In case you haven’t noticed, I love baseball. I talk about it on the podcast, on Twitter and in as many conversations as I can manage in my entire life. It even sneaks into my content on the site whenever I can manage it. Baseball is a big part of my life, and while I’ve had my ups and downs with it, it’s been a lifelong relationship. In this series, I’ll be looking at my relationship with the sport through my relationships with other media it intersects with. Pop culture, like my life, is full of baseball, and I’ll be talking about why that means so much to me.
Part 1: “Maybe Next Year”
I can’t remember how long I’ve loved baseball. It’s the first sport I ever remember learning how to play; one year, my Easter basket was a kid-sized glove with chocolate eggs in it and I spent years gleefully tossing a ball around with my dad and my friends. My first sports memory isn’t, in fact, hockey-related, despite my upbringing that can only be described as “fairly Canadian.” No, my first sports memories are of Game 6 in the 1992 and 1993 World Series, when the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back titles. In 1993, my father was away and my mother let me stay up late as we watched Joe Carter’s walk-off championship home run and cheered in the dark.
I don’t have this relationship with hockey. Don’t get me wrong, I love that sport, too. Edmonton is a hockey city and I have been to my share of hockey games. For a brief period during junior high, I religiously sketched pictures of my favourite goalies and read hockey books. But my deepest relationship with sports is with baseball, even if I only realized it recently.
It is hard to explain my love of the game of baseball, though I’ve certainly been trying the patience of friends and family with my efforts on a consistent basis since March. No matter what happens with it, there is a purity to the game that can never be taken away from me. I can’t come up with any other word than “purity,” despite having read books from ballplayers’ perspectives, having watched a documentary on the game including its troubled history of racism and sexism, the cheating 1919 Chicago White Sox – dubbed the Black Sox forevermore – the unfair treatment of Pete Rose and the ongoing struggle with performance enhancing drugs.
I’ve only recently been able to articulate how much of an impact the steroid fiscos during my lifetime have caused. For a few years when I was a kid, I had one of my family’s old TVs in my bedroom, and the Summer of 1998 stands out in my mind. Every night or morning, right before I went to sleep or after I woke up, I watched the sports highlights, which featured not just the standard strikeouts, catches and home runs, but the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. That summer, I lived for two things: road hockey and the home run race. I followed the escalating counts with relish. I fell in love with the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field, loves which have persisted to this day. Until this year, 1998 was perhaps the baseball peak of my life.
However, in the decade and a half since, that era of the game – and that season itself – have been embroiled in controversy. Sosa and McGwire both tested positive for banned substances and McGwire admitted not only to using them, but doing it in the 1998 season!
The men I admired let me down. Not only that, but they cheated me. I gave them my love and adoration as a child, and in return they were supposed to be honest champions. They were supposed to show me what was possible if you worked hard and dedicated your life to something. They let me down and it shook my love of a game that I’ve treasured since I was seven years old sitting in the dark with my mum. I am still angry, to this day.
For all the other reasons I fell away from the game for a while – it was too “slow,” it was too “boring,” it wasn’t hockey – this is what it came down to, I’ve realized. The realization that steroids weren’t just a caricature on an episode of Dinosaurs, that they were insidious things that flawed men used to thrill fans and then disappoint them, haunted a decade of my life and it is only recently that I have come back from my time in the desert in full. Even when I resented the game, I still watched the playoffs. It was something I couldn’t entirely stay away from, as hurt as I felt.
My return to the game and inability to shut up about it are due to my maturing, or at least as much as someone who makes penis jokes about Batman online every week can claim to be. I understand the mechanics and strategy of the game on a more adult level, but I also have an adult’s view of the sport. I understand that these men, like all men, could disappoint me at any given time, that the history of the sport is as fraught as that of the country which created it. I can love baseball with all my heart even if Ty Cobb was a son of a bitch, and I can love it if Mark McGwire was, too.
Ultimately, this is a defense mechanism as much as it is maturity, meant to nestle and protect something I’ve spent a long time rebuilding and realizing: my childlike enthusiasm for the game. When the Oakland Athletics got home runs in three consecutive at bats in extra innings versus the hated New York Yankees on Saturday, I literally stood up and kicked the air a few times as I exulted. When I play the game, there isn’t a thing I don’t love about it; I love the smell of the leather, the glow of the infield in the sun and the line where it meets the outfield grass, the sound of a ball hitting a glove and the way you can feel the ball depress against an ash bat all the way down to your hands when you make a really good hit. It has taken me this long, but I’m finally ready to say again that I love the game wholeheartedly, from playing the game to absorbing the media and mythos around it.
