Suddenly, baseball was a priority

It was a glorious tropical winter afternoon. The Florida sunshine was luminous, and there was just enough of a sea breeze to keep the air lovely and cool.

As if this were not enough, there on the lush green of the field were the New York Yankees, warming up for a game against their arch-rival Boston Red Sox, while we settled into our seats right behind home plate, clutching huge cups of icy, fresh lemonade.

"Oh," sighed my mother, "could it possibly get any better than this?"

It was about to. We just didn't know it yet.

It was our first day as spectators at a major-league baseball spring-training exhibition game, and to tell the truth, I was still kind of surprised to find myself there. As a seriously committed nonathlete, once upon a time I never would have envisioned myself using a precious week of vacation to attend a string of sporting events.

Yet I should have known better. After all, I am the daughter of a woman for whom any month of the year that does not include a baseball game is vaguely disappointing.

You probably wouldn't imagine this when you first meet my mom. She's a retired elementary-school teacher, and everything about her manner tells you that she makes wonderfully soothing chicken soup and loves to cuddle babies. What is less obvious, however, is that she discovered very young – sitting in the bleachers, game after game with her father – that there is no sound quite so lovely as that of a ball cracking against a bat on its way to a home run.

But I did know this. And in fact, attending regular-season Yankees games together had long been one of our most cherished mother-daughter activities. It was a friend, however, who tipped me off to spring training. "It's baseball like they used to play it," he told me. "Small stadiums, intimate settings. You've got to take your mom."

I actually thought it was a great idea, particularly as the Yankees train in Florida – always an appealing destination in mid-March. But as with so many other good ideas, several seasons passed and it never happened. "Next year," I thought each time I realized another spring had come and gone.

Then came Sept. 11. Coincidentally, we had tickets for a Yankees game on the evening of Sept. 10, and we ended up waiting patiently with a large crowd in the warm rain for a game against Boston that never happened.

The next day – and in all the weeks and months that followed – I began reading about the victims of that day. As their lives unfolded in print, I learned that several had been with us in Yankee Stadium that last peaceful evening, a fact that seemed almost as heartbreaking as anything else I read.

But what struck me hard one day, while scanning series of tributes to victims, were the things listed as their principal joys in life – their families, friends, special trips they had taken – and, not infrequently, baseball.

It takes so little, I thought, to be happy, and yet sometimes we forget to make these simple things a priority. I called my mother that night. "This is the year," I said. "We're going to spring training."

So that's how we found ourselves in the stadium in Tampa on that glorious afternoon, and for the six afternoons that followed. We came to the park early every morning to watch batting practice, and stayed till the last inning was played out late in the day.

We watched our beloved Yankees from a distance of only several feet – as opposed to the cavernous distances from even the best seats at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. We soaked in baseball through every pore.

But what was perhaps the most moving thing about the week were the people we met. There was the retiree from Iowa who had followed the Yankees for 65 years – "65 glorious years," he told us, his face lit up with a beatific smile.

There were the two businessmen from Memphis who were both awed and delighted to be bested by my mother in a lively discussion as to whether a particular play was a forced out or a fielder's choice.

Then there was the man from rural Virginia, who overcame his dislike of New York City sufficiently to take a shine to us, and to let his features soften as my mother described what it was like to sit in legendary Ebbetts Field in the 1930s.

They were people who, like us, just plain loved the sport and liked being around others who felt the same way. They were Americans, and it was soothing to be with them, all of us relaxed, removed from our everyday lives, and focusing on something as uniquely native to us all as baseball.

I was amazed to find that at these games even I – who never think of myself as particularly patriotic – had tears in my eyes when we stood to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner." "It's just a song," I tried to tell myself. "And it's just a game."

But I knew that neither statement was true. The sight of all of us standing in unity – to sing words we had learned in grade school, about to watch a game many had loved lifelong – reassured me for the first time since Sept. 11 that my country was still whole.

And that thought made it a joy of a very particular kind to simply sit down and let the game begin.

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