We walked out of the Tropicana Field rotunda and into the late-afternoon St. Petersburg sunshine. Behind us, muffled by concrete walls and thick glass, a celebratory fog horn sounded.
“That’s a Rays home run,” I said to my dad and Jay. “I’ll bet it was Longoria. And we missed it.”
A quick check on the iPhone proved it was Evan Longoria. But because we left Monday in the top of the seventh, we missed his Opening Day home run. No matter. It wasn’t about what we missed.
It was about being there together.
Jay said nothing. He was tired and glad we were on our way home. That was OK.
My older son enjoyed most of our visit to the Trop Monday for the game between the Rays and the Orioles. But baseball hasn’t grabbed him like it did me and dad.
That’s partially on me, I think. After so many years around the game as a young player and, later, as a sportswriter covering the majors, my relationship with baseball is … complicated.
I love the game. It’s in my soul. I’m a Hall of Fame voter and a reformed seamhead. I don’t live and breathe it like I did when it was my job, but I have the privilege now of luxuriating in the sport. I watched thousands of games in person over the years, all over the world. Now, most of my baseball viewing takes place on my couch at home.
Still, as I did when I covered the game, my mind follows, unbidden, pitch by pitch. It happened again Monday.
Why did he start this batter with a breaking ball? Is his great stuff today the norm, or is Opening Day adrenaline in play with that 97 mph heat? What was the math behind this drastic defensive infield shift? He’s got him 1-2 … does he try to bury a slider here or come back with a four-seamer on the hands? Is he confident enough in his new changeup to use it critical situations?
That’s how I used to watch a game, looking for turning points, mentally filing away questions to ask in the clubhouse either immediately afterward or during a casual, pre-game conversation later in the week. That’s a lot of thinking. It’s exhausting, frankly. I find I enjoy the game more at this point, now that I can change the channel whenever I like.
I will always love baseball. I will always watch it. I will always read about it. I will write about it, on occasion. That’s me, though. My sons? Their interests reflect their generation, and that means baseball is not front and center – a Nielsen annual report on sports media in 2013 showed that half of baseball’s audience is 55 and older, while only 7 percent is age 2-17.
So, it’s a cultural shift. But it was also a personal decision in our household. As my sons reached playing age, I didn’t want to be the dad who forced his athletic interests on his kids. I wanted to give them space to gravitate toward their own passions, like my parents did for me. Jay enjoys soccer, so his first baseball season was postponed until now.
He’s improving every day and has loved every minute of being part of a baseball team. I’d be lying if I said that isn’t a thrill. His younger brother will soon begin to learn the fundamentals of the game, too, and seems to be excited about it.
Still, given the choice between playing an hour of Minecraft and going out to the ball park to work on throwing, catching, hitting and running, there is no doubt the boys would choose their iPods.
The iPod equivalent when I was a kid was the Atari 2600. Rather than spend hours battling Donkey Kong or Space Invaders, my friends and I were more inclined to ride our bikes to the field and hit balls until the sun went down.
It just happened that my interest in baseball intersected with my dad’s. It’s a shared bond, still, and it was special to me to attend an Opening Day game with my dad and my older son.
We sat in section 309, row P, slightly up the third base line. The players were tiny. The seats were small, but not cramped. The temperature inside the dome was pleasant, as always.
The Rays were trailing, 4-0, when we left. They lost 6-2, but that’s OK. It’s a new season, a new team. They’ll figure it out.
Around the fifth inning, Jay looked up at me and said, “When are we going home?” He did look tired. His cheeks were a little flushed and his eyes drooped. He gripped his bag of green cotton candy loosely.
I asked him to hold out for a couple more innings. Besides, didn’t he want to see Evan Longoria hit one more time? The All-Star third baseman – the only Rays player my 9-year-old third grader knows by name – had struck out twice to that point. Jay perked up for both Longoria plate appearances, once tugging on my sleeve and saying, “Dad, it’s Evan Longoria.”
So, yes, he enjoyed the moments. He’ll remember sitting there high up in section 309 in his Rays jersey and TB cap, eating green cotton candy and standing, hat in hand, for the National Anthem while a giant American flag shaped like the lower 48 states was unfurled in center field.
He would’ve remembered Longo’s homer, if we had seen it, but c’est la vie. It wasn’t about what we missed Monday. It was about being together for the occasion, me and my dad and my son, enjoying the freedom to sit and watch and to leave when we wanted.
It was about baseball, a game that still cements our generational bond, a game that still matters.