BASEBALL HIT ROCK BOTTOM the night I was born—Sept. 22, 1966—when the Yankees hosted the White Sox in front of 413 spectators. A day earlier the Cubs and Reds drew 530 fans to Wrigley Field while a "crowd" of 1,000 watched the Angels and Tigers in Detroit. Baseball was never lonelier, and I too was newly unattached—by a doctor, who began my life as ball games do: with a delivery.
We fell for each other. I put a picture of baseball on my wall, or at least of the Reds' Joe Morgan. For five years in grade school, his is the first face I see every morning, and the last face I see every night. Scenes from a budding romance:
Oct. 9, 1973 Pete Rose hits a 12th-inning home run at Shea to beat the Mets in Game 4 of the NLCS. My mom is from Cincinnati—she and Rose share a hometown and a hairstyle—and I race off the school bus in Minnesota to see Pete rounding the bases on our Zenith, and Mom dancing on the shag carpet in joy.
How do you know if it's meant to be? If you get down on one knee and pull out a ring, chances are you're in love, even if you're kneeling in an on-deck circle, and the ring is a weighted batting donut. But will baseball agree to love me—in sickness and health, for richer and poorer?
Summer of 1974 Dad returns from a business trip with a pack of baseball cards. As in many drug deals, the first hit is on the house. I peel back the wrapper to reveal a horizontal Steve Garvey, who is frequently horizontal in this decade. I will keep the card for 40 years.
Summer of 1978 My coach lays down a bunt in infield practice. Our catcher fires it to first base, where I'm lost in a daydream. The ball shatters my front teeth, setting in motion a lifetime of dental work. That night—stitched, swollen, toothless, hatted—I look like Mr. Met. As with an old married couple, I'm beginning to resemble my soul mate.
April 16, 1985 While running down a ball at Wrigley, Phillies outfielder Jeff Stone loses a shoe. Before he can retrieve it, a Cubs fan near me in the bleachers—in a drunken gesture of goodwill—throws a sneaker onto the field. The bleachers belch up another shoe, and then dozens are raining down on Wrigley, a Biblical plague of mateless footwear. And I think: Who would want to be anywhere else on a Tuesday afternoon?
Sept. 5, 1991 I'm asleep in the Marriott on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, before a White Sox--Royals game, where I've been assigned a story on Bo Jackson. The phone rings: Mom has died. I fly to Minnesota with an overnight bag and stay for six weeks, until the Twins have completed their consoling run through the World Series. But not before Mom is ushered into the hereafter with the 1990 Reds still reigning as champions for all eternity.
Sept. 22, 2002 Wearing a V-neck Twins throwback given to me as a birthday present moments earlier by my girlfriend, I get down on one knee and pull out a ring. It's not a weighted batting donut.
May 20, 2005 Diamondbacks starter Brandon Webb has a no-hitter in the seventh inning in Detroit when my tired wife, holding our screaming five-month-old, says we have to leave Comerica Park now. "Leave?" I say. "You can't be serious." A minute later, on the street and praying for a hit, we hear the crowd roar. A catcher named Pudge has legged out an infield single. It's a sign from the heavens that I'm right to shift my loyalties.
July 10, 2014 A sweltering Thursday at Fenway. The kids want batting-helmet sundaes. The ice cream sends a sharp pain through my left incisor, broken 36 years ago. In the shade beneath the grandstand, we eat in front of an ancient oscillating fan. A woman sprays a spritzer bottle in the breeze, a makeshift misting machine. It could be 1912 or 1954, but we all agree—when the fan has turned its attention to us—that this is truly Fan Appreciation Day.
There are four kids now. After the game they get to run the bases at Fenway, the youngest wearing a hand-me-down glove, sprinting around a hand-me-down park, falling in love with a hand-me-down game.
The start of the season is the renewal of a lifelong romance—and a reminder that baseball has been the backdrop for too many special moments to count.
What sport is woven into the fabric of your life?
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DAMIAN STROHMEYER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED