Chewing on a leather string knotted at the edge of my mitt--the same one I chewed for the next 7 years until it finally broke--I strained to keep my composure: eying each boy as he climbed up on the mound, watching him lift his leg, draw back his arm, and toss the ball to the heroes behind the plate.
And as I watched those boys, some eying their target, others throwing haphazardly, my nine year old heart yearned for that same chance, reviewing my motion--cementing the dance in my mind--awaiting a turn to pull in, and fly out, to wedge my feet against the bullpen rubber and send a ball straight through the wind.
Moments before I got the chance though, a voice echoed over the loudspeaker.
"Players, time to head back to the clubhouse. Little Leaguers, time to head to the stands."
I was the only one left.
My chin fell like an anvil, hard against my chest, but I picked up my feet nonetheless, letting the could-have-beens play out in my mind, following a slew of giddy boys out toward the gate.
Somewhere along the way, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
Then I heard a voice.
"One day, you'll get to pitch," he said. "Keep at it."
Startled, I looked up to see a player signing a ball, before tucking it into my mitt and trotting away. I ran my fingers across the laces. Then I dashed up the old Cooper's Stadium steps and into my father's arms.
"How'd you do?" he asked and I told him every last detail. We reviewed the arrangement, the number of pitchers and catchers, the lessons they tried to impart.
"...I didn't get to throw," I explained, somehow still smiling, "but look."
Forking over the baseball, I asked who it was, and my father studied the messy pen lines. "Joel Skinner," he told me, "Joel Skinner signed your ball."
And that was it.
Right then, baseball--more specifically, Joel Skinner--became my world, and I followed him from the Clippers to the Yankees. When he was traded to the Indians, I begged my parents to drive me to Municipal Stadium. And I still remember each of those trips, those teams, those years he both played and then coached for Cleveland, years where I remained loyal to that ball club even after he left, years where game by game, player by player, my whole family turned from Reds fans into Tribe fans, cheering for the likes of Carlos Baerga, Albert Bell, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, Asdrubel Cabrera...I could go on and on.
And as it all happened, I never stopped listening to his advice: I kept at it.
And I got to pitch.
Throwing at least a hundred balls every night until the last year I played, I earned a spot on the varsity softball team as a freshman, found my way to Nationals two years in a row, and earned the chance to take the mound for Dartmouth College.
Though my sport was softball, my passion was fueled by that Little League Day at Cooper Stadium. And as it grew, baseball threaded its way through my childhood, teaching me patience, loyalty, and persistence. Showing me the importance of strategy, staying on your toes, fighting through setback, being gracious through victory, doing your proverbial homework, understanding anything could happen at any time because none of us are entitled, none of us are guaranteed a darn thing.
Baseball gave me hours with my parents, studying leans and shifts, decoding signals, predicting pitches. It unveiled stories about my mother who bound her chest and dressed like a boy in 1959 just so she could play, and my father who burned the basepaths and tracked fly balls as if he had magnets for hands.
It taught me the importance of idealism, the necessity of realism and the value of hope.
It got me through heartbreak, suffering and fear.
When I was 20 years old and tore my ACL during a spring break tournament in Florida, my devastation was momentarily healed by Sandy Alomar shooing away a group of boys so I could crutch over and get an autograph.
In 2001, when I lived a few blocks from the World Trade Center, it was baseball that helped me breathe. It was sitting along the left field line, watching Derek Jeter jog out to short, and Tino Martinez stand on the bag at first and Jorge Posada cozying up behind the plate that made me feel like there was actually hope we would rise again.
And now, today, it is baseball that's helping me cope with the hateful rhetoric spewed through the television and the injustice unfolding up and down American streets. It's baseball that reminds me we're better than this. When I listen to students talk about the way the presidential race has affected them, when I see their cheeks shake and their spirits falter over being devalued as a girl, or a Muslim, or a Latino, and I want to pull up a megaphone and shout, "This isn't okay," it is baseball that reminds me we will overcome.
It is baseball that shows me what we could be: men like Joel Skinner who helped a little girl dream. Or Sandy Alomar who made space for the broken, wobbling down metal bleachers. Or the Yankees who took the field after 9/11, lifting us up, showing us America's past-time wouldn't be silenced by hate. Or the Chicago Cubs, who've been hoping for next year since 1908. Or my beloved Cleveland Indians: the team I've adored since 1989, the team and the city who have refused to give up, refused to give in, refused to let go of a 68 year old dream.
It's baseball right now as I'm standing in line again waiting for my hopes to unfold that energizes me, lifts me, reminds me not to give up.
It's these two baseball teams littered with fans who have--over many years, many changes, many heartbreaks and hope-breaks--refused to hang up their jerseys, to take off their hats, to allow frustration, anger and hopelessness win out, that remind me silver linings eventually turn up.
It's the promise that regardless of how ugly it's been, "next year" is finally here for one of them, and maybe, just maybe, "next year" might arrive for the rest of us too.