a baseball confession from a broken heart

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Sunshine washed the field in a perfect golden haze the last time I walked away from a college baseball game in 2013. I had been covering Southwestern College’s team for a local paper and the season was coming to an end, just as a new one for me was about to begin.

That was the month before I left America, just a few short weeks before I packed my bags and boarded a plane to Central Europe where a whole new future awaited me.

For the most part, I was ready to go. I had been planning to teach in Prague and work with the church there for three years (since the summer I graduated from high school, for the sake of precision). But walking up the hill from the dusty diamond, I realized very keenly that I would miss this. I would miss baseball.

One day I’ll tell the story about how I got into sports reporting. It was part accident, part ego, and no one was more surprised than myself.

But this isn’t a story about beginnings. This is my attempt at explaining to all of my confused, amused family and friends why I have been so obsessed with baseball this season. So the only relevant information you need to know about my beginnings with covering this sport is that it took me two and a half games and one wikipedia search of baseball terms to understand I had found something I really, really loved.

It is also important to know that Prague changed me. Specifically, being a middle school teacher changed me, or brought out something in me that I didn’t know was there before. Some of you followed all this on my travel blog as it was happening, but not even I realized just what a different person I had become until I came home. The problem is that when you are shaped in one place and then move to another, it takes a while to find a spot where you fit again.

And the full-time student life I moved into didn’t really accommodate my inner sunshine-seeking, people-watching middle school teacher.

Moving home, leaving Prague, was the hardest thing I have ever done.

It was only natural that, upon returning from Prague after two years, I would find my way back to baseball. I write for my college paper where some of the Jaguar coaching staff still remember me from 2013. I also write for a paper in East County covering high school and community college games.

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My nifty lil story and photo published in a real newspaper.

Four months of baseball have seen me climbing trees and hanging over outfield fences with my feet jammed into the spaces of rusty chain link fences, or kneeling in the dirt (and mud – thanks, El Niño), angling for that perfect shot.

One particular game in Eastlake had me picking through piles of trash behind the outfield fence next to the home dugout. I squatted in the mud next to a wheelbarrow filled with murky water and ignored the weeds brushing against my ankles. When it comes to angles on the field, the stretch between second base and third is my favorite and I would literally squat on an ant hill to get a good view of it.

Barely two innings had gone by when rain began to lick the back of my neck. Tucking my camera beneath my coat, I trekked back through the mud to the bleachers where fans were taking cover under jackets and backpacks.

Fighting the crushing feeling that we were about to get rained out, I pushed my lens through the gaps in the fence and took a few snapshots of the batter as the wind began sending torrential sheets of water down onto the field. My fingers were numb, my clothes were getting soaked and I could tell my camera was not going to be a happy camper after this experience. I wanted to be grumpy, but all I kept thinking as a stupid smile pushed its way over my chattering teeth was how lucky I am to have this job, to be at a baseball game on such a day.

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Helix runner dashes home through the pouring rain during a game at Eastlake.

El Niño and I were definitely not friends. I know the rest of California was ready for some wet weather, but rain means cancelled games.

I obsessively checked the weekly Google weather forecast twice a day to make sure game days were still clear. Cancelled games absolutely wrecked me. 

But when the weather was clear, it was beautiful. The first time I ever noticed spring in San Diego was season I covered baseball, back in 2012. Outside the classroom, away from my computer, the baseball field opened up to me the glories of early March. Sunlight clearer than glass cut across the field and breezes rippled the mesh on the outfield fence. Warm in the sun and cold in the shade, every sound seemed crisper and every color seemed brighter. Butterflies fluttered by and insects hummed in the grass. And on a baseball field, the afternoons lilted by slowly, taking their time.

I remember sitting in the dirt next to the SWC dugout at an away game at City College in Balboa this April. Several times an inning, planes swept through the pale blue skies above us, and the tops of Downtown’s beautiful skyline popped up over the outfield fence. It was a warm day and the dust billowed into columns whenever runners slid into the bases. Luckily for me, City’s field is grossly uneven. Third base is elevated nearly a foot from home plate. Sitting on the dirt, I could see the bag almost exactly at eye-level. My camera snapped up every dusty third-base slide that afternoon.

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One of those perfect third-base shots from my spot in the dirt at City’s baseball field in Balboa.

I have two distinct memories from this game. The first was realizing that this is exactly how I hope to whittle away Friday afternoons for the rest of my life: sitting in the red dirt of a baseball diamond with my camera, watching a game unfold.

The second was getting spit on. One of the sophomores to my right took a swig from his water bottle and spat into the dirt, but the breeze picked up the salivinated Aquafina and thinned it into a mist that caught the right side of my face.

Every normal instinct I possess told me to be upset about getting spit on (because, ew, obviously), but I was just too happy to be at a baseball game in perfect weather with a fantastic view of third base. So I wiped it off without a word. I may have even smiled a little.

