Rooting for the Home Team

I don’t want to write about a losing team. At least for a while.

The Mets had a fabulous start. Unstoppable, practically, until we were stopped, and haven’t started again, and now we’re at least 10 games out of first place. We’ll see how this thing goes, or doesn’t.

But in the meantime, I’ve gone to six Mariners games. They’ve all been fun, and I’ve eaten everything in the park; local double-smoked sausage and caramelized onion sandwiches (hot dogs?), fresh fish and chips, the famous garlic fries, and even crispy fried chili-lime grasshoppers from the taco stand out in left field.

When I told my brother this, he immediately asked, “What fucking major league ballpark has grasshoppers for a stadium snack?”

Safeco Field does, and honestly, they’re delicious. That lime tartness, that chili zing, really complements the crunch. As does a nice cold pale ale.

I’ve only seen one win here; a walk-off home run in the Seattle rain. While they were trying to close the roof. I knew that the umpires weren’t going to stop something already in motion. Why would they stop now? Why delay when the retractable roof is rolling slowly back over the field?

Good thing they didn’t, because Mitch Haniger blasted a no-doubt shot into the left-field bleachers. In the pouring rain, while the roof was only halfway closed.

And I still wonder why Mariners fans leave early.

They left early the night that Paxton, the southpaw ace, struck out sixteen batters while I sat behind home plate in awe. The night that Ichiro had his last at-bat, his last “I-chi-ro!” chant at Safeco, his last strikeout. I chanted with the fans, even with my Mets hat on. I had to. Who knows when, ever again, I’d see Ichiro up at bat for Seattle in the bottom of the ninth with a man on base? Even some of these young Mariners fans are not old enough to have seen Ichiro when he was a rookie in Seattle. Maybe they missed out on the meaning of it.

Maybe they’ve simply resigned to losing since the M’s haven’t made it to the playoffs in 17 years.

That’s a sad story, and so is this: Ichiro retired the next day. That was his last at-bat. And I remember watching him walk back into the dugout for the last time.

That’s why you don’t leave early.

And yet. Seventeen fucking years! Seriously. That’s gotta hurt. Even the Mets make the playoffs periodically to assert the fact that yes, they can win, sometimes. And I’ve seen five losses in Safeco and one win, yet the Mariners are 44-25. (The Mets are almost inverse at 28-37.) I get why, after so many years of loss, that you’d want to bail early and not see the inexorable final out, the bright but sad flash of “Thank you for attending!” on the big screen instead of something more positive, like, “Mariners win!”

You’d want to hit the light rail station before the masses so you’re not packed into a train so full of beery, peanut-dusted bros wearing jerseys and caps of the team that just swept your team—say, Red Sox fans. You wouldn’t want to be in that train car. (I’ve been there, and it’s hot, sweaty, smells bad, and feels terrible.) You’d want to just go home because the traffic is going to suck and you have to work in the morning, and you had a few too many beers and spent too much money on junk food, and you have heartburn and a headache, and there’s just no point.

But, maybe, this year there is?

Who knows, too early to say, don’t jinx anything, that kind of sports superstition. That reluctance to emotionally attach yourself to the victories and losses of what, really, amounts to no more than a brand name. The Seattle Mariners, just like the New York Mets, are a regional brand. And it’s a brand that Seattlites, likely, trust in many fun, pained, and strained ways.

I bought a Mariners hat. I wore it to a game this week with my coworkers, a company outing. I had a blast rooting for the home team with a bunch of M’s fans. I loved talking with baseball-inclined coworkers about the game, or about the food, or, really, anything, since baseball lends itself to socializing with its natural breaks, its moments of calm.

But when Haniger won the game, my boss and I slapped double high fives and danced in the rain while the stadium speakers blasted a victory drumbeat and the fans—only a half-stadium’s worth, but decent—roared. And my coworkers who left early, who waited for their train, heard it, and were sad to have missed it. Some even assumed that, in the seventh inning, when the Mariners were down by one run, it was over. And they left!

