When I was growing up, I had three older cousins who were my models for being awesome. They were funny, smart, athletic, and they loved baseball.
And so I wanted to be all of those things, but the one thing I could do without any effort was love baseball.
But I had one major problem. I’m missing the athletic gene of the Ericksen family. While I could share in the love my cousins had for baseball, I couldn’t share in their athletic ability. I lack coordination, which creates problems in every aspect of baseball. I once tripped while running to first base. Embarrassed, I ran back to the dugout and insisted to my teammates that I didn’t trip – I dove. But by the fourth grade, every baseball player knows that you never dive into first base. You run through it.
In sixth grade I played third base. I fielded a grounder that took a bad hop – right to my forehead. I laid on the dirt, crying, and thinking that I never wanted to play again. I finished that game, but never replay organized baseball again.
So, my baseball career was a failure, but I still love the game. The smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, a diving catch – my total lack of athletic ability allows me to appreciate those who have honed their athleticism.
Oh my, did I need Opening Day this year. Opening Day, of course, is the first day of the baseball season. For baseball fans, it is a time when hope comes alive again, after a long winter of waiting.
On Opening Day, every team starts with a clean slate, all the win/loss records are 0-0 , and, as they say, “hope springs eternal.” There is talk in every baseball town and among all baseball fans of how we really could win this year if only this or that goes right, if our players could live up to their real potential, if we could finally “gel” as a team, and if all the things we can’t control could go well for us and not so well for the other teams. “Have you seen that new rookie?” And “that trade we just made could make all the difference now!” Everybody is a believer on opening day.
The Boston Red Sox need to throw off the long-lasting “curse” of the Bambino, which still lurks around Fenway Park despite their recent successes. The hated New York Yankees still stand in the way of another World Series ring. The Cubs fans in Chicago, with a record that would cause mere mortals to despair, have actually learned to nurse an almost eschatological hope of victory that might require the second coming of Christ to fulfill — but nonetheless, you hear chatter all over the north side of the Windy City about how it could happen “this year.” Just think of what finally going all the way “this year” could mean to my suffering hometown of Detroit, which we could do if Miguel Cabrera stays healthy. And, just so you know, the starting pitching rotations of both the Washington Nationals (the adopted team of everyone who lives in D.C.) and the Tigers are simply the best in baseball. But, I may be a bit biased.
Opening Day always comes, and I believe not accidentally, during the end of the holy season of Lent (marked by waiting in disciplined reflection, sacrifice, and even suffering), and always close to Easter and Passover — when hope comes alive again.
Most Americans don’t think God or the devil will be picking the NFL playoff winners this weekend or any other sports champions.
But some will pray nonetheless, and a few will “religiously” perform little game-day rituals just in case.
A survey by Public Religion Research Institute, released Thursday, probes the crossover between team spirit and spirituality.
Most Americans (60 percent) call themselves fans of a particular team. Among this group, several will do a little dance or say a little prayer to help the team along:
- 21 percent (including one in four football fans) will wear special clothes or do special rituals. Donning a team jersey leads the way (66 percent). But some admit they get a little funky with their underwear. One fan wears dirty undershorts on top of his jeans. (No word if these are boxers or briefs.)
- 25 percent (including 31 percent of football fans) have sometimes felt their team has been cursed. (No word on how many are Red Sox fans.)
- 26 percent (including one in three football fans) say they pray to God to help their team. White evangelicals are most likely to lean on the Lord on this: 38 percent will pray, more than any other religious group.
- Football fans are also more likely than other fans to admit praying for their team (33 percent to 21 percent), performing pre-game or game-time rituals (25 percent to 18 percent), or to believe that their team has been cursed (31 percent to 18 percent).
I have a long history of hating the-man-who-shall-not-be-named. In fact, my wife no longer lets me watch the Yankees. That’s because we have children and she doesn’t want them to hear me launch f-bombs at the television whenever my arch-nemesis stands at the plate.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, I used to love him. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so the Seattle Mariners are my favorite team. He began his career with the Mariners, but after a few years of stardom, he let it get to his head and he joined the Texas Rangers. “It’s not about the money,” I remember him saying. But that was disingenuous. The Rangers crippled their team by providing him with the biggest salary in baseball history.
It was heartbreaking. I once heard that whenever hearts break, they either grow bigger or they become calloused. Well, my heart calloused. Along with other Mariner fans, I took a certain satisfaction in knowing that the Rangers, now led by the-man-who-shall-not-be-named, were horrible. In his three years in Texas, the Rangers were one of the worst teams in baseball and never ended a season above last place in their division.
And I loved it.
I have always loved baseball. Growing up on the mean streets of East Los Angeles, baseball was the one activity that kept me away from the pitfalls many young Latino males face on a daily basis. Summer days were spent—sunrise to sunset—in makeshift sandlots in the shadows of Dodger Stadium, fielding bad-hop grounders and striping screaming line drives. It was our neighborhood pastime.
On the occasion when enough coins were scraped up to venture into the venerable cathedral, Dodger Stadium, our baseball heroes paraded before us on this hallowed turf. Our childhood heroes were rarely categorized according to ethnicity and nation of origin but always according to the color of their uniform, Dodger Blue. It was the name on the front of the uniform that mattered, not the back.
As maturity set in and the complexity of national racial issues manifested themselves with the social unrest of the late 1960s, I came to a deeper understanding of the diverse and painful racialized world in which I lived. Baseball was not the safe and immune haven I had first imagined. I became aware of the once segregated Negro Leagues and the painful history of Jackie Robinson, the first Black player to integrate into the “major leagues.” I also realized that even in my English speaking, Mexican-American home, I too was not nationally normative. I was Mexican-American, Latino, Hispanic, Chicano (albeit, born in the United States) and spoke with a distinct accent that immediately identified me as such which, in this country, included labels like wetback, beaner, spic[!], etc.
It was about this time that my relationship with the national pastime took an interesting turn. As much as I wanted to focus on the name on the front of the uniform, I couldn’t help but notice the names on the back of the uniform. Cepeda, Clemente, Marichal, Tiant, and Concepción all became a part of my racialized purview. This realization came to full fruition with the onset of Fernandomania in the 1980s.
The four-bedroom, two-story modest house sits on a corner in this planned bedroom community, and when this 6-6 muscular-toned man welcomes you inside his home, there is no evidence Darryl Strawberry the player ever existed.
There are no pictures of Strawberry in a Mets uniform. No trophies. No plaques. None of his four World Series rings. Nothing from his eight All-Star Games. None of his 335 home run balls.
“I got rid of it all. I was never attached to none of that stuff,” says Strawberry, 51. “I don’t want it. It’s not part of my life anymore.”