Striving for Perfection

Every Game a Story: Pirates at Cubs - Sept. 27, 2015
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On October 25th, 2014, my wife, Katie, and I discovered that she was pregnant. On February 3rd, we discovered that we were having a boy. On June 25th, Oliver arrived. Every other day on the calendar, since that first one last October, has been spent either preparing, reading, learning, shopping, hospital-going, feeding, changing, soothing, more hospital-going, or loving. This has been our busy and wonderful life for the past year. On one of those days, September 27th, we took our son to his first baseball game.

The Chicago Cubs were swept by the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series last month. Though they came into the matchup on a high after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series, Cubbie Magic dissipated swiftly at the split-fingers of the Mets’ young aces and the bat of a possessed Daniel Murphy. As triumphant as the Windy City underdogs’ rise was, their fall was a demoralizing thud.

I didn't feel the heartbreak of the Cubs’ loss despite living just down the street from Wrigley Field for the last two years, but I recognized it. As a supplanted, similarly long-suffering Baltimore Orioles fan, I had felt the pain of a sweep in last season’s ALCS at the hands of the, as of last week, World Series champion Kansas City Royals. With their first AL East title since 1997 in tow and an ALDS sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the bag, my soulsucking O’s were laid to waste by Kansas City’s potent offense and indomitable Herrera-Davis-Holland bullpen platoon. They were the best Orioles team in twenty years, and they weren’t anywhere near good enough to match the charmed Royals.

As fate would have it, my now feebly-adopted local club, the Cubs, have provided a comfortable resting spot for ex-Orioles in recent times. In January of last year, Baltimore’s then-number one starting pitcher, Jason Hammel, landed in Chicago as a free agent. Then there was the Cubs’ shipping of pitching duo Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to Baltimore in exchange for middle reliever Pedro Strop and a toiling right-hander named Jake Arrieta. Both Hammel and Strop have since become valuable assets to the Cubs, while the other guy has become the best arm in baseball.

During his time in Baltimore, I patiently waited for Jake Arrieta to become something. And unless you count sporting the warming-but-never-boiling Next Big Thing tag, he never did. In 2012, Orioles manager Buck Showalter named Arrieta Opening Day starter, but that was about as good as things ever got. He finished that season with a 6.20 ERA. By the time Arrieta was traded to the Cubs in 2013, he owned a career 20-25 record with a 5.48 ERA. Now with a fuller beard and a straighter hat-brim, that same broken minor-leaguer was taking the mound at Wrigley as a king. It was a mild September night, my first game with my son, and the Pirates were in town.

***

This particular Sunday night game was the Cubs’ last originally scheduled home game of the season (those incessant Royals were visiting the next night for a make-up game from May), and Jake Arrieta was scheduled to make one of his last starts in his Cy Young campaign. Seeing as Arrieta was almost certainly going to be on the mound in the Wild Card one-off, this game also allowed the Pirates to get a pre-crack at the righty. So that’s what they tried to do.

I often wonder when, over the course of a nine-inning professional baseball game, a pitcher starts thinking this could be the day they toss a no-hitter. I know that I first had the thought in the top of the third inning when Arrieta struck out Pedro Alvarez for his fifth strikeout of the night. A first trip through the Pirates line-up saw Arrieta fan six. He was unhittable on the day. (I’d later discover, upon rewatching the ESPN broadcast, that home plate umpire Rob Drake was having quite the howler, making Arrieta even more unpredictable and invincible.) Once five innings passed with only a single Pirates batter hitting the ball out of the infield, I went from thinking to believing that this was the day that I’d finally witness a no-hitter in real life.

***

I can’t express what fatherhood is like to those who have or haven’t experienced it, nor can anyone else for that matter. As cringey as it sounds, I felt reborn when I became a dad. Before Oliver arrived, life was just different. It was as if I was driving with the parking brake on my whole life, and I finally noticed.

My son’s first ballpark visit is relevant if only because of what baseball and going to baseball games has come to represent to me. You could probably cut and paste any old activity into that sentence, give it a familial twist, and it’d work in the same sense, but for me and my father, it was baseball. With my dad, the game was a teaching tool, an escape hatch, and a home base. The two of us have bonded over baseball more than anything else. Whether or not that’s good or healthy or even sane doesn’t really matter, because it’s real, and it’s something that we’ll both die with. This one Sunday night game, alongside my wife and my son, inside of a re-polished but crickety steel stadium on the North Side, was the first time that I felt like a father. Better yet, it was the first time that I felt like my father. This weird game is the only thing on this Earth that could’ve made me feel that way on that night. It felt perfect.

But perfect can also feel seductively dislodging, especially at a baseball game. When the box stats are flawless, like Arrieta’s were in those first six innings, tension spreads throughout the stadium as it does the dugout. It’s easy to notice people nervously tapping their feet or humming an irritating melody. In such taut moments, we tend to point at everyone else’s quirks while perhaps ignoring our own glaring ones. After my wife left our seats to use the bathroom, the fellow behind her insisted on reinterpreting the drum solo from Cream’s “Toad” on the back of her empty chair. He was nervous, and that was his tick. I was nervous and obsessing over his drumming was mine.

Once Ginger Baker wrapped up his gig behind me, I decided to go and meet Katie and Oliver in the concourse. We decided to just walk around; we wanted to ease Oliver to sleep in his carrier, and I wanted to note what people were doing and saying in this unique moment. Both of these things were easy: Oliver dozed off immediately, and the Wrigley faithful were buzzing. I noticed another rail-thin, bearded micro-brewster repeatedly leaving his seat to take a phone call after every couple of outs. I wondered who he was calling and what the conversation was about. If it was about the perfect game, he was the only one brave enough to mention it. For seven throbbing innings, albeit for slightly different reasons, Wrigley Field was the center of the universe for all of us.

***

Although I’m reveling in fatherhood, I know jackshit about being a dad. Sure, I read The Happiest Baby on the Block, and I know all of the conventional standards I’m meant to meet — most of which I feel like I’ve already failed— but a lot of the time, I feel like I’m holding Zu-Zu’s petals with pocketless pants on. Still, I’m just four months in and can already tell that being a father is going to define my life. Every plight that slides my son’s way will now also slide mine. This is bigger than mere reflection; there is simply no separation between us. I finally love someone more wholly than I love myself. It’s frightening, of course, but also fulfilling to the point of overflow. I’d like to believe it’s how my father felt when I entered his world.

Empathy isn’t as much about replicating another person’s feelings as it is recognizing and honoring the mere existence of those feelings. More than anything else, I want to help my son become a compassionate person. With my fingers crossed and my wife leading me, I’m confident I can perform that duty. It’s a scary-as-holy-hell proposition — growing a boy into a man. It’s an important thing, and I will be decidedly imperfect at it.

A Gregory Polanco single broke up Arrieta’s perfect game with no outs in the top of the seventh. Later in the inning, he pegged Andrew McCutchen in the shoulder. Although those were the only two baserunners he’d allow, a fifteen minute bottom half of the seventh brought an end to Arrieta’s night. Functionally perfect, if not statistically.

On the walk home from the game, Oliver slept some more while my wife and I discussed dinner plans for when my mother was visiting from Virginia the following week. Through the dim, noiseless Lakeview blocks, we zig-zagged our way home, passing intermittently scattered Chicagoans floating their way back to their own flats. The Cubs had just beat the Pirates 4-0, and an unbounded journey to the World Series lay ahead. A fleeting 33-year Super Blood Moon hovered above us in jealousy. We glided, not with our neighbors, but like them, Oliver sleeping as we walked.


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