It wasn’t over, and in baseball, that’s the chance the game allows its teams, its players, and its spectators to enjoy. It’s not over until the final out, and if you are patient, you might see something legendary happen, especially if the odds are clearly not in your team’s favor.

I even got to go to Safeco for a momentous occasion that had nothing to do with the Mariners, but with history—I got to see Albert Pujols, who I forgot still played the game, hit his 3,000th hit. It was on his third at-bat of the night. Everyone knew it could happen, and then, after a short bloop to right field, he did it, and his team ran on to the field to celebrate with him. The game stopped for ten minutes, and nobody cared, because we were watching the 32nd player ever to have made it to 3,000 in 130-odd years of statistics.

Last night, I watched the Mariners attempt a comeback against the Red Sox. I stood in the center field bleachers with a couple of Sox-fan friends of mine (but, clearly, the good kind of Red Sox fans) and while they were nervous when Kimbrel walked the first two batters, I was hopeful. And this isn’t even my team. The crowd started chanting “Let’s go Mariners!” without the assistance of the big screen or PA system. And it kept going, all the way until that final out, when the “Thank you for attending!” message came on the screen and fans shuffled themselves out toward the train station, a few Boston bros shouting shrilly and dumb, joyful but boasting in a solemn place with, perhaps, some of the most downtrodden fans in sports.

But I’m going back. I’m going to wear that Mariners hat. (And I give myself a pass since this is the AL.) Last night was the first night I’d heard those fans start up a chant on their own, and kept it going. They weren’t sad, but hopeful. This is not a bandwagon team. This is the home team, a team of unknowns (Haniger) and older brothers (Kyle Seager) and aging aces (Felix Hernandez) and upcoming flamethrowers (Paxton) and legends (Ichiro, who still takes batting practice with the team).

This is a team that deserves a shot at the playoffs, and I want to see them do it. And as I finish this one off tonight, the Mariners just beat the Red Sox, and hearing Safeco roar over the radio’s smooth static is a pretty sweet sound.

Safeco Field is My Safe Place in Seattle

Weird, right?

I’ve been to two Mariners games now at Safeco Field. I, obviously, am not a Mariners fan. I don’t even really follow American League baseball that much. But it is a lovely ballpark with great sight lines and amenities. The tickets are inexpensive. I can walk there after work.

And when I’m there, I don’t want to be anywhere else. When I’m watching the game, even though I don’t care who wins, I don’t want to think about anything else.

And I don’t have to.

I live thousands of miles away from my closest friends and family. I have a pretty fast-paced job in a major American city. I don’t have a lot of downtime or days off, and my schedule can be pretty demanding. Some nights, I just want to go home and watch TV and forget about life until the morning.

But some nights, when the M’s are in town, I go to the ballpark instead. I sit there in the stands alone, sipping a beer or munching on a pretzel, and I watch the pitches and swings. I don’t really cheer or clap or do anything that most fans do when they go to the game.

Hell, I wear my Mets hat. And I’m the only one there wearing a Mets hat. I am clearly a neutral party.

And I think that’s the important thing. Whenever I go to Mets games, we have to win. It’s a serious event. Dignity and sports emotions are on the line, every time. My mood correlates with the scoreboard, the hitting, the pitching, and the managerial strategy.

With the Mariners? I don’t care, but I love it anyway. They aren’t a very good team. They are in the midst of the longest postseason drought of any major sports team in the world. The general feeling at the ballpark is sadness, and the upper deck is almost always empty. Most of the fans aren’t that into it, and there aren’t that many of them that show up.

And the ones that are there seem like they’re mostly there for the novelty—entertaining clients or taking the kids out to the game—and not really watching the game itself.

But I’m there with them, wandering around centerfield wearing the hat of a team that never plays there, talking to the beer vendors, watching the pitchers warm up in the bullpen. The smell of the grass and clay and peanuts seems to center me a bit since it reminds me of being a kid and playing catch with my dad when he used to umpire college games and I tagged along.

But the crack of the bat is an ancient American sound of triumph.

