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?)

SunTrust Park 4.17.17

 

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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.