I was back in America for about three days before baseball welcomed me home. It was early in Friday’s Red Sox -Mariners game. I was seated midway up the first base line, top of the lower level, enjoying the rare ambiance of a crowded Safeco Field, wondering the first name of the Seattle pitcher (last name: Beaven), when a hard-hit groundball en route to first baseman Justin Smoak decided it would rather be a line drive, and struck him in the face. Smoak took a few steps back, shocked I think, and fell.
It was that moment – the ball leaping up suddenly, Smoak stumbling and falling as if he’d been shot, the sloppy aftermath of the play that nearly saw Carl Crawford thrown out rounding third – that brought baseball back to life for me. It also brought to mind another scene:
I was at a Dodger game in late 2002 and Kaz Ishii was on the mound. Ishii was a rookie that year and one of my favorites. He paused midway through his windup, threw a video game curve, and generally behaved like a renegade pop star. At some point, with the Astros hitting, I got up to use the restroom. Inside, I heard the crowd gasp loudly, and then through speakers I heard Vin Scully describe Brian Hunter hitting a line drive off Ishii’s head and the ball caroming all the way to the backstop. I ran back to my seat. The crowd was silent. Ishii was out cold in the middle of the infield. Scully’s matter-of-fact-description was still ringing in my ears.
I sat in my seat at Safeco and I thought about Kaz Ishii, and then I thought about the way that in baseball like in anything else, one thing reminds you of another. And that without the first thing, the exposure to baseball itself, it’s hard to be reminded of those other things. It’s hard to be fully engaged. And before I could lapse fully into Proustian reflection, I got distracted by some statistic up on the scoreboard.
The Smoak play was awful random and fast and electrifying. It stunned my senses. And I thank it for making me realize how far from baseball I had drifted. The truth is I’ve grown accustomed to a certain idisyncratic level of baseball fandom. For the last two-plus years I’ve thought about baseball every day. I’ve written about it almost as much. To leave mid-season, even just for a couple of months, was to change my life in a more significant way than I had anticipated. It was to be removed from the source of so much of what I did.
I still feel slightly removed. Not in the sense that I didn’t know who the hell Blake Beavan was or that David Ortiz was having such a good year, but in the sense that I haven’t fully caught up mentally to the season, or even to sports in general. The sports brain isn’t clicking as fast as it should be yet. My interest in the standings and the story-lines isn’t where it should be. But that will come.