I’ve been looking for a place in Seattle where I can go just to get away and feel centered and unpressured. And when I’m at Safeco Field, I’m safe. There’s nowhere else to be when I’m there. And there’s nothing else to think about.

I don’t really think I’ve found that kind of experience in my life before. And now that I have—and that baseball is the main part of it all—I’m incredibly grateful.

And in terms of baseball in which I do emotionally invest myself, the Mets are kicking ass. We had the best start within 10 games that we’ve ever had, and even though we’ve had a rough few games with the Nats and the Braves, our pepper grinder team seems like they’re gonna do great this year.

But I’ll be in the bleachers at Safeco, meditating on the game in front of me with some headphones on, listening to the action in New York. When I was there this Sunday, Wilmer Flores smacked a walk-off homer for the Mets and stopped the Nationals from sweeping us.

Among the unenthused crowd, I gave a little yell of joy and clapped. They looked at me like I was a total stranger.

I pointed to my hat, and then to the scoreboard of all games that every MLB park keeps.

They understood.

The Mets Begin, Gottman-Style

So, as many of you know, I now work at The Gottman Institute as their content manager. And at TGI, we have a motto, which is 5:1, or five positive interactions for every negative interaction. Dr. John Gottman, through 40 years of research, found that people in committed relationships need to hit that ratio in order to have a positive and successful relationship into the future.

He did it with data and science. It’s no joke. It’s a fact.

Well, I’m in a committed relationship with the New York Mets, as of today, we are doing just that. We’re 5-1 and in first place in the National League East. And we just beat our rivals, the Washington Nationals, to take the lead. Kid Conforto showed back up in the lineup a couple weeks ahead of time and got two RBI, and Bruce hit a grand slam to push the game beyond contention.

I’m no therapist, nor am I a baseball analyst. But I can tell that this kind of ratio, while unsustainable across a baseball season of 162 games, is a great start.

And we even have a new team mantra, or sign, or handshake. I don’t even know what it is, but suddenly, after every good play, all of the Mets make a pepper grinder motion with their hands.

The grind of 162 games. The seasoning it takes to make a lineup with some pop. And the grit it takes to play this game like it’s meant to be played.

And the 2018 New York Mets are surely hitting the ground running, pumping on all cylinders, full speed ahead, pick your cliche, I don’t care because my team, at least right now, is playing some wicked good baseball.

Staub Passes, and a New Mets Live

It’s 2018. A lot of things have changed, obviously. I barely wrote for almost two years. The last real writings I did get down to paper before I got carpal tunnel were posted here. I live in Seattle now. I drove across the country to get here. I’m very far away from my friends, family, and my New York Mets.

But I was back at home to watch Opening Day with my father, and man, these 2018 Mets, at least so far, do not disappoint.

Sure, Syndergaard strikes out 10 in his first outing. We score 9 runs. But none of those runs come from the long ball, which is not how this Mets roster has operated over the last few years. We started playing small ball. Slapping opposite-field hits, stealing bases, drawing walks. That’s a kind of strategy that’s less enthralling but more gutsy and brave, more risky and dangerous and dirty and, honestly, fun to watch.

But we’ve still got a lot of sluggers. We’ve still got a lot of power pitching. But we also have a new, young manager in Mickey Callaway who seems willing to do what’s needed in combining new and old managing strategies into making this team win. And even though David Wright is still on the bench, rehabbing his way into, hopefully, an elder captain’s role of pinch hitting and teaching younger players, we have Todd Frazier, this weird New Jersey dude who’s a bit scrappy and can hit and is old and wise and funny enough to lead these young guys from the far side of the horn.

It’s a new, yet old, New York Mets. Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez, those beloved ’86 alums, lead the SNY broadcast team with humor, emotion, and sharp critical eyes alongside the veteran no-nonsense Gary Cohen “put it in the books!” at play-by-play. Rusty Staub died on Opening Day, and Hernandez wept openly to the media. Darling seconded Rusty’s greatness, and now the 2018 Mets wear his signature on their sleeves for the year.

