When you lose the last game of the season, you get a sick feeling in your gut, like you’ve just eaten spoiled meat. That feeling of failure is one that is so base and disgusting. There is very little that can console you when you lose that last game.
There’s even less when you lose the last game of your career. There’s even less when you know there’s not a next year. There’s even less when you know you’re done playing forever.
I played baseball for my whole life. The game is beautiful. Everything about it is very systematic and symmetrical, but at the same time, it’s chaotic and volatile. A microcosm of life, maybe.
But with baseball came something else. Or rather, someone else. My Grandfather. Poppy.
Given who my Poppy is, I really had no choice about playing baseball. It’s such an enormous part of his life that, by default, it was going to be a part of mine. He bleeds the game. He played it for most of his life and he loves it with all his heart. That kind of passion is infectious, and it infected me.
“Home runs don’t matter, Andrew” his gruff voice would say as he bought me another round at the batting cage. “Singles and doubles. You need hits, not home runs. If you can hit, then you’ll play.”
I gripped the bat in my hands, frustrated at my inability to cleanly strike the ball. But it wasn’t my skills that made me mad. It was the thought that, somehow, I needed to make my Poppy happy. I needed to do this for him. I needed to make him proud.
And so, I spent thousands of hours honing my hitting skills. My hands are still calloused from the blisters that were constantly forming, bursting, and reforming.
But no matter where I was, I always remembered, “If you can hit, then you’ll play.”
No piece of advice served me better as a baseball player. I was small, and I had a below average arm.
But I could hit. And so I played.
Groups of us walked off the field with wet cheeks and swollen eyes. We just lost the last game we would ever play. For most of us, there was no next year. We were done. Forever.
I was sick. And I was crying hard. Sobbing, almost. There wasn’t a way for me to wrap my brain around everything. It was like a family member just died. I couldn’t understand that baseball was gone forever.
My teammates found their families. I stood back and watched everyone hang their heads and absorb the attempts of consolation.
I stood for a minute and wiped my eyes. My family was waiting for me, too.
I saw my Poppy, and I saw that he understood. He didn’t tell me “It’s alright” or “You gave it your all.” He just saw me, and he understood.
I had settled down, tears coming to a stop. I hugged everyone in my family. But I saved my Poppy for last.
Whenever I greeted him or said goodbye, we always shook hands. We were always very formal, and we didn’t show each other much emotion. It was always a firm handshake and an “I’ll call you after the next game.”
But this time was different. I walked up to him, and I hugged him as hard as I could.
I hugged him, started to cry, and said, “Did I make you proud?”
He hugged me back and said, “Yes, you did. More than you’ll ever know.”
I was two for three that game. A double and a triple. I hit.
I lost a part of me that day. It was one of the saddest times I can remember. But it was also one of the happiest times I can remember. My Poppy was always there to guide me. He was always there to help me. He was always there to set me straight.
I realized that, regardless of whether I hit or not, my Poppy was always there to be proud of me.