Among this media, I’m not sure anything describes my love of baseball – and my childhood relationship with it – better than Peter Parker: Spider-Man #33, a story called “Maybe Next Year” by Paul Jenkins, Mark Buckingham and Wayne Faucher. It was a gift from Brandon this year, and it is maybe perfect in how it captures the game. I’ve loved Spider-Man for as long as I’ve loved baseball, and this is the perfect combination of the two: a comic where Peter reflects on all the times Uncle Ben took him to New York Mets games when he was a kid.
A short aside – how perfect is it that Peter Parker, the superhero who can never quite catch a break, loves the Mets, the New York team who own a similar reputation? They both even started in the same year! In the issue, he explains it simply: “I guess I could always identify with the Mets, you know? A bunch of lovable losers who hit the occasional home run by accident. Just like me.” Perfect. This is not only a big reason why I grew up with a soft spot for the Mets (earlier this week I ordered my first ever MLB jersey, a Mets home jersey emblazoned with R.A. Dickey’s name and number 43), but why I haven’t quite trusted the Marvel Universe Ultimate Spider-Man comic series since the fourth issue was set at a Yankees game with Peter as an enthusiastic fan. I mean, some things just aren’t forgivable, and near the top of that list is Yankee sympathy.
Anyway, the issue is set around, as a truly impressive number of Spider-Man stories are, around Uncle Ben’s death. A recent issue of Avenging Spider-Man (#11) revisited the topic through Peter’s guilt and relationship with Aunt May, and found a vein of pathos that’s not explored that frequently, but for my money, Peter Parker: Spider-Man #33 is the best Uncle Ben story – if not one of the best Spider-Man single issues of the last few decades. Best of all, it does so through the filter of baseball, and how Peter’s life and relationship with his Uncle have been shaped by it.
Uncle Ben was the person who introduced Peter to baseball, who taught him to appreciate and love it, even to take life lessons from it. Every year, they would attend a Mets game and almost every year, they would lose. It didn’t matter to him that much: “All of three seconds… that’s how long it took me to fall under baseball’s spell.” Like with Peter and Uncle Ben, my grandpa is one of the big reasons I love baseball as much as I do. When the Edmonton Trappers, my city’s then-active AAA team, opened their shiny new ballpark and signed a new affiliate deal with the Oakland Athletics, my grandpa bought a row of season tickets along the first base line, close enough to see the action but high enough to be above it without having to do much walking. These weren’t my first baseball games – my dad took me to a game in the old stadium the season before it was demolished – they feel like it in my mind. I still remember the ritual of hopping into the family vehicle, waiting in line to park, walking to the field and climbing the stairs. I remember the snacks we were allowed to have – peanuts, pretzels, pop and hot chocolate if it was cold – and the inventive sales pitches the guy selling beer would shout out (“Beer! Get your moderately-priced, lukewarm beer here!”). These were the summers when I really learned to love the sport, and when it stopped being something I grew up around and started being something I grew up with.
More than that, it was something I did with my family. My grandpa was the reason I went to games, and I spent a lot of hot summer afternoons and nights sitting in between him and my dad. Those were the years my dad taught me to keep a box score as we sat on the patio under the dim lights, listening to games on the radio. I spent so many evenings together with those men and the sport that I can’t even begin to remember or count them all. That was just my childhood.
My grandpa died four years ago, right before baseball season started. His passing was written up by a local newspaper, because even though he’d never talk about it, he was a genuine war hero, who flew intelligence and counter-intelligence missions, meaning he piloted a bomber emptied out of almost all its munitions over Axis territory at night without any kind of escort. The article talks about a notable mission when he saved the lives of his crew, and about his life afterward, but it leaves out the most important part to me: he shared something he loved with me and taught me to love it myself. I miss my grandpa a lot, but never more than from April to September, on those summer nights when I see the bright white lights out above the stands, calling me home. Like Peter says, “Years may come and go. Time may heal all wounds. But not this one.”
Reading this comic brings all that back to me. The memories and the smells, and the regret that I never got to say goodbye to my grandpa, or even realize until he was gone how much of my life every year, from April to September and October if we’re lucky, is something I owe to him and to my father.