I once saw Rusty deliver the first pitch at a Mets game at Citi Field. He tottered onto the field, balding but still with a shock of red hair. He was overweight, slow, but smiled and waved happily to the crowd. He assumed the stance slowly, but simply underhanded the pitch in. It bounced in front of home plate, and he didn’t care, and neither did the catcher.

They met halfway between home plate and the rubber and hugged before Staub waved to a lot of fans that adored him, many of which were not old enough to have seen him play for the Mets. He was no star. But he was one of us.

There’s still something magical happening in National League baseball in New York City, and that’s been happening for a while now. David Wright was the spark of these post-Shea, post-Piazza Mets, and he might still come back to punch a few over the fence again. 2015, with Terry Collins at the wheel, was a fragile but thrilling journey into a new Mets greatness. There’s no way to tell if the 2018 Mets will tap fully into a real chance at a championship, but after a couple of days of spirited and emotional play at the start of the season, I have a feeling that this one will be worth the ride.

From MFA to LLC

I sat in the conference room, sweating with my white shirt collar too tight around my neck, the wool suit too warm, my palms leaving fogged traces of my fingers on the black surface of the table. The door opened and I took a deep breath, and the boss walked in—the person who held the title to which I would report, if hired—and without thought I stood, shook her hand, smiled, introduced myself, it’s a pleasure to meet you, and then sat down to discuss whatever pitch she might throw at me.

I was a minor league batter shaking in the box up against a big league pitcher winding up on the mound, a pitcher who can scream a fastball across the black. But she tossed the junk pitches at first, those standard interview questions you always prepare for. Most common: What’s your weakness? Answer: When I get overwhelmed, sometimes I don’t know when to ask for help. But she threw heat, too. Challenged my lack of a background, of a proven record at a desk job for at least a year. She said, well, you haven’t even had a job, right?

I had to explain that teaching three classes on top of going to grad school on top of trying to write the best poems I could was more than a full time job. It took more than forty hours a week. Try sixty, eighty, my entire waking life. It took the discipline to sit there, butt in chair, and get the job done every night—grading papers, drafting lesson plans, doing required reading, required writing, and writing for pleasure, just writing constantly—and I told her I could pump out content fast, words that gleam when arranged the right way, which is complete hubris as a personal statement but I figured, why not go for it?

A home run swing is hubris. And sometimes it connects. And after I said it, I leaned in, adjusted my tie, put my hands on the table and interlocked my fingers, my silver rings and blue-faced watch glinting in the fluorescent light.

I said, I want this job. And I didn’t look away.

***

Waiting tables wasn’t cutting it. We were heading into the slow summer, the season where you’d get cut more often than you work, and when you do work, it’s dead quiet and the only people eating sixty dollar steaks and expensive fried food were hotel people, or those who wanted to impress. The income was inconsistent—a thousand dollar week once a month, or three hundred one week, seventy-five another—and to put together rent and bills every month was a tragic cycle on repeat. Adjunct teaching work wasn’t only sparse, if available, but paid less than serving and required far more hours. Besides, I had a music studio in my office, and I got to write as much as I wanted during the day. In some ways, I had it made, and in others, I was barely scraping by, scratching together the money to live by taking orders and insults every other night.

One night, up late, after a few drinks, I took a look at my resume, my CV, my publication list, my website, my manuscript. I wondered why this didn’t amount to more—and I knew why, because I left grad school uncertain of my future and came home blunted by broken love—but I knew that more awaited me. The next morning, from the comfort of pajamas and the couch, I looked up copywriting jobs. After a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in creative writing, with internships in business proposals and publishing, I knew I had the goods to be a professional writer in any company.

I didn’t necessarily want to enter business, or advertising, or marketing per se, but there’s a big difference between putting on a server’s uniform at night and dressing nicely at dawn for the day. There’s a sense of gratitude in waking early every morning, even if to commute for an hour to and from the job. And there’s dignity in being respected by your coworkers and your clients, using your best skill to make your living. So I applied, and applied, and applied. I did ten in a shot. Then ten more the next day. And on some websites, they’d even tell you how many people applied for the job. One hundred, two hundred, three. I might not stand a chance. There could be a thousand like me. But I also realized I might even be a hot commodity—a writer who can really write, who taught the craft, who publishes, who knows that that the written word and the relationships, the metaphors, the meaning that builds from it is priceless and timeless no matter how it is used.

