Austin Gisriel | The Virginia Baseball Pilgrimage

They say that you can’t go home again, but that’s not true. In baseball, getting back to home is the whole object of the game, and maybe that’s the draw for so many people: that symbolic trip home. Baseball has taken Al and me home. In fact, baseball took us right past the midlife crisis stage and straight back to our second childhood. We just completed our Third Annual Virginia Baseball Pilgrimage, and as with all pilgrims, we seek a place that will restore what we have lost and that will rejuvenate our spirits. Therefore, we find an empty diamond, and we play.

Al and I have been doing stuff together since we met as high school sophomores, which means that we have been doing stuff together for 37 years. We played ball on the same high school and Legion teams, we were in each other’s weddings in the summer of 1979, and though we live 90 miles apart, we visit regularly and have shared in the trials and tribulations of parenthood, home ownership, and the deaths of our fathers. We also turned 50 within 2 months of each other in 2007.

The impetus for the first pilgrimage was Al’s new glove.

“Guess what I bought?” he asked during a phone conversation that January. “A new Nokona fielder’s mitt,” continued Al, answering his own question. “I almost called you to talk me out of it,” he added.

“Why would I do that?” I asked.

“You only turn 50 once,” said Al, “so I got a new glove.”

By June, I had a new glove, too. We decided that we needed to do more than play catch in the back yard, so we conceived a trip to Virginia during which we would see the (then) Salem Avalanche play on Saturday night and then see the New Market Rebels play on Sunday night. We had attended games in Rebel Park before. Here, there are no skyboxes, only the sky into which the moon rises above Massanutten Mountain. At this place on 22 nights throughout June and July, the game is everything.

Rebel Park is also not locked up. There are no gates to lock.

At about noon on Saturday, we arrived at Rebel Park. Somewhere and somehow, playing here in this park, rather than merely attending a couple of games, had become the focal point of the pilgrimage.

“Where did you find those?” Al asked as I laced up my spikes that I had not worn since high school. They were now a size too small, but my feet didn’t protest too much, and I didn’t care.

“I’ve just had ’em all this time,” I answered. They dug into the cinder warning track with a crunch that is as distinctive as the hum of the summer locusts. We began with a long game of catch before hitting fly balls to one another. We stood at the edge of the infield and tried to hit balls that would carry to the ad-filled fence, recreating the childhood game of “up against the wall.”

“I feel like Fred Flintstone,” I yelled breathlessly to Al after chasing a fly ball that landed on the warning track.

“How so?”

“Because my legs are going around and around, but I’m not getting anywhere!”

We laughed. If I was Fred, Al was Barney. We also discovered that our cartoon legs could only get us about 6 inches off the ground if we ever did make it back to the fence. Grounders were also a great adventure for me when they would hop through the three different levels of my trifocals.

The errors we made now elicited laughter instead of cursing. Missing a play was everything when we were 18, but at 50, simply playing was everything. The sound of the bat, the smell of our new gloves, the sight of the ball sailing into a summer sky, the feel of drifting under it, even if it was now an agonizingly slow drift . . .

After 90 minutes, we packed up our gear and headed for Salem, dirty, sweaty, and happy. The next evening, we were back at Rebel Park watching the college boys go about the serious work of impressing scouts and girlfriends and trying to win a game. We were back home that night.

Baseball is a game with a steady beat that is an intricate rhythm: the aural rhythm of cleats on gravel and the thunk of a ball into a new glove; the visual rhythm of a white ball arcing against a blue sky, and the fading of the sun and the gradual increase in the grandstand lights. It is the rhythm of a rookie becoming a veteran; of Ted Williams becoming Carl Yastzremski becoming Jim Rice; of Luis Aparicio becoming Mark Belanger becoming Cal Ripken. It is the rhythm of 50-year-old men dreaming the dreams of 9-year-olds, not because they’ll come true, but because the dreaming is everything.

It is easy now to see why playing baseball and not merely attending a couple of baseball games has become the focal point of our Pilgrimage. Stepping onto the diamond is like wading in the Fountain of Youth. No, we can’t run as fast or jump as high or throw as far as we once did, but we can have just as much fun. It’s still a thrill to pull on the uniform and, indeed, for our Second Annual Pilgrimage, we actually bought pants, sleeves, and stirrup socks.

When Al and I are playing baseball, we are every bit of 52, but we are also 9, glorying in our home-team Orioles having just swept the Dodgers; and we are 16, making our high school baseball team; and we are 18, at the limit of our competitive ability playing for Parkville American Legion. When I drift back to the wall, tracking a fly ball that Al has hit, I am all those ages, and I see that ball through all those eyes. Perhaps my 52-year-old legs are slow getting back to the wall because I am carrying with me all the boys and all the men that I have ever been.

Most people don’t understand eternity because they think it stretches out before them when, in reality, eternity stretches out behind them. We have all been children, full of faith and innocence. We are all still 9 and 18 and all the ages that we have ever been, and the sooner we welcome unto ourselves the children within us, the happier we will be.

In baseball, it’s possible, even with 2 outs in the 9th inning and no matter how far behind your team has fallen, it’s really actually possible that your team will pull together the most improbable of rallies and win the game. No 9-year-old—even if he is 52—should be deprived of witnessing even the chance that such a miracle will occur.

Al and I now practice for our upcoming Pilgrimages whenever he visits. We put on our uniforms, go to the local school, and play catch and throw batting practice to each other and take some infield. We’re a team of two, playing whenever we can, imagining those BP fly balls as World Series home runs, and having fun. I don’t know if there is a third childhood, but if so, we’re ready: Al and I have already vowed to buy new gloves when we turn 75.

 

– Column by Austin Gisriel


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