Summers are easily categorized as generically good or bad. When you’re, say, eight or nine, the three holy months of freedom might be measured by whether you convinced Susie from around the block to be your girlfriend. Or maybe by whether your Little League team made the playoffs.
If Susie kissed you, it was a good summer. If you made the all-star game while pitching, leading off and playing shortstop, it was a great summer, especially if Susie met you behind the concession stand to give you and your cherry-slurpee-stained lips a smooch. Double that if it was the first year you got your name on the back of your jersey.
Of course, if you’re stuck at the end of the bench behind the coach’s son who gets showered with praise for hitting a home run every once in awhile, even though he strikes out every other time, and Susie decides that your best friend Brian is funnier and cuter than you are, or your brand-new bike gets stolen, well, it’s a bad summer.
You get a little older and eventually you stop playing organized ball, maybe because you’re still three feet tall while everyone else in the world has gone through puberty. And while that sad fact of adolescent hormonal inequality is disastrous for the prospect of convincing your coach you won’t break your arms swinging at the inhuman fastball coming from some beast on the mound who you faintly recognize as Joe from down the street (but who now has a mustache and looks like your dad), it’s even worse for the prospect of trying to get noticed by any girl, let alone Susie. She says she likes guys who are more mature now. Sure.
The point is: Eventually, summers evolve from being defined by ice-cream trucks and frontyard baseball and first loves. Instead, there are jobs and college tours and lame high-school parties where Susie still ignores you. Although, in her defense, you’re still three feet tall, so she probably just doesn’t see you behind the keg.
This is all, ahem, hypothetical.
If you grow to live and die with your favorite team, baseball becomes the barometer of those balmy months. Anything else in the world can happen and does happen, but when you look back, those summers are measured generally good or bad by how your team does. It’s an overriding sense that can be accentuated one way or the other by real life: But the base is the silly commitment, made all the more silly by the fact that you have absolutely zero control over what happens to your team.
Anyone who truly loves baseball knows this to be true. The ones who don’t will never understand how you can pin so much on something so seemingly trivial or how seasons morph into strong collective memories or why you remember that the Indians went 80-82 and the summer of 2004 sucked, even though that’s when you met your wife. Admittedly, it’s a screwed-up hierarchy of Important Things, but name a summer and the first thing I think about is how the Indians did.
One of my favorite baseball anecdotes comes from Roger Angell’s essay “Takes: Digging Up Willie” (1991) from his collection Game Time: A Baseball Companion. Angell’s in Scottsdale and catches up with Willie Mays, then 60 and working with the Giants in some capacity for the spring. He asks Willie what his favorite home run of all time was. Mays’ answer isn’t one of his milestone home runs, not a walk-off game winner. It was one against Claude Raymond. Mays claims Raymond threw him 13 straight fastballs that he fouled off before hitting a homer to tie the game. He says he can’t remember much more than that. Angell should talk to Raymond himself.
Angell double-checked with a researcher, and they found that on September 14, 1965, Mays did indeed hit a game-tying home run off Raymond, but he had only fouled off four pitches. So Angell tracked down Raymond and asked him if he remembers that battle. Writes Angell: “‘I threw Mays 13 straight fastballs,’ he said, even before I could ask. ‘And he fouled off thirteen.’”
Willie was right after all.
Angell included the anecdote in a New Yorker story about home runs and later received a letter from a fan who had tracked down the tape of the game in question. “It was four fouls, not 13,” the fan wrote. “Nothing impeaches the memory of an old ballplayer more than another old ballplayer who remembers the moment the same way.”
I was thinking about that story the other day. Maybe I’ve forgotten a ton of golden moments over the summers. Maybe the Indians and baseball have repressed some truly happy occurrences in my life, irreparably altering my psyche and memories forever. What if those good summers were really bad, or vice versa?
Then I come to my senses. The summer of 2004 really did suck, and the summer of 2007 was truly one of the best of my life. And you know what? Tribe fans will back me up on that.
Nothing salves the wounds of a bad summer like the grass-clippings-fresh start of a new one. Here’s hoping we look back and remember a good one.
(Photo courtesy of Dan Mendlik and the Cleveland Indians)