by: Michelle Chalkey
A work of nonfiction that functions as a love letter to the game of baseball, while also delving into the hardships of life the game allows a reprieve from…
Fourth of July, 2018
It’s 110 degrees outside in Phoenix, Arizona, but my husband, Kyle, still takes my moist palm as we walk the seven blocks from our downtown apartment to Chase Field. Our friends Ben and Danielle walk a few feet ahead of us, hand in hand as well. It feels good to be in the company of fellow baseball fans.
Sweat soaks my new Arizona Diamondbacks shirt by the time we make it to Jefferson Street, but I don’t care. Living within walking distance to a Major League Baseball stadium is something my eight-year-old self dreamt about, even if that stadium doesn’t belong to my team, the Chicago Cubs. After we scan our tickets and take in the unmistakable smell of ballpark hot dogs, I kiss Kyle on his sun-warmed forehead. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate American freedom.
The fact that the ballgame is sold out tells me I’m not alone in feeling this way. Traffic flowing through the stadium’s dark tunnels shows a good mix of fans for both teams — the Diamondbacks and the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. Even our little group is split in fandom; Danielle wears a Cardinals hat to root for her Missouri home team. Rivalry always makes a baseball game more fun.
Before crossing over into the sunlit dome, I grab a program from the corner newsstand. Most people can’t go to a baseball game without getting a bag of popcorn or a hot dog. For me, it’s the booklet full of extra information on the teams.
“Does anyone else want one?” I ask.
Ben looks at me funny. “No, thanks. You actually read those?”
Kyle answers for me. “She likes to keep score.”
Spilled popcorn crunches under my feet as we make our way to the upper deck. As soon as we see section 322 — our go-to spot along the third-base line — a blend of adrenaline and nostalgia surges through me. The tunnel opens to a world of pristine green grass, a perfectly sanded infield, the echoes and cracks of baseballs hitting bats, and the potential of an unpredictable nine (or more) innings. Even after attending several live games now, the “wow” factor never goes away.
Summers in the ‘90s
As a child, I spent every summer day keeping score for the Chicago Cubs. My brother, Tommy, and I sat cross-legged on the light gray carpet of our living room floor, a Tombstone pizza on a paper plate between us, scorecards and pencils in hand.
My infatuation with baseball started when my father took us to see our first live game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. My father, a baseball legend in our Illinois hometown, taught me the rules of the game and how to keep score. Each position had a number associated with it, each out or hit came with an abbreviated code. Keeping track of the play-by-play immersed me in the game, and I was hooked. On our way out of the stadium, I pleaded with my father to buy Tommy and me an extra program so we could make copies of the blank scorecard. Back then, Wrigley charged you a whopping ten dollars for their Game Day programs. But my father knew he’d get his money’s worth. It was an investment in our summer entertainment.
My mother worked days and my father, a night-shift prison guard, worked nights, so Tommy and I were left each day to keep ourselves busy and out of trouble. We planned each of our ninety days of summer freedom around the Major League Baseball calendar, the Cubs televised schedule taking priority. We filled the remaining hours until Mom got off work or Dad woke up with whatever other games were televised on the local broadcast. In Central Illinois, that usually meant the White Sox or Cardinals.
Along with Tommy, who is five years my senior, sluggers Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace were like big brothers I idolized in the late nineties. Chicago Cubs announcers Harry Caray and Steve Stone brought familiar chatter to our quiet home. Baseball was the summer babysitter our parents never had to hire.
I don’t remember how many games the Cubs won or lost those years, even with all my score-keeping, but I do remember that no matter win or lose, I could always count on the players to show up at game time again the next day. Tommy and I would be right there too, claiming our seats on the living room floor.
St. Ambrose University, the college I attended and located in Davenport, Iowa, made a celebration of everything on campus, including Major League Baseball’s Opening Day. Neon signs and email blasts had invited students to the cafeteria party, promising hot dogs, cotton candy, nachos, popcorn, and all the ballpark food you could imagine. The party, I knew, would be destructive to my eating disorder recovery but supportive to my depression treatment, so I went with the plan to focus on the game over the food. I arrived hopeful in my Cubs shirt, but I wasn’t ready to let go of my new scorecard – my Weight Watcher’s tracker.
The pocket-size food tracker went everywhere with me. It consisted of a daily point-counting system with areas to write down what I ate, whether my meal hit the major food groups, and how many points it cost me. After my first Weight Watcher’s meeting during my freshman year, I had made copies of the pamphlet so I could keep track at school. At the time a junior, I still clung to my tracker.
