Heartbreak (and baseball)

[I know that a lot of my friends don’t give a hoot about baseball and probably won’t read this. They don’t know what they’re missing.]

Former commissioner of baseball Bart Giamatti once wrote a famously eloquent essay on how the game “will break your heart,” how it is, in fact, “designed to break your heart.”

I used to think that was true, and it is to some extent. I’ve written about how baseball intertwines with passion and love and romance (http://yankees.lhblogs.com/2013/01/18/pinch-hitting-sarah-rosenberg), and I stand by that, purely from a sports-fan perspective. The ups and downs of a season, the ebb and flow of passion, the despairs and frustrations and joys of watching your team win and lose and win and lose, year after year after year.

But it’s come as a relief to me recently to realize that outside of sports fandom, in real life, it is people who will break my heart, but baseball never will. And it’s kind of wonderful to have something in your life that you enjoy so much, and to know that it will never hurt you like that, will never cut you that deep, will never make you bleed.

For me, baseball has become a repository of positive memories, a well so bottomless that it cannot be poisoned, even when pain comes into the picture.

I have been known to develop “trauma triggers” regarding things that remind me of past heartbreak or betrayal, triggers that, when unexpected, can flat-out ruin my day, render me sick or nauseous or, if I’m lucky, just plain miserable. Thankfully, they are few and far between. Several times, though, I was afraid that baseball could become one of those trauma triggers.

Because when you’re passionate about something, you share it with people that you’re passionate about, so you guys build memories around it. But then if those people break your heart, does everything they touched turn sour?

I never wanted baseball to be collateral damage in my relationships. That would suck.

But baseball is something I’ll share with anyone and everyone, especially people I like. I won’t shelter it and hide it just because I’m afraid of it getting tainted somehow or turning against me if things go bad. As a result, both of my serious relationships are steeped in baseball-related memories and if I tell you some of them, you might wonder how I can still enjoy baseball and escape those associations.

*

My first boyfriend and I started out as friends. Then close friends. Then really close friends. Then so-close-teetering-on-the-edge-of-dating-but-not-actually-dating. And then I invited him to a Yankee game.

I hardly ever go to games. In fact, I generally go once a year, when my uncle comes in from California in the summer and takes the whole family out to one. But that year, the midsummer game we were supposed to attend had been rained out and rescheduled for late September.

The thing about late September is that every night is a school night, and when you’re in elementary school and high school, the phrase “school night” actually means something. None of my little brothers or sisters were available. So it was just me, the college sophomore of the family, with a bunch of extra tickets that I would have to use or lose. I invited some friends, but nobody could make it.

So I invited him, even though he couldn’t care less about baseball. And I invited his dad. And then his older brother asked if he could come along, and I said sure why not. And we were adamant that it was not a date, because who the heck brings their family on a date? Not idiots like us, no sir.

Lemme tell you, getting into that game was an adventure. Possibly involving illegal activity. (Hear that, NSA?) Because apparently Yankee Stadium has this very strict no-laptop policy? And I was coming straight from school? With a laptop in my knapsack and nowhere to put it? So we got turned away from the gate twice, by two different guards. If I possessed normal embarrassment genes, I’d have been mortified. Instead I found a brown paper bag in my backpack that I pulled over the top of the laptop, so when we tried our luck with a third guard, he flicked through my stuff and assumed I just had something in a manila envelope that was not a laptop. And we were in!

Here’s where things get sappy. My first-boyfriend-who-was-not-yet-my-boyfriend-at-this-point had always insisted that he did not have a crush on me, that he just liked me a lot and thought I was a great person and friend and yeah he was interested in dating me but maybe not just yet? That was bull, fyi. And the Yankee game was where even the most oblivious person would have known there was something going on.

We sat next to each other, and he couldn’t stop staring at me. And when I’d look at him, he’d blush and giggle and I’d tease him and if his brother noticed, he’d tease him too. But part of the amazingness of being in a stadium is that it’s wide open and well-lit and breathable, but absolutely nobody is paying attention to you. Ironically, some of the best privacy you can get is in a stadium of 40,000 people. So we had a little bubble all to ourselves, and I was talking baseball at my non-fan-non-boyfriend and he was staring at me with those pretty blue eyes and that blushy smile and confiding in me that he really wanted to kiss me.

“You are so cool,” he said when I went off on some tangent about Lou Gehrig that I can’t remember for the life of me. “How did I get someone so cool?”

We retroactively declared it our first date.

Oh, and the Yankees won and clinched the division and Posada homered and Robertson got a double play and also the Red Sox lost and everything was perfect and beautiful.

*

My second boyfriend did not share the first one’s indifference toward baseball itself. On the contrary, he was a baseball fan. A baseball nerd. A baseball geek, actually. A stat-head who could talk about the game on my level and totally understood what it meant to me. Was even more invested in stats that I was.

But . . . he was an Orioles fan. Hated the Yankees with fire and brimstone and pitchforks. Thought Derek Jeter is a pompous jerk and said Jeffrey Maier ruined his childhood. I, well, I laughed at his pain. Quite a lot.

He crushed on me so hard so quickly, it threw me totally off-balance. When he read a piece I wrote where I quoted Cal Ripken Jr, he was so far gone, I probably could have asked him to marry me and he would have said yes. Wasted opportunity, that.

“Younger me used to look at couples where one was a Yankee fan and one was an Orioles fan, and think, ‘Those aren’t real fans,’” he told me. “And by younger me, I mean, like, a year ago me. But now I met you, and . . . I get it.”

(If that doesn’t make you go, “awwwwwww,” you have no soul.)

