Pitchers and Catchers

The Major League Baseball pre-season kicked off on Valentine’s Day as pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. It’s an annual ritual as important to baseball fans in February as the appearance of Punxsutawney Phil’s fickle shadow. My brother and I participated in this ritual many years ago. He was a seasoned college student and the time; I was an upstart high schooler. Both of us took off in his white, ’88 GMC Jimmy to hit the dusty stadiums of Florida’s spring league. We saw the Dodgers. The Reds. The Cardinals. And our adopted hometown favorite, the Braves.

We come from a long line of baseball fans, so it has always seemed natural for me to root for the Braves. To be sure, my love of the game did not spring from any inherent baseball skills I possess. I was more likely to throw a tantrum as a toddler than throw a ball. But that didn’t stop me from collecting the cards and scouring the box scores as a kid. My siblings and I would spend endless summer days in small town Georgia at my grandparents house, and baseball became part of the daily rhythm there. My grandfather followed Skip Caray’s crackled radio broadcasts under the covered carport at his house. Even when TBS began televising almost all Braves games, my granddad continued to prefer listening to games on the radio. We knew where to find him after the first pitch, and he welcomed us to come and go at our leisure. I’m sure my rookie season as a fan must have found me with bare feet swinging from a wicker rocking chair, listening along side him. As I got older, I soon learned to ask about Bob Honer’s injury-plagued wrists; to complain about “Bedrock” Bedrosian’s pitching brilliance after leaving the Braves; and to wonder if our man, Dale Murphy, would ever make it to the World Series.

Even though I never excelled at playing catch, I learned to toss statistics with my family, and then my friends, in baseball’s unique language. So when my brother and I showed up for spring training that year, it was like we were coming home. We watched meaningless games in near-empty stadiums surrounded by snowbirds. We bought baseballs and autograph pens, collecting signatures from minor leaguers hoping to make a name for themselves. We treasured those players not for what they had done but for what they might do. For for the fact that they were playing a game we loved to watch. Reflecting back now, I think we sought signatures as a tacit acknowledgment that regardless of their skill or the ultimate outcome of their careers, we simply appreciated their participation in a pastime we enjoyed.

This past week, I had the honor of stepping onto a similar field of dreams.

To hear my parents tell it, I’ve always loved to read. Apparently I would sit on the carpeted steps of our home and read after school. Sometimes I read for homework. Other times I read for pleasure. Often times I read at the exclusion of more pressing tasks. My mom later told me that my chores would be neglected and my dogs might not be fed if I were in a particularly compelling part of a book. That decadent reading habit soon grew like kudzu, pleasing in small quantities but sometime disruptive. Years later, I would chase my habit with doses of writing. Small stories at first, penned in the pages of a journal in the pre-internet era. As habits tend to do, the writing habit grew, initially complementing, but at times constricting, my reading.

Like my enjoyment of baseball for baseball’s sake, this week’s book signing was special because it highlighted a collective love of reading for those who attended. The crowd was likely not driven by the quality of the un-read book nor the prowess of the first-time author. Of course, some of the excitement was an outgrowth of personal support for me. But some of it was also driven by an opportunity to celebrate one more contribution to the pastime of reading. Like the autograph from those ball players in Florida, the signature in the book was an outward sign of an inward appreciation of writing itself. What an honor to be able to celebrate books and reading in this way. What a privilege to catch ideas from the world around me and pitch them back as a story for others to enjoy.  For those who enjoy reading as I do, thank you for allowing me to take over your lives for a few short hours of entertainment.  It’s the start of a new season for me, and I’m thrilled to have so many well-wishers in the stands.