Life, death, and baseball

Though I am a son of the Bay State, it’s been a long time since I’ve had an open heart for Boston Red Sox fans. It was a charming tale back when they were a cursed franchise that hadn’t won a World Series since 1918, playing in the idyllic (though dumpy) Fenway Park. Eventually they got a fat-cat owner who turned the franchise into the second coming of the New York Yankees, and the fans came to feel as entitled to success as their cousins, followers of the evil empire down the road on Interstate 95.

But some things about baseball transcend those realities at this time of the year, because unlike any other sport, there are old fans literally just clinging to life for one more game.

Writer Tracy Mayor, a contributor to WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog, captures this perfectly with her article today about her dad, who is 75, suffering from congestive heart failure, and is hospitalized. His family has assembled for what appear to be the goodbyes.

She writes that in every room on the hospital floor, similar scenes are repeated: family sitting around a very sick person, watching the Red Sox, talking Red Sox.

“Like dealing with a serious illness, baseball favors the quiet and the patient, people who won’t freak out when the count is against them, even though things look bad from the dugout,” she writes.

A CPAP breathing machine covers my dad’s whole head; it’s as if he’s being embraced by a transparent plastic octopus. He’s struggling with every breath. He can’t talk, and his eyes dart wildly from my face to my mother’s. I swallow back tears. I have seen my father annoyed, impatient, irritated, peevish, and very angry — he’s an Irishman, after all — but I have never before seen him frightened.

The ER nurse, a big guy named Franklin, says, “let the machine breathe for you. That’s its job.” My father closes his eyes, trying to comply, and my mother, exhausted, closes hers. I stare at the endless loop of an infomercial. It’s 3:30 in the morning.

The pace of his life and the pace of baseball were at last in sync.
After 40 minutes, Frank says he’s going to move my father onto a different machine, though he still won’t be able to talk. “You’re gonna have 10 seconds to have your say while I switch masks,” he warns my dad jokingly.

When the big mask comes off, my father says, “How’d the Sox do? I missed the end of the game.” I roll my eyes and pull out my cellphone, calling up the score. My dad is in his late innings now, possibly in the ninth, but he’s not out yet. Not as long as the Sox still come first.

The game had been close, 4-3. I hold the small glowing rectangle up close to my father’s face so he can see it over the top of the mask. “They came from behind, dad,” I tell him. “They came from behind.”

Maybe there are hospital rooms in which life and death involves a baseball team in St. Louis, and Detroit, and Los Angeles too. I’ve grown to hate members of the Red Sox Nation for their smugness about their passion, a passion that — in my most private moments — I acknowledge exists to an extent I’ve never seen anywhere else.

With two championships already — two more than my team has won in my lifetime — Ms. Mayor’s dad may soon leave this world with the joy of his team winning a third World Series.

I hope they do, although I’ll still hate them for it.

  • Dave

    My mom died four years ago Monday. She was unconscious in a critical care room for three days. Each evening on TV in her room was October baseball. Her team (the Brewers) weren’t in it, but she loved the game, and we were grateful to share our final moments with her alongside baseball.

    This year I finally realized a few things that makes the postseason so dramatic. One is the nighttime. Baseball is a summer sport, so all games start (and many finish) during the daylight. There are a handful of afternoon playoff games, but most of them are night games, and since it’s late in the year, it’s always dark. Something about that just heightens the drama. I think the cool air adds something too. Finally, the stands are always full, so it’s more fun.

    I watch the World Series most years, but I might not do so this year unless Detroit’s in it. I suspect we’re headed for a Boston/St Louis series, and I would have no idea who to root against 🙂

    • The bright green grass against the dark sky is very much its appeal. In fact, if you’ve ever been to Fenway, that’s its appeal. Underneath the stands is a dark, damp, dungeon of a stadium. And then you walk up the walkway and are blinded by bright green grass — day or night. It literally will take your breath away.

      I’ve always said a good ballpark has restorative power. I think a baseball game on TV does too, especially — if only for a short but memorable time — for the people in hospitals and nursing homes, hopefully for your mom too back then, and — I know from experience — for fathers and sons who’ve forgotten how to talk to each other.

      Despite its many flaws, it’s a great game.