I wanted to go to work, not carrying a tray, but a notebook and a laptop. I wanted to have a business card. I wanted to have people who read my writing daily and criticized it, showed me how to be better. Because even if I wasn’t teaching poetry and fiction, which I love dearly, I would use my craft. But I didn’t realize how it would better me and force me to address inconsistencies and errors in my written language on a day-to-day basis. I didn’t realize how it would be regimented and intense while also being fluid and dynamic.

During my internships, I learned that there’s an art to the business proposal. It’s not a sales pitch, nor is it a list of services provided, nor is it a narrative of the company’s history. It’s all of those, threaded together by storytelling prose and the small sprinkling of the stuff of literary legends that carries an audience to the point of conviction. And when they reach that point—when a proposal wins—then you’ve forged a relationship and won your audience. And you’ve won the contract.

And, even as a writer, isn’t that the point of making a living?

***

When I leaned in, she didn’t look away, either. She smiled, stood, shook my hand again, thanked me for my time, and told me that the next step would be an interview with the partners. And they challenged me just as hard. One told me that my communications might affect the company in a negative way if I failed at my job. One asked why I didn’t send thank you emails to those who interviewed me. And the same criticism from the first interview—the lack of a “real job”—peeked through the tone of each question, each response, rebuttal, counterpoint.

After I said that I wanted the job, I remembered that this was my first interview, my first at-bat. It was the first time I got interviewed more than once for the same job, taking a full count and then some. And after fouling off questions I could make contact with, I swung hard with a deep home run cut that flashed through the strike zone and connected with the hottest fastball anyone ever threw at me. 

Pitch: What makes you the best candidate? 

Swing: I know how to write.

I swung with hubris, with swagger, with the goods that I knew I had to offer. And with the bat’s crack, I became a professional writer. I found a way to use my trade in a way that satisfies me deeply.

And why is it so satisfying? Well, I got a lucky pitch, as most home run hitters do. My company does good work. We work to help people by making one of the most dangerous places in our country—the highway—safer for everyone. Yes, there’s a bottom line, there’s a budget, revenue, deliverables, efficiencies and processes, but there’s also a sense of purpose in that I can help people with my writing. And a sense of gratitude that my boss, and her bosses, read what I had to say about myself, for myself, and about and for those who I admire and love—the personal poems and academic essays and political articles that made up my writing portfolio that I slipped across the table to my interviewers—and took it seriously enough to bring me into a small, dynamic group of hardworking, gracious, sharp, smart, and empathetic people.

And now I’m in the company, literally speaking, of such fine people, with a steady paycheck, and I get to write for them every day. What more could I ask for?

Playing Catch at Night, Learning How to Throw

There’s a satisfaction to playing catch. The steady rhythm of it, the slow windup and release, the sound of a glove snapping shut. The feel of the red laces on your fingers as you grip the ball, the sun setting, the can of beer getting warm as it sits in the grass, waiting for you to return.

The silence. Then the occasional banter, suggestions for improvement–how to throw faster, farther, more accurate. The wild throws and the jog to recover, and the great moment when you zing a fastball for a strike, or flick your wrist the right way and hang a curve.

Throughout the summer, my brother Jason and I played catch on the little league diamond in our neighborhood. The field was fenced in and locked, but we jumped the fence nearly every day. The cops saw us a couple times. They didn’t care. All they saw was a couple of thirty-somethings throwing a ball, poorly, wildly. They’d watch me shag pop flies that my brother would fungo at me from home plate. I’d stand in centerfield, on my toes, ready for the piercing clang of the aluminum bat—then I’d track the arc, sprinting, almost there, almost—and leap to catch it on the run.

