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.

In Search of Joy and Truth

2015-06-09 19.36.02There’s a photograph in a silver frame on my desk at home: one that I took at Turner Field on June 9, the last night I spent in my 20s. I snapped the photo, intending to send it to my little brother, to show him I was wearing the awesome customized jersey he’d given me as a birthday gift. But I never sent the photo, and I never posted it on any of my social media profiles. I later stood at the photo kiosk in Target, debating whether to print it out, before deciding that I would. Then I bought a frame and debated again whether to choose this photo or another one.

When I look at the photo, I notice a few things first: my eyes have bags underneath them…all the time now. A sign that my 30th birthday was the next day? My Atlanta Braves necklace is flipped inside out. The grin on my face is wide and silly, and my expression is goofy and weird. I wonder why I can’t have a normal face.

I see the flaws first.

But then I ignore that and start to pay attention to all the reasons why I chose to frame this photo:

Everything I’m wearing: a Braves t-shirt underneath a bold, red Braves jersey. A Braves ballcap on my head. Braves necklace and earrings. When I love something, I go ALL IN. That’s one of my favorite things about myself. Despite the fact that the Braves are nearing the end of the worst season in franchise history, I’m still supremely proud that I’ve chosen to be a Braves fan.

Next, I notice my best friend, leaning over with a goofy grin on her face that is equally as silly as my own. Several rows behind us are other fans, most looking bored. My gracious, was I excited to be there that night, and I didn’t really care who knew. It was the last night in my 20s, and I was in my favorite place in the world with a few of my favorite people. And we had great seats in the second level behind home plate! It’s easy to look at the grin on my face and think how silly I look until I remember how deliriously happy I was in that moment. And then I wish that I could have that goofy grin on my face all the time.

***

I had a bad afternoon a few days ago. I called my mom and woke her up during her Sunday afternoon nap, and then I sobbed on the phone. I don’t know what happened that day specifically, or if it was just a culmination of days of feeling worthless and ugly. I cried about being a bridesmaid in my brother’s wedding. I cried about being 30 and single. I cried about things I’m not even sure I can put into words.

Social media makes being a female hard. It probably just makes being a person hard, but I only know what it’s like from the female perspective. Almost daily, I see ultrasound pics or engagement photos. And when I post images of baseball diamonds or references to books I’m reading or articles on the Syrian refugee crisis, I feel like just another voice lost in mass of people who are living ordinary lives with nothing to celebrate, with nothing worth saying. And even while I recognize the fallacy in that thought, I have a hard time stopping it. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are—or should be—tools to let us celebrate and rejoice alongside those people. Instead, I let social media add to the pressure of never being good enough, pretty enough, smart enough. I lie awake at night and wonder why I haven’t gotten to achieve those milestones that other people have.

I minimize the value of what I have achieved when I make these comparisons.

I’m reading a book right now called The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women. I just finished a novel called Dietland, by far one of the most radical feminist texts I’ve ever read. And on my desk is Jesus Feminist, which I’m excited to read as well. And all these theories, these ideas about beauty and femininity and spirituality, are in the forefront of my mind. I think about the fact that every woman I know has been gifted with a unique beauty and style. I think about the fact that a person’s body doesn’t exist solely for the pleasure of others, and that we aren’t given the right of judging another person’s physical appearance just because we’re displeased. I think about the fact that Jesus clearly cherished and valued the women in his life, and that I’m blessed to be part of that holy tradition.

This topic of beauty keeps coming up, not just in the books I read. It comes up in really edifying conversations with my book club, a group of strong, beautiful, faithful, intelligent women who never back down from the hard issues. It comes up when I’m teaching a class on argument, and I want my students to start thinking about perception, and I encourage them to reconsider the way they look at the people around them.

And then I cry on the phone about a dress and makeup and hair and all the things that I feel like I just can’t ever freaking do RIGHT. Because, somewhere along the way, the way I’m going to LOOK on the day of the wedding became a stumbling block to being able to celebrate with my little brother, my favorite person in the world, and the wonderful woman who is going to be my sister-in-law. And because, for so long, I’ve been given subtle hints from people—from men I’ve wanted to date, from strangers in coffee shops who check out my friends and ignore me, from conversations I’ve overheard in public spaces—subtle hints that I’m too short, too fat, not pretty. I’ve been afraid to cut my hair for fear that I’ll lose the only attractive quality I have—or at least the only one people seem to compliment.

And there seems to be that unspoken connection, the connection that we can SAY isn’t true but that we somehow BELIEVE anyway: beautiful women get what they want. And the rest of us just have to put up with the leftovers.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman who legitimately believed she was beautiful—or, if she does, she hasn’t gotten to that point without wrestling through all this garbage first.  And that makes this pain somehow worse. I want to stop feeling this way. I want to feel valued and cherished, and I want to be able to extend that to the other women in my life. I want to be able to have conversations without feeling like I’m judged for my appearance and found sorely lacking. And I want this, too, for every other woman in my life.

Maybe it happens in baby steps? I don’t know. But I put the framed picture from June 9 in a place that I see it every day, to remind myself that finding joy is far greater than finding flaws. And even when I sit in front of that photo and sob on the phone to my mom, I’ll look to the photo to remind me that maybe true beauty is something different than anything we’ve ever really seen. I really hope that’s true.