Before the Cubs first pitch, I used the tracker to size up my options at the buffet, wanting to get all the math and deliberation done so I could sit and enjoy the game. Two pieces of pizza came pretty close to my daily allotment of twenty-four points, and I’d have to dip into my “flex” points if I wanted one of the cute baseball-decorated sugar cookies. After two years of incessant point-counting and over-thinking every morsel of food that crossed my plate, the tracker had become an opponent. It knocked me down the more points it racked up. Taking each loss personally, I let its power go to my head. Eating was no longer a normal part of life. It was a daily battle that became harder and harder the more neurotic I became about it.
My weight, my worth, my value — these were all things the tracker held over me. This was how I measured my life. When the number on the scale went up, my worth and value went down.
The campus hype around the first day of baseball was one of the first things to spark some hope in me that last semester of junior year. I craved a new season of my life as badly as my childhood self had anticipated a new season of baseball. Hating myself and my body every day was getting old for me, my roommates, and my grades. Opening Day would be my own rebirth, I hoped. Baseball had once brought me comfort and inspiration, all the things the depressed version of myself couldn’t seem to find. Hopefully, that would be the Cubs’ year, and mine too.
I chose to fill my plate with a few tortilla chips and ever so gingerly pressed the nacho cheese lever to squeeze out a drop of the bright orange goop, small enough to count it as only two points. It was a pathetic replication of my favorite ballpark snack, but one I thought I could live with guilt-free. The cookie display tried to pull me in with its eye-catching frostings as I veered toward the back corner of the cafeteria, spotting a sea of students in Cubbie blue crowding around the big screen. Taking a seat toward the back of the crowd, I noticed on the television that it was just as rainy and gloomy at Wrigley Field as it was there in Iowa.
Fortunately, the Cubs came out of the dugout with so much enthusiasm that I didn’t even think about my plate of empty calories. Lead-off hitters Kosuke Fukudome and Derrek Lee both walked, and Aramis Ramirez drove them all in with a three-run home run. Although I’d gone to the party alone, I was high-fiving other students. Baseball, for a moment, made me feel like I was back on my own game. My favorite players kept my mind off the food, my fat thighs, and the dark weather and set my imagination on the potential of the season ahead.
But the good fortune didn’t last. The Atlanta Braves answered loudly in the bottom of the first, scoring six runs against Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano. My sinking thoughts were echoed in the cafeteria by the boos of my unforgiving peers. Chicago wasn’t looking good but they continued to go out each inning and fight against the rain and the Braves, even as Atlanta jumped ahead to a 14-5 lead. I, however, only made it to the seventh inning.
I grabbed a cookie on the way out.
Standing alone in middle of a reception hall, drink in hand, I was laser-focused on the big screen showing the Cubs game. I could see that plenty of others also had their eyes on the television, as we all tried to balance our attention between the game and the couple we were there to celebrate getting married. But it wasn’t often that the Cubs were still playing baseball in October, and it seemed like it might be semi-acceptable to distance myself from the party.
The Cubs finally appeared as if they could be World Series champs, a title they hadn’t held since 1908. Just being in the postseason should have had me in a good mood, but standing in front of the television gave me the chance to zone out in my own world and let my negative-voice conscious take over. Like everyone else, I had been taste-testing Kansas City’s craft beers all day. But possibly unlike everyone else, I was sinking deeper into my own spinning world of anxiety with each drink, each Cubs strikeout, and each Giants hit. I felt anxious and guilty, wondering how I could be feeling so down as I had been the bride just six weeks prior. And right after the happiest day of my life, I had started my own writing business and was working from home. I had just accomplished two of my biggest dreams. Now, the Cubs were in the playoffs with a win under their belt in that first series. After the bride, I should have been the happiest girl in the room. But I was lost in that crowd of cheerful people.
Numbers, spreadsheets, calendars and time slots ran across my internal vision. I was thinking of my profit and loss sheet — my current scorecard — worrying, planning, and scheming how to get those P’s higher than the L’s. Worrying whether I had pitched enough jobs the week before, setting expectations for how many I should pitch in the upcoming week. Getting frustrated with the uncertainty of whether I needed to plan around Cubs playoffs games or not. Scheming how I’d make my new business work, how I’d prove myself.
The Cubs struggled in Game 2 of the division series against the San Francisco Giants, yet I was impressed with the team’s fortitude. They may not have been comfortable in the postseason stress, but one by one, each batter plunged forward and stepped up to the plate, settled in, eyed up the ball, and swung the bat. One pitch at a time. The view of the game in that reception hall still looked the same as it had from my childhood living room floor. I begged my anxious mind to go back there, go back home, just for that night.
Chicago pulled off a win, but I still felt lost.
