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The Voice of the Turtle

I am by no stretch of the imagination a religious person, but this particular verse from the Song of Songs (2:11-2:12) has always held special meaning for me:

For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of the birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

It’s the only Bible passage (not featured in Pulp Fiction) that I’ve ever bothered to memorize.

Each spring, those words, recited by the immortal Ernie Harwell, would usher in a new spring. With it, a new beginning welcomed a renewed hope and enthusiasm about what was to come. Growing up in Michigan, the welcoming of spring meant that grey skies would soon turn blue and that the sun would be there to greet us each morning, and we would be able to see it off to bed each night. And, most importantly to some, it meant the arrival of Opening Day.

My earliest, and many of my happiest, childhood memories are of baseball. More specifically, they’re of being on my grandparents’ porch, listening to radio broadcasts of the Detroit Tigers with my grandfather. We’d sit, more or less in silence, as Ernie Harwell relayed what was unfolding on the field before him. He would paint the most vivid images with nothing more than words, speaking in a calming baritone that made you feel like you were listening to an old friend tell you one of his many tales from his time on the road. During the commercial breaks, or when the Tigers were having their asses handed to them (which happened a lot back then), my grandpa would regale me with stories of his youth. He’d talk about his time growing up in Brooklyn, and how he loved the Dodgers – until they left. He’d share “secrets” with me, mostly about how much of a rebellious hellion my mother was when she was my age. He spoke often about the time he spent with his friends in the Navy, though he rarely ever discussed “that damn war.”

I don’t remember a lot of those stories anymore, though I wish I did. I remember that I loved hearing them.

When my grandfather died, it was baseball that helped me heal and it brought me closer to my uncle. In fact, he was the one who took me to my first ever real-life in-person ballgame on August 9th, 1994. I remember everything about that night. I remember the bright lights of Tiger Stadium which made the green grass seem downright otherworldly. I remember the long walk from where my Uncle parked on the other side of Fisher Freeway because he wouldn’t stop complaining about the “extortionist scum” charging him $20 to park in a dirt lot. I remember the smells of fresh grass and hot dogs and popcorn and beer belches. I remember Cecil Fielder murdering a baseball in the 6th inning. I remember becoming car sick on the ride home because I just had to have three plates of ballpark nachos.

It was the happiest day of my young life, and the first time since my grandfather’s passing that I didn’t cry myself to sleep.

Baseball is a lot like life. It’s a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life.

-Ernie Harwell

I’ve always found it hard to explain the importance of baseball to those who aren’t fans. A few of my friends understand, of course, and a few others, bless them, have tried to humor me over the years. But for the most part, if they aren’t already “evangelized” they just wind up looking at me as though I’ve lost my damn mind. Then again I am a Detroit Tigers fan, so, maybe I have.

For me, baseball is much more than a game. It’s family. It’s history. It’s the common thread that connects me to the past. It’s the comforting memories of warm summer nights spent on that porch, listening to baseball, drinking pitchers of my grandmother’s lemonade, and watching the sun dip below the tree line and the sky morph into a watercolor vista of reds, oranges, and yellows. It’s afternoons playing outside with the other kids in my neighborhood, playing pick-up games on a makeshift diamond that had been mowed into the massive field behind our houses. It’s sitting at my grandfather’s grave every Sunday for years after he had died, reading him the box scores from the week’s games or complaining about some boneheaded trade.

Baseball was what taught me the value of having a strong work ethic. It instilled in me the importance of attacking each and every day with everything that you have to give, even on the days when you don’t have much to give. It also taught me the value of failure, and of how we respond to failure. It helped me to understand the value of humility in times of success, and perseverance in times of strife. Through baseball I learned the value of teamwork and camaraderie; of lifting your colleagues up when they’re down, and understanding that even though we may achieve great things on our own, it is but a fraction of what we can do when we allow ourselves to trust in others.

But more than anything else, baseball taught me that no matter how dire things may be, better days are ahead.

Baseball, in this day and age, is arguably more American than America itself. It is the shining example of American idealism and of what America wants America to be: a melting pot of cultures and personalities and philosophies from across the globe, all competing with and against each other to lay their claim to the admittedly pretentious title of “world champion.” It always has its eyes towards the future, while paying reverence to its past. It’s a game where anyone can have their moment in the sun, and everyone gets their crack at it.

It is, as Ernie Harwell said, where “democracy shines its brightest.”

For me, a day at the ballpark isn’t just about the game. Hell, more often than not the game itself is merely the background dressing for an afternoon under a perfect summer sky, enjoying unhealthy food and even unhealthier drink with the company of some of my closest friends. It’s something that I want to share with anyone willing to partake.

In baseball, you can’t kill the clock. You’ve got to give the other man his chance. That’s why this is the greatest game.

-Earl Weaver

Finally, baseball is quite simply the greatest game ever invented. It’s a game that can be played anywhere, from cornfields to abandoned parking lots to billion-dollar stadiums. Its basic rules are simple enough for anyone to grasp, while its intricacies can demand chess-level strategy and understanding. Its design and dimensions are perfect. If you were to move first base by a single foot, or lower the pitcher’s mound by even one inch, you disrupt the delicate balance that makes the whole thing work.

It’s a game that evolves as it is played. Yes, to the uninitiated and the uninterested it may seem “boring,” but the game changes with each inning, each at-bat, and each pitch. From the moment that the batter steps up to the plate, he and the pitcher are engaged in a battle of wits. The batter may know that this pitcher tends to favor throwing a belt-high fastball when they fall behind in the count. The pitcher, likewise, may know that this particular batter likes to shorten their swing when they have two strikes against them, so they’ll “waste” a pitch by throwing in the dirt. The batter may take the bait and swing, or they may practice discipline and keep the bat on their shoulder. The batter, a seasoned veteran of ten or so years, may believe that he has this pitcher figured out and digs their feet in, expecting another fastball. The pitcher, meanwhile, knows that this is what the batter will do, and rather than send them another fastball they’ll throw a big, bending curveball that buckles the batter’s knees and sends them back to the dugout with their head hung low.

This is to say nothing of the subtle defensive shifts that happen throughout the game, repositioning themselves in anticipation of where this batter may hit the ball, should they be lucky enough to make contact. After all, baseball is the most difficult game to play. Just ask Michael Jordan.

This is what makes baseball so pure, and so fair. It doesn’t matter how big or strong or fast you are. If you cannot conquer the mental battles that come with each game, each and every day, you will never cut the mustard.

But the beauty of baseball, as with life, is that if you commit yourself to it… you’ll have your chance.

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