monday night was, arguably, better than Opening Day. It didn’t happen the way that I wanted, but it happened the way it needed to. And that’s a promise that I’m holding on to right now.

A week after that Braves game, God answered a much bigger prayer. My dad had a doctor’s appointment in which the doctor told him that there’s no sign of the tumors in his liver. The two rounds of chemo have been working! There’s still some concern about the lymph nodes, and the liver is still significantly damaged from cirrhosis. But that appointment was an answer that I honestly wasn’t expecting. I would never, ever have chosen for my dad to be diagnosed with cancer. And he’s not out of the woods, yet. He’s still sick. But God’s provision for my family has been abundant and plentiful. People have rallied around my family and helped care for them. God has blessed this time.

On Friday, I’m moving home to be with my family for the summer. I’m not teaching. I’m going to spend time with my family. I’m going to cook healthy dinners for my parents and work on home improvement projects and build things and probably watch a lot of John Wayne movies with my dad. I’m going to travel: a quick road trip to Boston with a friend and then Michigan for the 4th of July! I’m going to see the Braves play on my birthday, and I’m going to watch as many minor league baseball games as I can.

Life is hard. Prayers go unanswered, often for years at a time. Life is cut short. But God is still good. He is so good. In the chaos and the unrest and the questions, he provides. Sometimes, the provision might just be a sense of peace to get through the darkness. Sometimes, it might be tickets to a baseball game you never planned on attending. Sometimes, it might be chemo treatments that work and maybe buy you a little more time.

Sometimes, it might just be a realization of the things that matter and the things that don’t. I’m looking forward to a summer of life and love and baseball, and I’m anxiously waiting to see how God answers a few more prayers. His ways are better than ours, and he cares for the things that we care for.

Probably even baseball.

(Isn’t SunTrust park gorgeous?)

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I’m not at SunTrust Park tonight.

It’s 8:15 p.m. on Friday, April 14, 2017. For months, I’d been planning on being on my feet at this moment, foam tomahawk in hand, at a brand-new ballpark in Cobb County, Georgia, for the home opener of this season of Atlanta Braves baseball. Instead, I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house, trying to grade essay proposals. The Braves game is on the radio, but I can barely hear the commentary because the Braves are up 2-0 in the first inning, and the crowd is so loud that Jim Powell’s voice disappears.

I’m frustrated.

I tried on multiple occasions to buy tickets for today’s game, but the Braves sold so many ticket packages early that few people were able to buy single-game tickets when they went on sale to the public. I didn’t want to empty out my savings account to buy tickets from third-party sellers, and when the Braves released individual standing-room-only tickets earlier this week, I didn’t buy one because I know myself well enough to know that I didn’t want to go to the game alone. The new ballpark is exciting, but it isn’t familiar, and between traffic and wondering if I would get lost and not having a place to park and being surrounded by people I don’t know, I wonder if I wouldn’t have been fearful instead of excited.

I should have bought the ticket anyway. I didn’t. And now, like so many other times, I regret not taking a chance.

I’ve got excuses. It’s two weeks before the end of the semester, and the grading has piled up. My parents need to see me. Atlanta traffic is the worst.

There will be other games. There will be more Opening Days. But I think I’ll always regret not trying harder to go to this game.

I’ve been thinking too much about regrets lately, about taking chances (or not) when I can (or should). Two months ago, my father was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. He’s gone through two rounds of chemo so far. He hasn’t been too sick, but he’s been tired and weak. We won’t know for a little longer whether the chemo is working. But life has changed for all of us.

Two months ago, life felt like it was ending. It was hard to breathe some days. I set alarms for two hours before I needed to get out of bed because I knew it would take that long to convince myself to actually move. I broke down in front of students, in restaurants with friends, and especially in the middle of the night when nothing could penetrate the grief. I still do, actually.

But I kept counting down to baseball. Spring training games started two weeks after my father’s diagnosis. I occupied myself with arguing about who the Braves would put in their bullpen to start the season and guessing which minor league teams the top prospects would be assigned to and creating a spreadsheet for the players I would draft for my fantasy league.

At this point in my life, I’ve recognized the impermanence of things. Roommates and addresses change, sometimes more often than I would choose. Best friends move across the country or drift away, despite still living in close proximity. My favorite students graduate or transfer, and suddenly, the people who were so important to me for months are just gone.

The people I love the most are gone. Might be gone. Will be gone. Eventually, sooner or later.

No matter how you conjugate it, the loss is the same. Life is hard. Really hard. Even unbearable at times. So when you find something that gives you a real, true sense of fulfillment, you have to hold on.

The reality that I will one day, far sooner than I am ready, even if it is years from now, lose my father has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to face. But it has brought a sense of clarity about, as clichéd as it sounds, what is really important:

God is true and real and loving even when my heart is broken and the grief is overwhelming.

I will never regret spending time with my family instead of grading essays.

The people who matter the most are the ones who will be solid, faithful presences even when they don’t know what to say or how to help.

Baseball is the greatest, weirdest, most exhausting, most romantic sport in the world.