The moment where I thought to myself, wow, that might’ve got applause in an actual game, with a team, and spectators. I’d smile, then throw the ball back in and wait quietly for the next hit.

I work a job where I spend at least 2 hours, every day, commuting to and from. Some days, I don’t get home until 7. When it was summer, that was fine. We’d have an hour to throw the ball, work up a good sweat, and then drink some beers. But soon summer slipped away into fall, and the sun would drift beyond the horizon before I’d get home.

Gone were the days of catch and fungo, we thought.

But then I bought a bright light-up ball—a dog toy, technically—about the size and weight of a baseball, made of hard translucent rubber. We couldn’t bat with it, unless we wanted to spill the light-up guts of it all over the diamond, but last night we decided to play catch at night while the Nationals and Dodgers duked it out in D.C. under bright stadium lights.

We were lost in the dark of the little league field. But the LED ball leaves a trail of light as it flies through the air. You can see it perfectly as it changes from blue to green to red. You can throw it hard, fast, just like a baseball. But what you can’t see is your target. All I’d see is the faint outline of a green t-shirt standing in the outfield. I’d set, windup, and throw—and the ball would bounce twenty feet short of Jason. He’d scramble to scoop it up, then fire it back, and it would sail ten feet over my head and bounce off the fence.

This happened with nearly every throw. So, I decided, the hell with it. I’m just gonna hurl this thing as hard as I can in his direction, and make him run for it.

For the first time in my life, out there in the darkness fringed with orange streetlight, I pushed off my back foot and spun my torso, the kinetic energy rising from the ground on up through muscle groups so my arm would whip around fast.

The ball flew far beyond my brother and landed near the fence, rolling bright through the dewy grass.

During the summer, I’d often ice my elbow after playing catch because I was muscling the ball too hard with my arm. The pain would linger for a day or two. But last night, I learned how to do something that all ballplayers have to learn, how to transfer energy from your feet through your body to your fingertips to whip the ball forward. I kept going, adjusting for distance, and the throws flew straighter, less arc, more speed. I could feel my muscles from toes to core to shoulder heating up, loosening, catching up with my already-warm arm.

That first true throw of my life streaked like a falling star.

I never figured out how to do that when I was a kid. But, age 30, I finally learned the trick. Practice, patience, kinetic energy, precision, focus, and having a good time playing catch at night, running around in the dark like fools with your older brother.

When we got back to my apartment, that warm beer never tasted so good. No ice needed.

A Vast Open Field

Most sports are variations on the same basic premise: there’s your territory and the other guy’s territory. The field, court, rink, is split in half. Your job is to get the ball or puck past the other guy—into his territory—and score. Your job is also to defend your own turf and make sure he doesn’t score on you. That’s football, soccer, rugby, basketball, tennis, volleyball, hockey, field hockey, lacrosse, and most other team sports. And while these each have their merits and can be electrifying to watch at their peak performance, they tend to bore—me, at least—because you know the team’s objective is. You know their chances, and you know what might or might not happen. Statistically, these sports are easier to predict than my favorite sport, baseball.

In a recent documentary entitled Fastball, the sport’s premise is described as there being really only two players on the field that matter, and that it comes down to a primal battle between “a man with a rock, and a man with a stick.” Pitcher and batter. Ball and bat. Though the field ballet of the game plays out in defensive grace, even miracles, the real electricity, the juice of the game, is in the battle between pitcher and batter.

There’s no other sport where two people are, literally speaking, doing things that are not only physically improbable and painfully difficult to execute—throwing a hundred-mile-per-hour fastball and trying to hit it—but are damn near impossible. Every moment between pitcher and batter is peak performance. The eye can only track that bullet fastball up to a certain speed, and that eye has to be trained, let alone transfer information into the grace and power that comes from a proper swing. And the arm can whip from the body, starting from the foot on the pitcher’s rubber, transferring through legs and core and back and shoulder into the arm and through the lashes of wrist and hand and fingers to throw at a speed so blinding fast that a batter can’t even see it until thwack!  into the dusty catcher’s mitt.

