Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Children's Game: Walking Off and Coming Home

Home. It can be a physical place. It can be a state of mind. The word 'home' conveys a sense of comfort. A feeling that wherever you go, no matter how far from it you may stray, home is there, waiting patiently for your return. As a child, playing outside late into the twilight of an endless summer, home was a reluctant retirement to the day's activities. Still, there was the notion in the back of my mind that this is where I belonged. It is the emotional comfort of a home, whether it is as much as a town or as little as a long ago memory, that calls us back time and time again to unwind and rid ourselves of any worry. Home is where you start. It's where your life begins. It's where you make your first mistakes, and where you achieve your earliest goals. Failures are the building blocks to success. In baseball, it is often said that even the best hitters in the game will fail seventy percent of the time. Yet through the tribulations a batter will face, sometimes he will find himself coming home in the grandest fashion.

Only the home team can experience the walk-off home run. As the ball leaves the infield and continues its rise, the home crowd begins to swell in unbridled jubilation. Sometimes it's an obvious shot. Other times it takes the apparent will of a man to sway the ball fair beyond the borders of play. Sometimes it allows a team to play another day. Other times, it ends everything. The crowd hits a deafening roar. The batter must now only charge around the base path, each step closer to home. When he gets there, he will be called safe. He will be loosed of any doubt in the game. He will be a hero.

In my twenty-six years and change, I have had the pleasure of witnessing many walk-off hits and home runs. Magglio Ordonez comes to mind. The 2006 American League Championship Series, game four. With one swing, Ordonez lifted his team from possible extra-innings to a date with the Cardinals in the World Series. Fans embrace and teammates thunder around home plate. Just moments ago, nervous hearts filled Comerica Park. One swing later, pure, unfiltered joy comes to the motor city. The Tigers lost the World Series to St. Louis that year, but in the minds of those in attendance on the night of game four, their team was already a champion.

In 2011, the Texas Rangers were looking to finally get their first World Series championship. They were up three games to two to the Cardinals going into game six, which would be played in St. Louis. The game dragged into the late night following dramatic comebacks by the Cardinals to stay alive. I recall a back and forth with my baseball-loving friends via text message as the bonus frames played out. Even with my sworn rival allegiances against St. Louis, I said then and still say to this day that from the ninth inning on was some of the finest baseball I've ever seen. Twice Texas, with all of their offensive power, had gone up two runs. Twice, St. Louis had tied the game with two outs. On the edge of eternity, the Cardinals had managed to survive.  The game had not ended and I thought I was seeing the best game ever played. Then, in the bottom of the eleventh inning, David Freese stepped into the batter's box. A native of the St. Louis area, Freese was a Cardinal through and through. Not a man of overpowering muscle or skill, he was not an expected hero. In the ninth inning, it was his triple that kept the Cardinals alive. He arrived at home to the sound of a capacity crowd's admiration. With a count full of three balls and two strikes, Freese swung away. The season had been extended by the slimmest of margins. In a game that saw nineteen runs and two shoestring comebacks, the only proper encore was a walk-off home run. Freese rounded third, his red-clad teammates awaiting his arrival. Seeing his team, his family welcome him home, Freese burst into a childlike demeanor. He ripped off his helmet, his protection in his travels from home, and tossed it carefree between his legs. David Freese came home a hero.

While I cannot remember the entire game, one memory that has stayed with me through the years happened in game six of the 1993 World Series. The Toronto Blue Jays were defending champions, and on the verge of clinching their second straight title. My mom and dad let me stay up to watch the game. When we lived in the Flint suburb of Clio, Michigan, my tee-ball team was the Blue Jays, so I had adopted them as my favorite. Just my luck, it was a great time to jump on the Toronto bandwagon, although I had no clue what a bandwagon was in those years. I fought to stay awake for most of the game. While I loved baseball, I hadn't really latched on to watching a game to completion just yet. But this was the World Series. I knew my favorite team could win the ultimate prize, so I stayed up.

Then it happened. Joe Carter drove a Mitch Williams pitch beyond the left field wall. I don't recall my reaction, but I would place my every possession in bet that it looked a lot like Carter's. He knew it was gone. Carter watched the ball leave the yard, and when it was officially beyond the reach of the Phillies outfielders, he jumped into the air. He couldn't contain his happiness. He was a grown man playing a children's game, and in that moment, he was a child again. Carter became a boy playing in the fading daylight. He was the fulfillment of the dream of every child to pick up a bat. As a kid, I remember pretending to hit a game-winning home run. I would practice my victory trot around the bases and pretend to be cool and collected. Joe Carter proved that if the opportunity finally comes, we lose all restraint. He rounded second, and third, and still he was in a state tethered taut between disbelief and exaltation.

Home is the Genesis and Revelation of the human condition. Wherever we go, there is always something drawing us to a place where we can strip away our armor and breathe deeply. Joe Carter realized this on an October night in Toronto. As he touched home, the game was over. The World Series had been won. The seemingly endless summer that is the baseball season had finally hit the inevitable twilight. It was time for Joe Carter to resign to the comfort of knowing that he had completed the goal of everyone who journeys out into the unknown. He came home.

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