The rest of the 2016 playoff season was tumultuous, at times embarrassing and heartbreaking. Highs and lows, wins and losses — nothing was a sure thing. When the Cubs fell behind the Cleveland Indians three games to one in the World Series, Kyle and I questioned whether to even watch Game 5. We had come so far, but it still didn’t seem to be our year.
Little did we know, the fireworks were being saved for Game 7.
I have a friend whose husband is extremely passionate about his sports teams, the Cubs being one of them. We watched many of the remaining 2016 playoff games with them — at their house, at bars, at our house — and his emotions were on display with each swing of the bat. It was fun to witness his histrionics in public, but I wondered how much of his day was affected by the outcome of the game. What was it like when he and my friend, his wife, went home for the night? Was he able to brush off a loss and realize it was just a game?
Our friends joked with him, reminding him that he couldn’t control any aspect of the ball game, so why get so attached? The players themselves hardly have anything within their control, other than their ability to show up — whether it’s one-hundred percent or even one-hundred-ten percent. And not just at the game at stake, but for every practice, workout, a good night’s sleep, everything to prepare for that game. Always knowing they’ll show up tomorrow.
As fans, showing up is really all we can do, too.
Baseball has never been closer to home. No, I don’t have my parents’ living room floor and my big brother next to me, but my apartment is within walking distance from a major league ballpark, the roof of Chase Field visible from my balcony. Since picking up and moving across the country a year ago, Kyle and I have found ourselves with a secondary baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Now twenty-nine years old, I am sitting cross-legged on the light gray carpet floor of my downtown apartment living room watching the Diamondbacks play the Colorado Rockies. I rest my laptop on the coffee table in front of me and prepare to simultaneously work on editing reports for a client. Baseball is the best background noise, but this game quickly becomes a distraction.
It’s evident in the first three innings that something wild is going on with the Rockies starting lineup. The players knock in run after run to gain a 17-1 lead over the Diamondbacks by the bottom of the third inning. Paul Goldschmidt’s solo home run in the first few pitches of the game wasn’t any foreshadowing of good things to come for Arizona.
I’m about to turn the television off, leave the teams be and give my sole attention to my reports, but when the Rockies continue to score run after run in the bottom of the fourth, I can’t bring myself to check out from the game. One by one, position players offer to pitch. Second baseman Daniel Descalso is caught laughing when the first pitch he throws results in yet another home run for Colorado. The camera flicks to the stadium scoreboard, showing eighteen turning into nineteen in big white print. If I were at that game, I’d be done keeping score by now.
Descalso’s smile melts me a little — not only because he’s a cute baseball player, but because he is laughing at himself. With the pressure of an enormous salary riding on his professionally uniformed back, he is able to see the bigger picture. He and his team are trying everything, knowing that the chances of them coming back from this are slim, unheard of. So they come up with a new plan — simply survive the next five innings. Keep showing up for each at-bat, taking it one pitch at a time. Knowing they have another chance tomorrow.
“Why don’t they just give up already?” Kyle asks what every Diamondback fan is thinking when I call to tell him about this crazy game.
As far as I know, no baseball team has ever walked off the field before the ninth inning because they were losing.
Fourth of July, 2018
The Cardinals draw out their 8-4 victory over the Diamondbacks slowly. Danielle has been standing up and cheering on her team while I am sinking in my seat, begrudgingly recording every play on my scorecard. After the seventh-inning stretch and no sign of Diamondback revival, Kyle and I are itching to leave. We’ve already given up on our team.
But I know this feeling, and I know it’s all part of the game.
I read an article recently that referenced baseball’s popularity. The author was under the opinion that fans watch the MLB because the games are real-life presentations of people working at their goals, dealing with uncertainty, and overcoming obstacles. The players are inspirational examples of hard work put in day after day paying off when it’s needed. We’re seeing life played out in 162 games per year by 30 teams, 18 players at a time.
Each day presents a brand new ball game with a blank tracker, an empty spreadsheet. The scoreboard is an essential factor to keep us in check.
But losing is inevitable.
No team has ever had a perfect season.
And losses are essential to a team’s growth. With each loss comes the opportunity to learn, maybe even laugh.
Kyle and I remain in our seats with the other 40,000 fans, our two friends sandwiched between us. We watch the Diamondbacks run on the field and back off to the dugout without making any progress. I continue to keep score.
Because if we leave early, we’ll miss the fireworks.
Michelle Chalkey has written short stories and personal essays that have appeared in The Book of Hope anthology as well as on The Write Practice and Short Fiction Break. She writes from her favorite coffee shops in Downtown Phoenix, and when she’s not writing, you’ll find her hiking with her husband or hanging out at a Diamondbacks game. You can find out more about Michelle and her writing at www.michellechalkey.com.