Baseball, Crossword Puzzles, and an AM/FM Radio

My grandma (far right) at Wrigley Field (circa 1940s)
My grandma (far right) at Wrigley Field (circa 1940s)

My grandparents raised their family in a tiny, brick bungalow on the west side of Milwaukee. The size of the house was inversely proportionate to the size of their family, something that by today’s standards seems to not only defy the laws of comfort, but of logic as well. Yet, somehow, they made it work.

Their only daughter slept in the den-turned-bedroom on the first floor adjacent to my grandparents’ bedroom. Their five sons – my dad and his brothers – slept in the single loft bedroom upstairs. There was one bathroom in the house – one bathroom for a family of eight. The living room was only big enough for a small television, a couple chairs, and a loveseat, but it didn’t matter much since the kitchen was where everyone spent their time. At least, that’s where I spent most of my time.

My grandma, too, spent most of her time in the kitchen, baking apple dumplings or doing a crossword puzzle at the kitchen table, a cigarette always burning nearby. The kitchen – like everything else about their house – was small, with barely enough room for a table. Yet the room was always abuzz, the screen door slamming as my grandpa came in from the backyard, my grandma asking “what’s an six-letter word for ‘make beloved,’?” and, between the months of April and September, the sounds of baseball streaming out of an AM/FM radio.

Because counter space was at a premium, the radio hovered over a laminate countertop mounted under the cupboard above. Though the reception was fuzzy, Bob Uecker’s voice announcing the Brewers games always seemed crystal clear, as was my grandma’s commentary on the game. Rumor has it my grandpa played in the minor league for a short time, but it was my grandma who was impassioned with the sport of baseball. And though the Brewers were her team of choice, as any true aficionado of the game, she fond of any respectable ball club.

Baseball, for me, meant summer, my grandma, and the radio. When she and my grandpa came to visit – which was quite often – the radio was always on; the television stayed dark. Baseball was meant to be listened to, in a sort of meditative trance, not watched on television. I espoused her baseball-on-the-radio habit quite easily, and for a couple of summers in my tween years, I went to bed each night with a tiny radio propped next to my head, listening to the Brewers broadcast with the sound turned down low so my sister (whom I shared a room with) wouldn’t complain.

Baseball as a sport has changed significantly in the past few years. Games aren’t only broadcast on television; they are displayed in high definition with a quality so clear that you can see the stitching on the ball. Umpires huddle over replay cameras to review questionable calls. Stadiums now offer epicurean menus featuring ceviche, crab cakes, and fish tacos alongside the traditional hot dogs, peanuts, and Cracker Jacks.

Baseball has changed for me, too, over the years. A resident of the Chicago area for the past 13 years and married to arguably one of the biggest Cubs fans of all time (though aren’t they all the biggest fans?), I now root for the Cubs instead of the Brewers. I spend most Saturday mornings watching my son swing the bat at his own ball games. And I sometimes wonder if my house hasn’t been turned into a Topps factory, with baseball cards found in the bathroom, the kitchen fruit bowl, and the backseat of the car.

But one thing about baseball hasn’t changed for me: baseball is still all about the radio.

Last October my husband found himself in possession of an extra ticket to the NLDS game at Wrigley Field. We hemmed and hawed for awhile, but ultimately we decided to let Jackson play hooky for the afternoon and go to the game. After picking him up from school and driving an hour into the city, I dropped him off with my husband and watched the two of them – father and son – walk down the street toward Wrigley Field, knowing that regardless of the outcome of the game neither of them would ever forget this day.

And then I drove home back home so I could listen to the game on the radio.

While Jackson and Matt watched the Cubs play a thriller of a game and won the division series, while they cheered and high-fived, while they celebrated and sang “Go Cubs Go,” I listened to Pat Hughes and Ron Coomer call the game on my little black AM/FM radio in the kitchen, with tears in my eyes. And even long after I had switched off the radio and turned on a movie for my younger son, the tears kept coming because I knew that someday – maybe not until many years from now – my son will think back on that night with wonder and awe. I knew that, over time, the experience will wedge its way into the patchwork quilt that is the essence of his childhood until it becomes something bigger and more lasting than a single three-hour long baseball game. I knew that, in going to that game with his dad, the two of them hadn’t just witnessed, but created, the magic that is ultimately essence of sports.

The real beauty and grace of sports isn’t just the big plays – the long home runs or the spectacular leaping catches – and, Lord knows, it isn’t in the winning or the losing. The real beauty and grace of sports – and life, I suppose – unfolds in the quiet moments and lulls, in the seemingly ordinary moments that, over time, become etched into the psyche and the heart. The real beauty and grace is found in the waiting, in the long walk to the ballpark before the game, between innings when a little boy snuggles up to his dad, in a shared a plate of nachos while talking about ERAs, pitch counts, and the various goings-on in the life of a third grader. The real beauty and grace unfurls in the constant din of a ballgame heard on a shoddy AM radio while poring over crossword puzzles (“A six-letter word for ‘make beloved’? How about ‘endear?’ Does that fit?”). Much of the grace and beauty of sports, I believe, is found in the in-between. And with baseball’s slower pace and repetition, there is plenty of opportunity for the in-between.

The real beauty of childhood is manifest when memories become so deep and recurring that somehow, over time, they are softened and transformed from a specific recollection into a indecipherable feeling, an attitude or aura that is fundamentally central to the core of our being without any obvious realization that it has become such a foundational pillar. Like waking up from a dream that you couldn’t explain if you tried, yet somehow you know, without a doubt, that the dream was magical, significant, and, in a way, sacred.

“You might not be able to really appreciate this until many years from now,” I told Jackson as I tucked him into bed that night after the game.

“I already do appreciate it,” he said, eager to assure me that he was grateful. But there was no doubt, in my mind, that he was thankful.

“It’s okay,” I said. “Sometimes you can’t really know the significance of an experience until many years later.”

Sometimes you don’t know the meaning of a memory until it has softened into an emotion, until it is has taken up permanent residence not just in your mind, but in your soul.

Sometimes you can’t really know the significance of an experience until several years later when the smell of peanuts or the sound of a cracked bat conjures memories of snuggling with your dad at a baseball game along with an unnameable but definitive sensation of feeling special, wanted, and beloved.

Sometimes you don’t really appreciate something – or someone – until decades later, when, instead of sitting in the stadium at the big game, you choose to listen to the game over crackly AM radio waves because it feels like childhood and simplicity. Because it feels like home.

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