Why I watch baseball, or, falling in love with Jim Leyland

(spoken in Boyz II Men mid-song-“talking-to-you-girl”-voice)

Baby, there’s something I need to tell you.

I cheated.

This column idea wasn’t mine—it was actually equal parts suggestion from Joshua Pugh and Brett McDonald.

I know, I know, baby, it is worse that I mashed them together. But hear me out.

I don’t remember watching my first baseball game, but I remember enough about being young and watching baseball to remember, clearly, why I love it—I fell in love with the men.

In 1984, I was well on my way to being a five-year-old. I may have still had my really fabulous red leather cowboy boots. I certainly still sucked my two fingers—index and middle—of my left hand, a stand-in for sucking a thumb and a habit I’d replace later in life with a pack of blue American Spirits a day.

My mother’s parents, my Abuelito and Abuelita, lived in Pontiac near the massive, powder blue water tower. (I swear, Ford matched its paint chips to that tower when it rolled out the new Thunderbird years ago, and the Flex more recently.)

Abuelito used to work the late shift at the Fiero plant, leaving his days free for baseball. He would sit on the orange couch, its upholstery some bizarre hybrid of velour and felt, and scan the few television stations for games. The metro Detroit media market, which I miss dearly when I cannot tune in the Tigers spring training games on the radio, featured not just Tigers broadcasts but the Cubs, too. (Thanks, WGN!)

Odds were that a few days of the week, Abuelito would be able to watch one of the two teams play. The rest of the games I imagine he followed on a small radio stashed on the line.

I remember sitting close enough to Abuelito to smell his aftershave (which was green, I recall, and minty/piney), his cologne and sometimes even close enough to feel the cat’s-tongue of his stubble. I was in love with my Abuelito the same way I was in love with my father: strong men who were stern, who were playful and mischievous and terrifying when angry. Quiet, too—content to pass three hours watching a baseball game without breaking into outsize theatrics.

There weren’t men like my father or my Abuelito who crossed my path as a child. I knew only one male elementary teacher, and he was quite short—he didn’t seem to tower. Others were tall, but lacked the bulk of my father’s biceps, Hulk Hogan-esque to me, strong from his work at the pipe plant. None shared the allure of my Abuelito, who would sweet-talk Abuelita into sexy Latin dances in the kitchen, hips rocking, toothpick jutting between his lips.

Not John Wayne. Not Tom Cruise. Not even Luke Skywalker could match the magic, mystery, childish spark and authority of my father and Abuelito.

But then there was Lance. Lance Parrish, the catcher, who was so large he seemed to be Paul Bunyan behind the plate, the lumberjack mustache and the bat like a sapling. Even then, I knew he commanded the game with the same silent will as Bunyan guiding Babe, my father commanding us to sleep with a pause and glare from the bedroom door as we stifled our giggles and returned to our own bunks.

Lance, stretching the limits of his uniform when he crouched and dropped a few fingers to signal a pitch, was the first man I really fell in love with—at age four. Because he was the only man I’d ever seen who seemed to belong with my father and my Abuelito.

Now, some 27 years later, and I’ve fallen hard again. My Abuelito has been gone for more than ten years now, and my father’s graying more at the temples each year. Both were smokers, both grew a fine mustache, and both seemed to be a cross between a cowboy and policeman.

Maybe it’s because I’m married. Maybe it’s because I miss my Abuelito terribly, and I miss having my Dad only a few feet, instead of a few hours, away. But if I started watching baseball because I loved a man who seemed to be like the two men I loved most, then it only makes sense that I keep watching for that reason, too.

Jim Leyland. A man who seemed to have been born from scrap metal—which he nearly was, I thought the first time I passed through his home (Youngstown, Ohio). A man who is sometimes so out of step with the time he inhabits—smoking pack after pack of Marlboro Reds in the tunnel to the locker room, insisting he’d rather have good players than “chemistry”—that he seems like a relic of the days of Ruth.

Until he shows his soft underbelly, like a father crying at a wedding, choking up when he recalls Ernie Harwell, the visible pain he felt recounting Joel Zumaya’s horrific elbow injury, the nearly poetic terms he uses to describe the difference between a good hitter and an average: the ball sounds a certain way coming from the natural’s bat.

Somehow, even with my father farther away than I’d like, and my Abuelito gone, I feel fused again with them when I carry a radio outdoors and listen to the game while weeding the flower beds. I catch my Abuelito’s scent on the breeze when the windows are open in July and I’m staying up late to watch the extra innings. I feel the magic of unconditional love when I’m a little bit drunk in the seats along third base during the (almost) perfect game.

I feel a little bit like Frankie in The Sandlot: sensing the ghost of my Abuelito when I wake up on the couch, having dozed off in the ninth; how the man pitching batting practice always seems to be my father; how explaining why it’s called a home run to my daughter makes me feel like I watch baseball, too, because it doesn’t just remind me of the men I love—it’s made me, finally, more like them.

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