And I thought how lucky I am to have this job, and to be here at a baseball game on a day such as this.

But I am obsessed. When the team lost, it ruined the best of days. Wins made my whole week. The only page open on my phone more often than Google weather was the Jaguar schedule and results page, which I refreshed obsessively during away games to keep track of the score.

I wore my lucky shoes on game days, carried around a can of corn in my backpack on weeks when defense was struggling and was late to more math classes than my GPA will probably forgive me for on account of needing to stay at the game for just one more inning.

There are plenty of reasons to like baseball (the lingo, the superstition, the magic of the ninth-inning comeback). But the more people raise their eyebrows at my over-the-top obsession with the sport, the more persuaded I’ve been to figure out why I love baseball.

And I think I’ve finally figured it out.

See, the thing about being a dugout reporter is that it gets me up close to the game. And not just close enough to see streaks of red as the baseballs whiz by me (or, on occasion, at me, as has happened several times in foul ball territory).

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I actually never saw this one coming. But the rest of the dugout did and I earned some pretty solid street cred for not flinching when it missed me by inches.

I get to see the players and the coaches work out pieces of their personal stories as each game unwinds.

I hear the dugout chatter. I know which pitchers wish they got played more. I hear them wonder to their pals behind the batting cages how much harder they have to practice to get put in. So when they get to close out a winning game, I understand what the smile on their face really means. I know which players have trouble controlling their emotions on the field, so when I see them swallow their cuss words and walk off a strikeout with heads held determinedly high, I understand what they’ve actually accomplished. I’ve been with these boys all season so I know who needs a big win and who just needs to get on base today, who has their hopes set on transferring to a university and who has their hopes set on that scout noticing them.

And just like that, my own problems fade away. I get caught up into the hopes and dreams of thirty 19 year olds. And it feels a lot like being a middle school teacher again.

I knew coming back to San Diego wasn’t going to be easy, not because this isn’t home anymore, but because there is another spot of the world that also feels like home, and my heart feels constantly broken as it tries to be in both places at once.

Even in the joy of perfectly good days, there is a longing for my classroom on the other side of the planet and the little people who were mine for a season. Sometimes I get into my car to drive home from school or lace up my shoes for a run and find myself sobbing into my hands, a song from the radio or my iPod unexpectedly pulling me back in time to the golden sunshine of my classroom, the faces of my students, and the dreams we built together.

IMG_20160603_232103But I never feel like that on the baseball field. In fact, sometimes that’s where I go when the longing gets too heavy. I’ll just sit by the edge of the field and stare at the empty grass. Birds peck their way through the outfield. Shadows stretch across the diamond like the twisted branches of an enchanted tree, and I fall under its spell.

Finding a place where we feel like we belong is one of the great, often unspoken quests of the human heart.

I thought my place was Prague. But for now it seems to be next to a baseball field and I can only think how lucky I am to be here, in a life such as this.

To girls and people who know them

Dear Tender Hearts,

This started out as an open letter to high school girls, but I’m going to expand the list a little because there are so many more people in this world who are tender-hearted, wide-eyed hopefuls and they can learn from the girls of the world too.

I was inspired to write this because I’ve been hanging out with a lot of high school girls lately. February saw me as an alumna judge at a high school debate tournament, a counselor at a youth winter camp and a freelance sports journalist at the championship game of a girls’ basketball league. So yeah, I’ve been around a lot of giggling, crying, squealing, hugging, bouncing, laughing, dancing girls this month.

Perhaps college (and then “adult life” and then “college: round two”) has embittered me to the once golden years of my girlhood. Recently I have found myself looking back on those years (8-11 grade, mostly) with a shudder and a grimace.

I was loud. I was nerdy. I was self-righteous and so self-absorbed (Oooookay, I honestly thought this list wasn’t going to sound so much like present-day me. Awkward). I roll my eyes at the stupid ideas I had about boys and cringe thinking about the things I did to impress them. The whole world was so unstable, it could have shattered with a glance (not that I had the social skills to perceive which glances were earth-shattering and which weren’t). I prided myself on knowing everyone, and in the end, I don’t think I really knew anyone.

My real friends were all saints for putting up with me for so long. So were my parents.

When I finally have my fifteen children, I hope they’re all boys, I tell myself sometimes. Girls are a mess.

But this month changed my mind. (Not about the fifteen kids – that’s still basically a life goal).

Courage, sacrifice, determination, commitment, toughness, heart, talent, guts. That’s what little girls are made of.
-Bethany Hamilton

It was oddly and almost uncomfortably nostalgic to walk onto the campus in Redlands(ish) where the speech and debate tournament was being held. A bunch of kids were walking around in their suits like they were the coolest thing since sliced bread, pants too long and jackets too baggy. The girls all made concerted efforts to look classy and fashionable, a difficult task with braces and bangs and acne. I know. I have been there.

