Editor’s Note: Sandy Tolan (@sandy_tolan) is the author of three books, including “Me and Hank,” about his boyhood hero Hank Aaron, and “The Lemon Tree,” now out in a children’s edition. He is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
I saw a slice of normal on a diamond of dirt and grass in the Arizona desert.
It was on a Friday in the middle of March, one full year after everything stopped and time began to move like molasses. As monstrous loss and incalculable heartbreak piled up in mind-numbing numbers across America, our year at home turned inward. Family and friends were reduced to squares on a screen. Like many others baking bread, Zoom schooling, trying new recipes, learning an instrument, plowing through thousand-page novels, calming the fears of children – even accepting, for now, their screen addictions, to say nothing of our own – we adapted.
Inevitably the tedium of our groundhog days made us a little crazy, gnawing at our minds as the walls closed in. Would we ever hug our friends again? Would we ever leave the house without looking like bandits? Would I ever get another haircut? Would we ever again gather in public without the paralyzing fear of a respirator, and a tearful goodbye on Zoom?
And so on that warm Friday in March, on a field in northwest Phoenix, the normalcy of a baseball game became incredible. Once again, young men played under the sun, renewing a ritual of spring half as old as our nation.
I met my sister Mary at the ballpark. How strange that just writing such an ordinary sentence can feel so exceptional. As a kid, I suffered from asthma attacks, and each time, when ordinary breathing finally returned, I experienced an extraordinary gift: the breath of life. That’s how it felt as the two of us, now vaccinated, walked toward our box seats, a dozen rows up along the first base line.
Make no mistake: with capacity limited to about 20% (heed this, Texas Rangers), most seats tied up in yellow rope and everyone wearing a mask, it didn’t exactly feel normal; not yet. But that hardly mattered as we watched the lead-off batter step into the batter’s box, adjust his helmet, tap his bat on home plate and await the game’s first pitch. Mary’s adopted home team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, vs my beloved, long-suffering Milwaukee Brewers.
I hadn’t seen Mary in person for more than a year. Our mom died in October – not directly of Covid, but as Mary pointed out in an op-ed, her decline was accelerated by the pandemic. And so, like countless other families, we had to mourn via Zoom. To meet in Wisconsin and scatter her ashes on the Lake Michigan shore, we six brothers and sisters will have to wait until it’s safe and we’re all vaccinated – perhaps late summer.
Now, as Mary and I sat together enjoying the game in the sun, stories and memories came flooding back. Some painful; some funny; a few about Mom, Dad and baseball. For years, Mom, a retired English professor, happily watched the Brewers on TV with us kids when we visited her retirement home in Milwaukee. But she wasn’t really much of a fan. Once, when my boyhood hero, the great Hank Aaron, hit a grand slam, she exclaimed, “That’s wonderful, dear. Was anyone on base?”
Most years my pilgrimage to spring training is about the eternal hopefulness of a new season, when all teams are tied for first place: A gifted top draft choice is making his debut, an out of shape slugger struggles to make the team or a one-time phenom tries to stage a comeback. But the pandemic added new layers, at least for this year.
Today, gazing out onto the deep green of a new season, I think back to past years, and the moments lost to us now, when we and our parents were younger. Me at 12 years old, pounding my well-oiled baseball glove after a game, waiting at the dugout for autographs. Mom in the upper grandstands, watching for a foul ball; or, in later years, on a summer night I recall, walking painstakingly down the steps as I held her by the arm, realizing this would probably be her last game at the stadium.
Or my dad, a lawyer, who died a month after my 18th birthday, but not before gleefully presenting me with a notarized document to be redeemed for 18 tickets to the upcoming season, in 1974. The birthday certificate was written like a legal brief, on parchment-like paper, and on it Dad had pointed out that I could choose “Eighteen (18) (xviii) tickets to one (1) (I) game, or one (1) (i) ticket to eighteen (18) (xviii) games, or nine (9) (ix) tickets …” Alas, he’d never live to see the Brewers be anything but awful.
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At the seventh-inning stretch, Mary and I sang the Beer Barrel Polka (“Roll out the barrel, and we’ll have a barrel of fun …”) Mary rose to dance along, pulling me up with her. I couldn’t quite cut loose; to me it still seemed strange and tentative. It felt like we were sensing which baby steps we should and shouldn’t take as we gingerly ventured into a soon-to-be post-pandemic world. Should we keep our masks on? We did. Should we start eating at restaurants, indoors? We didn’t. Should we talk to the woman who asked why Mary had a Diamondbacks shirt and a Green Bay Packers hat? We did, but kept it short and tried to keep a safe distance. Should we allow the lady two rows behind us to use one of our phones – touching it most likely without sanitized hands – to snap our picture at the ballpark, rather than squeeze into a selfie? Yes, thank you, we told her.
The Brewers staged a big comeback and won the game by six runs. Of course, it was just an exhibition game, so beyond our friendly rivalry, the outcome didn’t matter. But standing there together, as the light crowd began filing out, and the shadows lengthened on the grass, just our presence at an Arizona baseball diamond was all the promise we needed.