Most of the time, baseball means nothing. On more occasions than I can count, I’ve wanted to shout that to people who put so much stock in what young kids do on the field. On more occasions than I can count, I’ve needed it shouted to me. In the grand scheme of life, one particular game or season means very little.
Baseball means nothing, but most of the time we learn that the hard way. How little the game matters was readily apparent with the tragic news of the sudden death of Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez. When put in terms of life and death, baseball means nothing. Life, as we all know, means far more than a game, far more than any performance on the field. The loss of Fernandez, in cold terms, is a huge blow to the Marlins on the field. He was their best pitcher, one of the best in the league and perhaps one of the best in his generation. Yet, to the players and coaches close to him, his baseball ability means nothing right now. They’ve lost a friend, a coworker, a brother. Not a one of them spoke of the loss of a generational pitcher. Baseball means nothing when tragedy strikes.
However, there are times when baseball means everything.
The most dramatic moment I’ve ever seen on a baseball field occurred in October 1988. Kirk Gibson of the Los Angeles Dodgers, hobbled by leg injuries and though unable to play in the World Series, limped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 1 against the vaunted Oakland Athletics and their unassailable closer, Dennis Eckersley. Gibson realized every kid’s dream, miraculously launching a 3-2 slider into the right field stands for a game-winning home run. Gingerly making his way around the bases to the cheers of the hometown fans, Gibson provide drama like I’ve never seen.
It was the greatest moment I’ve ever witnessed on the baseball field.
Until last night.
Monday night, September 26, 2016. After canceling the game on Sunday, the Marlins were pressed back into action despite their pain and anguish, to face the playoff-chasing New York Mets.
In the wake of their friend’s death, it was clear that baseball was unimportant to the Marlins. They cried. They choked out words. They paid tribute. But I doubt many of them cared much about whether they won or lost another game all year.
Then Dee Gordon stepped to the plate.
Gordon and Fernandez were close. Very close, it seems. Spending eight months together during a baseball season has a way of bringing players closer to each other than even their blood relatives. That certainly was the case for Gordon and Fernandez.
Gordon had the difficult task of leading off the game for the Marlins. Few can imagine the swirl of thoughts and emotions which overwhelmed him in that moment. Baseball meant nothing, but it was about to mean everything.
After taking the first pitch (right-handed, in honor of his late friend), Gordon connected on a Bartolo Colon fastball, driving it well past the right field wall and deep into the screaming fans beyond it.
It was his first home run of the season.
As he rounded the bases, tears flowed uncontrollably down his cheeks. Reaching home plate and then walking toward his teammates, he let it go, sobbing and falling into the embrace of his brothers. I cried too.
At that moment, I realized again that while baseball means nothing, it means everything.
It means everything when it provides sanctuary. It means everything when it helps us heal. It means everything when it provides family. It means everything when it puts us on its back, takes us into its arms, and loves us back.
Just when we need it most, baseball means everything.