BASEBALL is so much about fathers and sons. (And, nowadays, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters.) Parents see the image of "Field of Dreams" this time of year: playing catch through darkening evenings on soggy spring lawns.
Baseball hooks adults into the triumphs and disasters of childhood, the epiphanies of our youth: moments frozen in memory, when life was perfect or perfectly terrible, when we were wondrously good or sadly lacking. And now when we watch our children we relive all that -- and sometimes wish that the exquisite balance of baseball did not always require one player's failure for another's success.
Several years ago my son hit a home run in a Little League playoff game. Coaching third base, I waved him around the bag, caught the look of joy and good fortune in his eyes. As he told me later, the feeling at that instant was, "Can you believe this is me?!" And then he disappeared into a mob of whooping teammates at home plate. But two years later, in his first game back after a knee injury, he went three for four at bat but was unable to get to a last-inning line drive to right field. He felt badly about his team's loss for two days afterward.
For all that professional sport is big business, baseball is a provincial matter. And the small town that is Baltimore owns its heroes (especially those rare few who are home-grown, from Babe Ruth and Al Kaline to the Ripkens and Mike Bielecki) with the fierceness of any parent.
As a psychologist I have marveled many times at how the Orioles' fortunes can be a barometer of an individual's mood. One client, toward the end of the 21-game loss streak of 1988, said to me, "I've lost my job, I can't sleep, I'm constantly depressed, my wife is down on me -- I feel like the Orioles!"
Then there was a colleague who noticed that a patient he was treating for substance abuse was acting "high." My colleague asked his patient if he had suffered a relapse. No, he said. It wasn't drugs or booze but only the fact that it was May of 1989 (early in the "Why Not?" season) and the Orioles were in first place. The team is not just a collection of professional athletes; it is an extension of its fans. We, too, exult in its wins, suffer its losses.
While it may be true, as columnist George Will likes to point out, that baseball is a game of failure -- three successes for every 10 trips to the plate make for a Hall-of-Fame batting average -- the major-league player can allow himself little emotion. He must be able to separate each at-bat, each pitching performance from every other. But fans experience the raw emotion of each moment -- the game-saving double play, the brutal despair of the bases-loaded strikeout. This is the heart of our obsession: The professional must be unflappable, but the true fan, like the anxious parent, knows no equanimity. It may be "only a game," but at each genuinely personal confrontation between pitcher and batter, hitter and fielder, it matters.
Though a game of failure (in which, across the entire professional history of the sport, the number of perfect games pitched is fewer than 20), baseball is also a game of hope. And its measured pace, both in each non-time-limited game and over the course of a 162-game season(10 times the length of the professional football season), there is ample room for hope, even for hope against hope.
What fan, when the Orioles trail by five runs in the eighth or are 9 1/2 games out the first of August, does not anticipate a late-inning rally, a late-season winning streak?
When we are young, the boys of summer are our heroes, the envied role models of youthful fantasy. When we are older they are the potential of childhood, the sons who sometimes will make us proud, sometimes will disappoint us.
Each Opening Day, from Little League to the majors, is a new beginning, a new season of our lives, full of the promise of victories to come. On Opening Day there is a perfect moment, when that future begins unfolding. The umpire shouts, "Play ball!"
Douglas Peddicord is a clinical psychologist, a Little League manager, a life-long Orioles fan and a resident of Columbia.