That’s what makes “Maybe Next Year” so moving: the ritual of Peter’s love and memory. Every year, he’d go to a Mets game with Uncle Ben. Even though Ben is gone now, Peter still goes every year to remember his uncle and what he taught him. It’s a truly fantastic issue, blending heavy emotion with the ever-increasing spectacle of the Mets losses, including a game where the owner is ejected from the game for charging the field all the way from his luxury box and how Peter is knocked unconscious by a fly ball and passes out again when he stares at the existential horror that is an off-brand Mr. Met. It tells an old story in a new way, celebrates a legacy and even provides a new lesson along the way. Uncle Ben may be known for his famous words, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but in “Maybe Next Year” he gives Peter some other words about baseball and life:
“Look, Petey… it’s okay – really, it is. You can’t get upset over one game. If the players got upset after every loss, they’d have to retire and work on horse farms or something. You can’t always win – that’s the way life works. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you lose anyway. Listen, killer: life is a very long season. Some you win, some you lose… and it’s good to lose once in a while. It makes winning all the sweeter. Maybe next year, okay?”
I remember being that kid like Peter, who got so dejected and angry about losing that he’d cry after his team lost a soccer or hockey game (made all the worse by the season when we didn’t win a single game). I remember being frustrated with the universe that things, even as trivial as a Trappers game, didn’t go the way I wanted. My parents helped me realize a message like Uncle Ben’s in time, and so did coming back to baseball. A current Major League Baseball season is 162 games, not even counting the playoffs. It’s so unlikely that a team will go undefeated, it’s practically impossible. A team could have the best season on record (the 1906 Chicago Cubs won 116 games and lost 36, with a winning percentage of .763) and they’d still lose about as much as a football team would if they lost every game for two straight seasons. If you are going to play baseball, you are going to lose. That’s just a fact.
That’s impacted my whole belief in the sport. Ever since those games with my grandpa, the Oakland Athletics have been my favourite team, and that same decade taught me to love the Cubs and nurture a soft spot for the Mets. I don’t cheer for what you would call “winning teams” – the Cubbies haven’t won a championship since 1908! – but it doesn’t matter. I just love the sport, and I love the struggle to be better. That’s why I love characters like Spider-Man so much, and why I distrust any fandom like that of the Yankees, any one that’s so bored by the number of World Series rings it has that it starts to believe winning titles is its natural state. That’s not baseball to me. To me, baseball is the teams that fight for every shot they get and probably still los it anyway. Baseball is being surprised by the first A’s winning season in six years or by a losing team producing its first pitcher to win 20 games in a season in over twenty, a pitcher who everybody wrote off and fought his way back from a personal life teetering on collapse to one that’s rewarding and fulfilling whether or not he wins. It’s like Peter says when he’s remembering his uncle: “To me, it’s never been about winning. Baseball’s far bigger than just a good result. Mind you, being a Mets fan, I would say that.”
Baseball, like life, is often a struggle. But it’s also sitting with my grandpa in the stands or with my dad in the back yard. You know, I don’t even remember if the Trappers won any of those seasons when I watched them? I could look it up, but I don’t. It doesn’t even matter. What I remember is how my family taught me to love the sport and learn from it, to become a more patient man than I might have been otherwise. It’s about remembering my Grandpa every year, and continuing the legacy of the love he shared.
Baseball resists pessimism and brooding. In Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir and Jackie Lewis’ all-ages graphic novel Play Ball earlier this year, a father tells his daughter that same lesson that Uncle Ben told Peter, that my grandpa and my dad told me:
“Daddy, why did the man in the movie say there was no crying in baseball?”
“Because, Sweetie, there’s no need to cry. If you miss the pitch, there will be another. If they get you out, you’ll get another at-bat. If you lose the game, there’s always tomorrow. And if your season is over, there’s always next year. You can’t cry, you have to be ready for the next big moment.”
Baseball keeps teaching this lesson to kids in each generation because it’s inherently optimistic. Loss is so built into the sport that nobody even talks about never losing; everybody just knows that they’re going to lose a lot and that what’s important is what they do the next day. There’s always another pitch, another inning, another game and another season. Life just keeps going, and what’s important is that you keep playing and stopping every once in a while to ask, “Maybe next year, okay?”