Along with the science and physics and sheer bodily power of the sport, there are books, poems, essays, and news articles about baseball being a religion, a path to God, because of its improbability and its mythical legend, its tendency to inspire intense faith in its fans. The sport has been played for nearly 200 years. It was first played, in an organized fashion, on the Elysian Fields in New Jersey. There are museums and research institutions dedicated to studying the history and evolution of the game and its players. There are statisticians combing through arcane data about individual players that most everyday baseball fans don’t understand. It is considered the American pastime, a patriotic sport, where the anthem becomes more than nationalistic pride, but a celebration of song—as does the seventh inning stretch. I once saw a professional choir sing the anthem and heard a famous violinist play it. There is joy and love of music in that moment of pause before the shout of “Play ball!”

And there are those fans, those believers, who gather in the stadiums and ballparks that peak like cathedrals across the country to cheer on their favorite team because they were born there, or moved there, or became a fan through a friend, or grew up playing the game. Or, like me, had a father so devoted to his Mets fandom that I couldn’t help but absorb it even more than the Catholicism that I learned and ultimately decided wasn’t for me.

I’ve cried and laughed and jumped for joy at Mets games. I’ve stood somber and cold in the stands during a loss, and chanted with fellow fans under bright lights when our team needed the support, the inspiration and belief of the masses, to push forth and win. I’ve booed and cheered and bought a jersey with my name on the back of it as if I could jump into the game myself if they needed a 33rd inning pinch hitter. I’ve taken score, noting each pitch, each play, to the point of precision where, during a playoff game, the stadium’s scoreboard was wrong and I was right. Fans around me asked, knowing I was scorekeeping, “Are there really two outs?” I said, “Nope, I’ve only got one.” Thirty seconds later, the scoreboard changed accordingly.

I never did any of that in a church. It just wasn’t as fun, and as I grew older, I realized that it simply didn’t mean as much to me. It didn’t carry as much wonder or awe or belief in the human spirit, in overcoming odds and adversity to win, and to gracefully accept loss and renew one’s spirit in time for the next season—much as we do as humans who live year by year, season by season, going through the slow marathon of everyday life–much as a baseball season with 162 or more games spanning 7 months is a slow marathon built on momentum and the courage and energy to break into the final hard sprint to win it all.

But baseball did carry that wonder and awe, and it still does for me. Unlike the other sports that follow that standard format of back-and-forth play to score a goal, baseball has a form unlike any other game. The field is vast and open, spreading out with no clear-cut boundaries other than foul line and fence—and you can even make a legal play out-of-bounds, over the foul line, leaping into the stands where fans will catch you. The diamond is set just so that the pitcher can throw at maximum velocity and power and control, and the base runners have 90 foot intervals—a perfect interval considering the speed at which most players throw and run and the time and distance they have to make a play—to advance and score a run across home plate. The ultimate score is a home run, a ball is hit so far that no player can catch it—and a fan can take it home, maybe even get it signed, and keep it as a souvenir to pass on to a son or daughter. And determining the potential and fate of a home run hit is the baseball park itself—how the stadium is built, the varying dimensions of the outfield, the change and speed of the wind and the height of the outfield fence.

Despite the math, the perilous odds, baseball offers moments for reflection on those perils, both for fans and players. There’s a rhythm to each pitch, and there’s often a hush that overcomes the crowd as the pitcher winds up, unless the fans are chanting and whistling for a strikeout. And there’s a reaction to each pitch, whether it be relief, celebration, joy, indifference, disappointment, anger, frustration, worry, denial (if the crowd disagrees with the umpire’s call), or even empathy (if a player gets hit), and all of those emotions are audible in the crowd’s tone, rhythm, voice. It’s not unlike a church, where parishioners and priests align in belief and speech and song. The Wave exists for a reason, as an undulating yet unified motion, a comical yet endless physical devotion.