Some days, the stress of life is so much that my prayers are reduced to “Jesus, please just help.” Some days, I cry uncontrollably on the phone with my mom, who is stronger and braver than I can ever hope to be. Some days, I find solace in a good cup of coffee and a stellar defensive play by the Braves’ centerfielder. Some days, nothing seems to matter because the papers still need to be graded, and my father still has cancer, and the Braves’ bullpen loses yet another game.

But God’s mercies are made new every morning. And joy comes in the morning. And new batting order and opponents and games happen EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

That is the best thing about baseball. For eight months out of the year, I have something to follow, something to invest in, something new and exciting and unexpected to hope for. The Braves might have a losing record, but players still hit home runs and make exciting sliding grabs in the outfield and make impossible 4-6-3 double plays look like poetry come to life.

The last thing I wrote about baseball was about hope and the Chicago Cubs, and when I wrote that in November, I had no idea what was coming. But I do now. And in a few weeks, when the semester is over, I’m moving home for the summer, to spend time with my dad, to help out my family as much as I can, to try to find hope and to make the time last as long as it can.

But my dad made me promise that, if I came home for the summer, I would still go to as many baseball games as I can. And that’s a deal I willingly made.

SunTrust Park, I’ll be there as soon as I can.

There’s Always Next Year

I’m not very good at hope.

I’m a worst-case-scenario kind of girl. (I can tell you 100 ways I’ve imagined getting a flat tire. I don’t need WebMD to tell me how the mysterious pain will kill me. I can sabotage a relationship before I even say hello.)

I have a hard time imagining life as ever being different than it is at this exact moment.

I haven’t always been this way. And I’m not this way every moment of every day. But the past 9 years have been hard. The daily wear-and-tear of living with diabetes and the loss of too many beloved family members and a volatile political climate and the sinking realization that a career in higher education is a difficult one to sustain…

Baseball has been teaching me to hope again.

I fell in love with baseball when I was 11 years old, but when I went to college, I found that it was difficult to keep up with the game. None of my friends cared about the sport, and it’s hard to devote that much time and energy when you’re the only person in your life who cares. (Plus, you know, I had to do all that reading…)

When I started following the game again, when I decided that I missed the game enough to figure out a way to fit it back into my life, my beloved Atlanta Braves were no longer the same team. Chipper Jones had retired, Bobby Cox wasn’t the manager, and the Braves weren’t even a .500 team anymore.

The Braves have been bad. Almost unwatchable at times (although the last half of this year was an incredible turnaround). My friend John suggested I start paying attention to prospects, and I started paying attention to what else was going on around the league, too. And I celebrated every single time the Braves did something good.

The 2016 baseball season could have been a nail in the proverbial coffin, a season that could have had me believing that enough was enough. At one point early on, the Braves were on track to lose 134 games…out of 162. But before the season even began, I  vowed to make it a summer devoted to baseball. And I have six months of incredible memories:

  • Three opening games in 10 days: MLB Opening Day in Atlanta, minor league opening day in Greenville, and the home opener of the inaugural season of the Fireflies in Columbia.
  • Absolutely incredible pitching: I saw Max Scherzer (this year’s NL Cy Young winner!), David Price, Jeff Samardzija, Jacob deGrom, Bartolo Colon (now a Brave!), and Justin Verlander (runner-up for the AL Cy Young) all pitch at Turner Field. And for the Braves, I saw Julio Teheran pitch four times this season!
  • I saw Freddie Freeman and Bryce Harper and Adonis Garcia and Daniel Murphy all hit their first home runs of the year on Opening Day. In September, I saw a Matt Kemp home run fly above my head, out of reach because he’d hit it so hard there was never any doubt. That same game, I watched the Braves beat the Mets in the 10th inning, my first time present for a walk-off win. There was incredible joy that night.
  • Between Greenville and Columbia, I managed to see the Rome Braves (and tons of future Braves) five times. I can’t WAIT for these guys to be playing at the major league level.
  • I started the season at Turner Field, and I ended it there, too. There were a lot of tears that day. Turner Field, as we know it, doesn’t exist anymore. I’m sure I’ll eventually grow to love SunTrust Park, but I probably won’t love it for awhile, and Turner Field will always be immensely special because it was my first ballpark, home of the first team I ever loved.

After the Braves’ season ended, I set my hopes on the Chicago Cubs. I spent a lot of late nights, coffee cup in hand, papers spread out on my lap, grading and watching baseball and crossing my fingers and praying for a miracle. I almost lost the faith a few times. But around 1:00 a.m., on a Thursday morning a few weeks ago, I cried my eyes out as decades and decades of waiting from the true, faithful fans were rewarded. I love the game so much that I wanted, desperately, for their faith to come to completion.

All this to say, baseball brings me hope. But if I had stayed the same fan I was when I was younger, that probably wouldn’t be the case. If I focused on win-loss records, on division titles, on home runs and batting averages, on All-Star appearances, I wouldn’t find much to bring me hope. The Braves just don’t have those things in spades, not now, not yet.

But changing the way I follow the game has made me more hopeful. I’ve started to understand that the future is not yet here, but I see glimpses of it: in a young, Gold Glove-winning centerfielder; in a hometown shortstop with really great hair; in low-A minor leaguers who can get lots of strikeouts; even in a ballpark that’s still under construction.

