It was on a Friday in mid-March, a whole year after everything stopped and time began to move like molasses. As outrageous losses and unmanageable heartache piled up in numb numbers all over America, our year turned inward at home. Family and friends were reduced to squares on a screen. Like many others who bake bread, zoom schooling, try new recipes, learn an instrument, plow through a thousand pages of novels, soothe children’s fears – even accept, for now, screen addiction, not to mention something about our own – we adapted .
Inevitably, the boredom of our dawn days made us a little crazy and gnawed at our minds as the walls closed. Would we ever hug our friends again? Would we ever leave the house without looking like bandits? Would I ever get a new haircut? Would we ever again gather in public without the crippling fear of respiratory protection, and a tearful goodbye to Zoom?
I put my sister Mary on the ballpark. So strange that just writing such a common sentence can feel so exceptional. As a child, I suffered from asthma attacks, and each time, when normal breathing finally returned, I experienced an extraordinary gift: the breath of life. This is how it felt when the two of us, now vaccinated, walked towards our box seats, a dozen rows up along the first baseline.
Now, as Mary and I sat together enjoying the game in the sun, stories and memories flooded back. Some painful; some fun; a few about mom, dad and baseball. For many years, Mother, a retired English professor, happily watched the breweries on TV with us kids as we visited her retirement home in Milwaukee. But she was not a big fan. Once, when my childhood hero, the great Hank Aaron, hit a grand slam, she exclaimed, “It’s amazing, honey. Was there anyone at the base?”
Most years my pilgrimage to spring training is about the eternal hope of a new season, when all the teams are tied for first place: A talented top draft pick makes his debut, an informal slugger struggles to make the team or an hour phenom tries to stage a comeback. But the pandemic added new layers, at least this year.
Today, when I look at the deep green of a new season, I think back to previous years, and the moments that were lost to us now, when we and our parents were younger. I was 12 years old and knocked on my well-oiled baseball glove after a game and waited at the excavation for autographs. Mom in the upper stands, looking for an ugly ball; or, in later years, on a summer night, I remember walking painstakingly down the stairs while holding her in my arms, realizing that this would probably be her last match at the stadium.
Or my father, a lawyer, who died a month after my 18th birthday, but not before I happily presented a documented document to be redeemed for 18 tickets for the upcoming season, in 1974. The birthday certificate was written as a legal letter, on parchment-like paper, and on it Dad had pointed out that I could choose “Eighteen (18) (xviii) tickets for one (1) (I) game, or one (1) (i) ticket for eighteen (18) (xviii) games , or nine (9) (ix) tickets … “Alas, he would never live to see Brewers be anything but terrible.
On the seventh round song, Mary and I sang the beer keg polka (“Roll out the keg, we’ll have a keg of fun …”) Mary got up to dance with me and pulled me up with her. I could not quite cut loose; to me it still seemed strange and trying. It felt like we were feeling what baby steps we should and should not take while waking up cautiously into a soon post-pandemic world. Should we keep the mask on? We did. Should we start eating in restaurants, indoors? We did not. Shall we talk to the woman who asked why Mary wore a Diamondbacks shirt and a Green Bay Packers hat? We did, but kept it short and tried to keep a safe distance. Should we allow the lady two rows behind us to use one of our phones – touching it most likely without sanitized hands – to snap our picture at the ballpark, instead of squeezing into a selfie? Yes, thank you, we told her.