And the players, like the fans, will jabber on to each other during those moments of respite in between plays. They’ll crack jokes, ask how the family is doing, share their agreement on a bad call, or even taunt and intimidate and pressure. Just watch a runner standing at first base with a former teammate. They’ll be talking plenty. And the players will convene on the pitcher’s mound to talk strategy, speaking with their mitts over their mouths to keep secret what they say. They even serve as their own cheerleaders, just like the fans, shouting from each dugout and rooting for their teammates in the same exciting belief that they can rally, they can win—the same thing the fans believe, despite their team’s odds and the grim statistics that prove that being a “great” hitter means getting a hit every three in ten at-bats, and being a “great” pitcher means barely escaping the danger of a power bat or the sly speed of a gritty base running strategy to allow the least runs possible.

Win or lose, it is about belief—a shared belief—in defiance of the odds, in awe of the performance, in celebration of the shared faith not that we will win, but that we can win despite intense, insurmountable challenges.

This past week, I watched a truly great baseball legend, David Ortiz, retire as a thirteen-year Red Sox veteran. The Sox lost, swept in the playoffs by the Indians, but they did so at home. Maybe they didn’t win, and maybe the season ended with the disappointment at abrupt loss, but David Ortiz, who spent thirteen years as a great Red Sox hitter and admirable philanthropist and charismatic leader for not just the team, but the city, was home for his farewell game. After the Indians celebrated on the field and went to their clubhouse for a champagne shower, Ortiz heeded the deafening call of 37,000 fans in Fenway Park to come out for one last goodbye.

He made his way to the pitcher’s mound while Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man played on the ballpark speakers, all brass and gongs and drum, the song of American triumph. He took off his cap, tears pooling in his eyes, and raised it to the crowd with his hand over his heart as he stood on the pitcher’s mound. He patted his chest and turned to take in the entire stadium, the tens of thousands there present, and the millions watching, and kissed them goodbye before disappearing back into the clubhouse and taking off his uniform to transform back into a common man, his legendary days gone, but forever inscribed into the memories of millions of baseball fans.

But in that moment, standing on the mound, saluting the crowd with his hat and his hand on his heart, he stood as a future bronze sculpture for legendary and mythic baseball. That moment culminated in his final point to the sky before donning his cap again. He walked slowly back to the dugout, wiping tears from his eyes because of the deep love his fans have for him.

This past year, ever since the Mets made an improbable run in the 2015 World Series and an even more improbable run with an injury-battered team of rookies for the 2016 Wild Card Game, I started being a fan of not just my team, but the game. I got to see the Mets beat the Dodgers in a decisive Game 3 victory in the divisional playoffs—with my dad, of course, both of us screaming and cheering like loons, filled with joy, along with 45,000 other fans. I got to watch my childhood favorite ballplayer get inducted into the Hall of Fame. I got the autographs of Mets World Champions from 1986, the year I was born. And I got to take in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park on the last day of September when David Ortiz hit his final career home run in the first of three farewell games.

When he smacked that homer past the right field fence, I’d never seen a crowd of people so happy, so inspired, delusional with joy, and yet so connected to those around them with whom they shared the experience—including Ortiz himself. They hugged, arm in arm, cheering, high fives, whistles and claps and the final cry of happiness when Ortiz cross the plate and pointed to the misty sky.

I wouldn’t call baseball an interest of mine. I’d call this a belief, a reawakening to a centuries-old sport that transcends human adversity against perilous odds, a sport that is fueled by faith in the impossible, and a sport that offers admiration in tough loss and glorification, even beatification in impossible, miraculous victory. Baseball has a sense of miracle when a low slider is pounded over the fence, or when a shortstop makes a diving catch-and-throw to first base, or when a centerfielder hurls a strike from the warning track to nail the runner out at home, or when a runner steals home and scores, sliding down into the dusty clay and brushing the plate with a bare hand to win a game.

It’s all bang-bang fast, and you have to pay attention closely to see the nuance, the dance. But in between those breathless plays, those precise pitches and cracking bats, you can lean back, breathe the warm summer air, sip a beer, put your arm around your son or daughter, and relish in a satisfying and emotional experience that no other sport gives those who love it.