I changed my profile picture temporarily to me in a Yankee shirt just to annoy him, and he changed his to himself in his Orioles jersey. We sniped and bickered and teased, but really our insanity over the game was one more thing we respected about each other.

He bought me a Chanukah present about a month before the holiday, because he was that sure we’d still be together. We weren’t — we’d split amicably but painfully due to irreconcilable differences, and were keeping our distance when it finally rolled around. He gave the gift to a mutual friend to give to me.

It was a personalized Yankee jersey with my name on it. Not “SM” or “Rosenberg;” no, he went all out when he ordered it: “Sarah Meira.” With a #1.

It was the perfect encapsulation of our relationship: ridiculous, over-the-top, silly, way too intense — and unspeakably awesome.

“I can’t believe you gave the Yankees that much of your money,” I said when we did have a chance to talk again.

He shrugged. “What can I say? I really liked you. Still like you. Just . . . not like that. Well, I mean, yeah, like that, just not, I mean—I’ll just stop right there.”

He still posts sometimes about all the ways he hates the Yankees. And sometimes it makes me smile, because I know that the more he hates the Yankees, the more he must have loved me.

*

Both of these boys broke my heart. Well, we broke each other’s hearts. It was mostly nobody’s fault and everybody got hurt. Bottom line, there was heartbreak involved, and both times I was afraid that everything even slightly connected to it would be ruined forever. And as for something as deeply connected as baseball, I thought for sure it would bring me nothing but pain.

The summer after my first breakup, my uncle came in from LA with tickets as usual, and I was afraid to go to the game, afraid of ripping open old wounds. But I went because there’s seriously no way I’d turn down a Yankee game.

And it was fine and I loved it. No triggers. Intellectually, I knew the association existed, but emotionally I didn’t connect the two. And for the game we went to this year, I wore my personalized jersey and had a blast despite any misgivings I had about it.

You know why?

Because the truth is, however many baseball memories I have with my exes, that number is dwarfed by the number of baseball memories I have without them. And the infinite associations I’ve made and have yet to make.

Like the first time I ever went to a game, and all I knew was Derek Jeter’s name and I expected him to hit home runs every single time he came up. So I was confused when he didn’t swing properly and got out, until my uncle explained to me what a “sacrifice bunt” is — giving up your turn for the sake of the team. And that was Jeter to me from then on.

I remember how disappointed I was that Darryl Strawberry did not actually look anything like a strawberry.

I remember being in the stadium when Mariano Rivera got his 500th save.

Going to birthday party hosted by a middle school classmate whose dad was a sports agent, sitting in a private area of the mezzanine level of a Mets-Padres game, getting Vance Wilson’s autograph, and being one of the only kids there who actually knew that Vance Wilson was the Mets’ backup catcher.

Watching Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez pitch on TV against the Mets in the 2000 Subway Series and finally realizing that the game is about pitching, not about hitting.

Touring Fenway Park on class trips in 7th and 9th grades and seeing my teachers’ stunned faces when I knew more than the tour guides.

Getting invited by a friend to a Met game and rooting against the Mets, and then on the way home, taking the bus the wrong way and winding up on the other side of the Whitestone Bridge, waiting alone at an empty bus stop in the rain at midnight, babbling anxiously to my mother on my cell phone, which at that time was so new it was to be used only in emergencies.

The miracle comebacks in games 5 and 6 of the 2001 World Series, and the devastating loss in Game 7. A curse upon your house, Luis Gonzalez.

Listening to all the games on the radio alone in my room, learning the names of all the players, all the announcers, all the umpires.

Watching Ken Burns’ 9-part documentary on baseball (now 10 parts) on VHS.

Reading voraciously about the famous players in the history of the game and what made each of them different and special.

Learning to identify a good number of Hall of Fame players by their stats alone: Ty Cobb and his .366 lifetime batting average, Roberto Clemente and his exactly 3000 hits, Ted Williams and his .402 career on-base percentage, Mickey Mantle and his 536 home runs, Cy Young and his 511 wins.

Starting up conversations with strangers on buses and subways about the pitching matchups in the papers they’re reading.

Getting through the endless off-season by listening to the tape recordings of the 1998 World Series that my brother had made.

Writing a furious letter that I’d never mail to Jason Giambi after he was outed in the steroid scandal.

Coming into school during the 2003 playoffs and being greeted by my supposedly baseball-indifferent best friend squealing, “Andy was awesome last night!!”

Watching a game on TV with one of my Yeshivish female cousins and explaining what was going on, and her being utterly befuddled by my shtuss.

Going to Yankees Fantasy Camp for a week and coming late to the ballpark on Friday, at just the right time to accidentally run into Tino Martinez and get his autograph.

Sabbath meals at Fantasy Camp, where we were joined by some of the players in their fanciest dress shirts, and Jesse Barfield told us about the first time he ever stayed over with a white family as a minor leaguer, and what it taught him about cultural diversity and acceptance.

A cousin calling me all the way from Israel when the Yankees were losing so badly in Game 7 of the ALCS to Boston in 2004. “I know this stuff matters a lot to you, so I just wanted to offer my condolences and see if you were okay.” If I hadn’t already been crying, that would have done it.

*

The list could go on and on. The more I think about it, the more memories come up. Baseball has been part of my life for so long that it intersects with so many aspects, woven airtight. You can pull out one thread and the tapestry won’t unravel. It’s a constant, reliable as oxygen.

Whatever pain I have connected to this game doesn’t even make a dent in the outrageous amount of joy it’s brought me. In fact, any negativity has a tendency to get transmuted into positivity, like that really irritating friend who genuinely sees the bright side of everything. I can write about my exes and the team’s worst losses and my disappointments in the players and grin from ear to ear while doing it. The memories don’t hurt, because everything is baseball and nothing hurts.

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