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        That’s how I felt about Dodger Stadium. Even with the constant (though less so than Target Field) assault on your ears with over-the-top rallying cries and “at-bat music,” staring out at the mountains and the sunset between pitches is still like drinking a glass of warm peace.

  • kevinfromminneapolis

    I can’t stand the Red Sox and their fans either.

    • red sox fan–no apologist

      I am an unabashed Red Sox fan–having had season tix for nearly three decades. I had occasion to visit Target field this year for a Twins/Sox game. I came away with the following impressions of differences between Fenway and Target: Fenway: does NOT have toy hot dogs “racing” toy pretzels between innings; does NOT have flashing scoreboards exhorting fans to cheer, or to cheer louder; does NOT hand-out white hankies for people to wave so as to ‘show their spirit’; does NOT have thousands of empty seats in the ninth inning of a weekend game. In those ways, I’ll take Fenway, excuse me for saying it. At Fenway, the game of baseball speaks for itself.
      In contrast, the Red Sox DO have players like Pedroia and Lackey who live and breathe baseball; DO have players like Lester and Papi (and Wakefield and Varitek before them) who live for their COMMUNITY as much as for their team. DO have players like Gomes, and Victorino, and Ross, and Uehara who have such unabashed FUN playing, its difficult to tell that they’re professional athletes and not kids playing a kids game. I imagine, however, that any number of teams have similar players, none of which teams I would say I “can’t stand” (with perhaps the exception of the Yankees!).
      If one truly “can’t stand” a fan base and an organization with the above attributes, I might suggest that one look within rather than without to figure out why.

      • kevinfromminneapolis

        I agree with you that all of those things make Target Field suck. The state of the Twins right now is embarrassing. Few talented players, even fewer who outwardly display any emotion at all. I’ve been mocking the Cardinals for being thin skinned, but the reality is my own local team probably wouldn’t even take exception to anything the Dodgers did. I went to 3 games this year, my lowest total in at least a decade. I did go to 6 games at other stadiums (LA, Wrigley) so that’s part of why but the sorry state of the franchise is a bigger one. I do envy places like Wrigley and, apparently, Fenway, where the fans are mostly left in peace to enjoy the game. Unfortunately fans who want that are too few, hence the rise of “stadium experience” as a thing.

        • red sox fan–no apologist

          Thanks, Kevin. I am a Midwesterner by birth (Des Moines), having had all things Harmon Kilebrew posted on my bedroom walls growing up (I guess that dates me, huh?). I had occasion to take my (now-21-year old) daughter back to Sec Taylor stadium (heaven forbid, any ballpark that calls itself a “STADIUM”) recently in Des Moines to watch the Iowa Cubs (the Iowa Oaks when I was growing up, the farm team of the Kansas City A’s). While I ABSOLUTELY agree with what you and Mr. Collins were saying about the physical experience of going to ball games, one thing you MISSED in your opening comments in this string was the TIMELESSNESS of baseball (I’m not eloquent enuf to express it like you guys did with your descriptions). When I was sitting there in Sec Taylor on a summer night with my (almost) adult daughter, it was the same game in the same ballpark as when I sat there as a kid with MY Dad. Some people made fun of the sappiness of the movie Field of Dreams, but I truly believe that that movie got it right. . .whether its Fenway or Target or Wrigley or Triple A Des Moines, baseball is appropriately seen as our National Past-time for very legitimate reasons.

      • Well there’s that smugness, whippersnapper. Now listen and learn. There was a time you self-congratulatory fans didn’t need Neil Diamond; you had John Kiley. The only advertising in your ballpark was the Jimmy Fund sign. You didn’t have a mascot. You didn’t need a fancy scoreboard in centerfield. You didn’t need the 600 club or the left field seats for the “haves.”

        That is to say, it was all about the baseball.

        Your little team is Yankees-lite. And you fans sold your souls for your championships.

        You can keep your lecture about it being all about baseball. It’s not and those of is who’ve been around since the day it actually was know it.

        A fan for 30 years? Pfft! How hard is that.

        Your fans started not showing up this spring because your team wasn’t supposed to be any good. Then, funny, once they started winning, the Red Sox fans reappeared to remind us again how awesome they are.