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Today is Opening Day for most of Major League Baseball, including my beloved Red Sox. For most baseball fans, the experience of falling in love with the game is inextricably bound up with their relationship to the men in their family, to the father or uncle who took them to games and played catch with them in the yard. But my love of baseball grows out of my love for a woman: my aunt Ann, who was laid to rest this week. Today is the first time I have been in Boston for Opening Day since I left New England fifteen years ago. And today is my first Opening Day without Ann. I had expected her to have another, and another. I was not prepared for this day to come without her.
Ann had no children. She was a sister in a Catholic order, what most people would call a nun. (Technically nuns are something different, and since they live cloistered away from the secular world you've probably never met one. The "nuns" you meet in the everyday world, running schools and hospitals and charities, are technically known as sisters. They do God's work in the most practical and literal way, as genuine work. Ann was one of them.)
As her oldest nephews, my brother and I were the closest things she had to sons. When we were still small, she began taking us to Red Sox games for our birthdays, which meant weekend stays with her in Boston, once fairly early in the season and once near the end. (I would like to officially thank my brother for having a birthday that tends to fall in the middle of pennant races.) We saw some great and dramatic baseball together. We were in the bleachers when the 1986 team clinched the American League East and their ride to the playoffs; I have a framed photo in my office that Ann took that day from the stands, with Oil Can Boyd on the mound in full windup, a few pitches before he ended the game and jumped up and down for joy, like a child. We also saw some profoundly undramatic baseball together over the years. A lot of September games have nothing at stake but the player's professionalism and self-respect; over time, I came to view those games as the most revealing, in certain ways: the games played for the highest stakes of all. And, truth be told, you can see a game any time over the summer when not much goes on, and the actual suspense is over by the fourth inning. We saw those games with Ann, too, and watched every pitch. Leaving early was never even mentioned. When you start a thing, you finish it, and when you love a team (or a person), the love is not conditional.
It would be easy to say that Ann taught me about baseball as a metaphor for life, and so on, but she didn't, and it's a cliche, and Roger Angell has already said all that better than I ever will. And anyway baseball isn't much more of a metaphor for life than any other part of life is, and in some ways it's a less of one. (Life, for example, involves women. And men over forty. And doing your job when it rains.) What I learned about life on those trips I learned getting to and from the games. Ann was an adult, and lived in the city, and being with her I saw what adulthood and city life were like. She could not only find her way around Boston, but find a place to park. She could keep two kids under ten interested and occupied for two and a half days. She was the most streetwise person to ever set a good moral example for anyone, and she set a good moral example to most. Being around her taught me how to be an adult, and made me want to be kinder. When I graduated from college, it seemed natural to start my first adult job in the Boston Church: Ann's version of Boston, and Ann's version of the Church. The Catholicism that the sisters lived was, and is, the face of the Church that I found most comfortable and appealing. Reporting to a sister as my first boss made all the sense in the world.
And for all of the Hall-of-Famers we watched play, all of the dramatic hits and big games, my best memories are of sitting in the stands with Ann and my brother when nothing much was going on, sitting in Fenway and being together. I'd give a lot to sit with Ann through nine dull innings today.
Is baseball a metaphor for life? Is opening day a metaphor for spring and rebirth and new beginnings? Maybe. Sure. But when you come right down to it, baseball is an excuse to sit outdoors with someone you love. If it were nothing else but that, it would be enough.
Rest in peace, Ann.