All the girls had very loud, generally not fully-informed opinions which drifted on shrill voices across campus. At that age, we want so badly to be seen because sometimes it doesn’t feel like we exist unless someone else says so. We want to our ideas to be heard, our voices to be recognized. We build these huge worlds up in our heads, ourselves half at the helm and half pitching seasick over the side. It’s deliriously exciting and painful and, frankly, I’m glad I’ve mostly outgrown the nervous energy.

If mini lady-bosses are bundles of energy, mini athletes are explosions. I love sports reporting, especially at the high school level when all the parents and siblings come out to watch. It’s exciting and fun, and I get paid to do it which is like, the very best of situations.

The hardest part is the post-game interviews. Don’t get me wrong, the girls are all sweethearts. But all that pent-up “girl energy” usually just comes out in squeals and shrieks. Not much coherence or quotable material. After nearly every game, as I leave the court, pool or field, I hear one of my interviewees loudly telling someone about the experience of being talked to by a real reporter with all the color and frustration and excitement a girl can have.

I worked at a high school camp over Valentine’s Day weekend. On the last day, I heard a girl crying in a bathroom stall. Her friend was standing by the sinks just kind of chillin’ so I asked her what was wrong.

“Dean is leaving today,” said the friend.

Ah yes.

I knew this feeling. Dean was the super cute college boy who also happened to be just the nicest kid ever. If I was a fifteen-year-old girl again, I’d be crying over Dean too. I’ve certainly shed enough tears over boys in my day.

“That’s hard,” I said, putting on my most mature, counselor-y voice. “I know how tough it is to get attached to people. But you’ll learn as you get older that it’s so much nicer to get to be friends with all these boys. You’ll see them enough and you’ll get a lot more out of a friendship than out of an attachment.”

I went on for several more minutes, spewing my hard-earned life advice. The friend just continued chillin’ by the sink, listening patiently.

Finally, the bathroom door opened and out came a red-eyed girl. My jaw dropped.

It was Dean’s sister.

I looked at the friend with one of those earth-shattering glances and she smiled a little.

“You knew she was his sister and you just let me go on like that?” I asked her, trying to hold onto my mature, counselor-y demeanor which was quickly slipping away.

“It was good stuff,” she said with a simpering smile.

Watching Dean’s heart-wrecked sister wipe her eyes tragically on a scratchy paper towel, I was suddenly flooded with another kind of nostalgia. For a brief moment, I was back in my tenth grade bedroom, sobbing into my hands and listening to the CD-mix my brother left behind when he packed for his return trip to college after Christmas break. (This was back when we still used CDs, kids. We’ve come a long way in a decade).

Suddenly, in that ridiculous bathroom, I felt so stupid. In my desperate attempt to grow up and reject the humiliating mistakes of my younger years (which I just seem to be repeating on escalated scales in my twenties), I threw away some very precious parts of who I am.

Yes, I was one of those shrill, opinionated high school girls who would literally have tried to take over the world if Congress hadn’t had age requirements. I’ve tempered that ambition and righteous zeal with a little perspective, life experience, empathy and the ability to listen to constructive criticism. But I wish I stood up for myself as much now as I did then. I wish I pushed to have myself heard a little more often. I wish I could tell all those bossy girls that there is nothing wrong with taking charge of something and doing a good job. This is your world too. Don’t lose your desire to make a difference.

I was also one of those girls could not get a handle the energy level and bring it down to a normal setting. I was fiercely competitive and ferociously excited to win. Honestly, I was really just excited about everything. It’s hard to do that now because, in my experience, excitement often leads to disappointment. It is so much easier to go through life without expectations or hopes. What no one told me was that indifference uses energy too. It will drain you till you’re empty and leave you to sit alone with your predictable, half-enthused life. I wish I could tell all the girls who squeal and giggle and hope and dream, that life is far, far too big and too wonderful to let the risk of disappointment dampen the beauty of possibility.

And I was most definitely one of those love-struck teens. I was head-over-heels with someone new every week. But I also fell in love with people. I loved humans. It didn’t matter who they were or where they came from, I’d find a way to be friends. Granted, it was an imperfect friendship. I have learned a lot about being a friend to someone over the years. But even as I left high school, I could feel myself becoming more wary and judgmental. Out of necessity, I tell myself, I have built up a few small walls. But I wish they’d come back down. I wish I could tell the tender hearts out there that, yes, the world is full of broken people who will hurt you, use you, ignore you, hate you, lie to you or never pay you back for that lunch. And the ones who will hurt you the most will be the ones you least expect. But the safest approach to all these people is the same: love them anyway. Relish the cracks that make us human and love them with the compassion of the Divine.

I am a little less mortified by my own experiences in girlhood now. And I have the girls in my life to thank for it.

Grow up strong. Grow up excited. Grow up tender.

 

Best of luck, and all my prayers,
A girl in progress