Not that long ago, baseball brought me great anguish. I despaired at a losing record, at the trades of so many of my favorite players to far-away teams. Baseball hasn’t really changed all that much. But the way I follow the game has, and that’s made the difference.

If the Chicago Cubs can win the World Series, then the Braves can be good again. And I can find hope again, both in the game I love and in the rest of my life. After all, there’s always next year (and next month, and next week, and tomorrow).

Spring training starts in just 96 days. I’m already ready.

#104: Ty Cobb Museum

It’s been awhile since I’ve marked something off my List of Things to Do Before I Die, so I took the opportunity in December to stop at the Ty Cobb Museum in Royston, GA. I was on my way home from a trip to Atlanta, and a detour of about 20 miles off the interstate was all it took.

First of all, the museum is in an unusual location. Cobb donated a lot of money to the medical center in Royston, which is named after him, so the museum is actually housed inside the medical center, just off the waiting room. I stopped in on a Saturday afternoon and was the only visitor thus far that day.

Ty Cobb was an amazing player, but not necessarily a nice person, so the museum focuses primarily on his accomplishments on the diamond and not on his winning personality. But it was still super fun to see lots of old relics from the game.

Ty Cobb’s Tigers Uniform

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A seat from the old Tiger Stadium in Detroit

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One of Ty Cobb’s many American League Batting Titles

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The town is small, so it wasn’t far to the cemetery where Ty Cobb is buried. (Fun fact, at the cemetery, I realized that Ty Cobb died on the exact day my mother was born.)

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And Ty Cobb now has the privilege of being the only non-Atlanta Braves bobblehead in my collection.

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2016 Reading Challenge

2015 was a good reading year! My book club chose some excellent books, and while I didn’t hit every single one of the books I challenged myself to in this list, I got most of them–including some that I likely wouldn’t have read otherwise. And I did hit my book count–100 on the dot (unless I finish another one today)!

For 2016, I’m creating another list, too, but shorter this time, and I’m setting my reading goal at 60 instead of 100. The purpose of this is to read longer books that I’ve always intended to read but that I’ve passed over in favor of shorter books that I could finish sooner (and also meet my challenge). And some of my favorite books this year–specifically Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin and The World According to Garp by John Irving–were long books worth savoring.

Among those 60 books, I want to read the following:

  1. A work by a Russian author
  2. A work by an African author
  3. A work by an Asian author
  4. A work by a Caribbean author
  5. A science fiction novel written by a woman
  6. An Arthur C. Clarke Award winner
  7. A book longer than 600 pages
  8. A book set in South Carolina
  9. A book set in a bookstore or library
  10. A book featuring a road trip
  11. A book about baseball
  12. A book set at a lighthouse
  13. A work of nonfiction about an event that occurred in my lifetime
  14. A work written by a woman under the age of 30
  15. A book set in New England

15 books–a manageable goal! I’m thinking of setting up some mini-challenges, too–like only reading books I own in one month (instead of buying new ones or checking them out at the library) or something like that, but I’ll decide on a case-by-case basis.

And soon, I’ll post an update of my favorites from 2015. On to 2016 and more books!

Moneyball

MoneyballsbnI became a fan of Major League Baseball in the summer of 1996. I was 11 years old. I had watched my brother play tee ball and coach’s pitch, and I had played softball in our tiny little town, and when I caught a Braves game on television one night, I knew enough about baseball to follow the game. The first batter I saw walk up to the plate was Chipper Jones, and he hit a home run, and I was hooked.

When I went to college in 2003, I suddenly found it difficult to be a baseball fan. There was no time to follow the game as closely as I had, and I knew no one else who loved the game, and so I found other interests that replaced my love for baseball.

A few years ago, I decided to come back. I missed following the game, and I decided one day that a girl shouldn’t have to give up the things she loves just because she’s alone in her passion. (And, of course, thanks to Twitter, I’ve found fellow baseball fanatics.)

But in that decade that I wasn’t obsessively following baseball, a lot of things happened. Of course, Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire’s short-lived, single-season home run record. And the use of performance-enhancing drugs sharply declined. And people hit fewer home runs, and all these other stats became more important. And the Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino. And the average payroll across MLB increased A LOT.

After hearing Billy Beane’s name thrown around enough, I decided to read Moneyball to try to fill in that decade-long gap in my baseball knowledge. And the book was a joy for me to read. Michael Lewis does a great job getting inside Billy Beane’s head–what is it that made him fail as a ballplayer? What is it that makes him so great as a GM? Why are the metrics so important during a regular season and suddenly less important during a postseason run? And how can we change the way we look at the way the game is played and the ballplayers who are playing it?

This book has a lot packed into–not just the story of the 2002 Oakland A’s, but also the story of the draft that year (which I was sad to see was left out of the movie), and the story of Billy Beane’s draft and career in the minors and MLB, and the story of Bill James, the first real sabermetrician.

Michael Lewis handled the story incredibly well. I was absolutely captivated, and the book was a quick read (which I find is a rarity in most nonfiction I choose). I can see why this might be one of the most important books about baseball ever written.