Opening day

rays-opening-day-2014Although time travel in a physical sense is presently science fiction, it is a reality when traveling within our mind. Through our experiences and our memories, we are able to journey into the past, for better or worse, and revisit those feelings and emotions that stirred us so deeply. And although many of those memories are filled with grandeur and majesty, often the ones that become a fabric of your life are the quietest and simplest.

Monday, March 31, 2014 is a national holiday. Well, it is for baseball fans. As opening day of the new baseball season, it is a celebration of hope for your team, an unofficial welcome to the splendor of spring. And a very good excuse to take a vacation day, travel across the state with your son, and watch the Tampa Bay Rays opening day game in St. Petersburg.

For years, I have been a cheering fan in the seats at Tropicana Field on opening day, partaking in the festive atmosphere, allowing myself to be ushered by the wave of excitement. Alone. The opportunity to share this rendition of opening day with my eleven year old son filled me with eager anticipation. After partaking in a lunch consisting of a foot long hot dog, a pressed Cuban sandwich, and a shared order of fries, we found our way to section 219, row D, seats 19 and 20, our new t-shirt and cap securely clutched in hand.

As we settled into watching batting practice, the rhythmic crack of a wooden bat piercing the air was an oddly comforting sound, an announcement that baseball is back in full swing. As the power hitters launched ball after ball into the outfield seats, many a “Whoa, did you just see that?” were shared between us, along with sips of lemonade from our souvenir cup.

Near the conclusion of warm-ups, we decided to explore a new addition to the venue affectionately known as The Trop. Circling the entire stadium at just above field level is a walkway that allows you to soak up the experience from nearly any vantage point. As we were navigating our way through the crowds of people along the path, the jumbo screen came to life. With a musical score introduction exuding a victorious tone, a cinematic presentation followed. Highlights from past seasons streamed over those pixels on the big screen providing a reminiscent trip down memory lane.

The magical sequence of events that our entire family watched together on the final day of the 2011 baseball season. The highlights from Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series. As I place a hand on my son’s shoulder, I got down to his eye level and pointed with my finger to the very last row at the top of the stadium behind home plate. “I was up there during that game when they advanced to the World Series, and it was absolutely amazing. I wish you could have been there with me to see it.”

Caught up within the evocative memories of seasons past, I kept the tear forming in the corner of my eye from escaping down my cheek. The goose bumps, however, could not be contained, washing over my skin with a tidal wave of emotion. Not because my team succeeded. Okay, well maybe a little bit because of that. Ultimately, though, the emotion came from sharing such a special moment with those around me, whether it was the stranger who looked like Mr. Miyagi seated next to me in those nosebleed seats during Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS, or with my family on our living room couch in 2011.

As we departed the stadium, en route back home, the churning hunger pains from our stomach began to win out over the adrenaline rush of an opening day 9-2 victory. In search of a Chick-Fil-A at all expenses, my son willingly staved off those pangs of hunger until we were finally able to locate one an hour into our drive back home.

After pacifying the immediate demands of hunger, I looked up to my son who was sitting across from me and I said, “You know, when they were playing those highlights from the past seasons, I got goose bumps.” He paused a moment, looked up with a little grin, almost one of relief, and said, “Yeah, me too.”

opening-day-is-specialAnd right then, I forgot whether we had won or lost the game. The memory I had intended to make by attending a baseball game with my son didn’t occur in a stadium. It transpired at a Chick-Fil-A, an hour away from home, while dipping chicken nuggets in buttermilk ranch sauce. And those goose bumps that had visited earlier treated me with an encore performance. I can’t say exactly why that moment filled me with such joy. Perhaps it was just an intimate moment between father and son, a shared memory that endowed more emotion than a game winning home run ever could. Sometimes, we capture memories in a photograph, and sometimes a memory becomes so imprinted upon us that a photograph could not possibly do it justice. Chalk one up for the latter.

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A ray of light

Tampa-Bay-Rays-LogoHow can one person become so emotionally involved in a game? That is the question I ask myself as I sit on the edge of my couch contemplating the fact that I may be watching my last Tampa Bay Rays baseball game of the 2013 season.

For the past eight days, my team has played in six baseball games, four of which were elimination games, games that could have been the final one of their season. Yet, in each of these four games, they have found a way to prevail. To live another day, to play another game.

I have been a fan of baseball all my life. I have been a fan of the Tampa Bay Rays since 2006. They have been wildly successful over the last five seasons. Before 2008, however, they were a team that lost more than half of their games played. Some would suggest it was due to their former team mascot (Devil Rays), but I digress.

Even during those unproductive seasons, I enjoyed watching them play. How is it that you can enjoy watching your favorite sporting team lose almost twice as much as they win? It’s all about attitude. No, not your attitude as a fan. Rather, it is the attitude of the players on the team that make all the difference. Regardless of their win-loss record, each of the players continue to play with hustle, heart, determination, and persistence. These are inspiring attributes not only in the game of baseball, but also in the game of life.

I sit in the virtual stadium of my living room. With every heart-pounding and nail-biting moment of anticipation during a game, I live through them as if each were my own moment to succeed or fail. Even though we have no direct influence over the outcome of a game, we feel connected and emotionally invested. Even though we don’t know any of the players personally, we seem to identify with them at some level. These are baseball players and human beings who are dealing with their own type of challenging situations both on and off the playing field.

Therein lays the answer to the question that prompted this post. Why do we get so immersed in a team? Why are we so fanatical? We can identify with these players, our players. There are superstars. There are everyday players. There are flashy and flamboyant personalities. There are quiet and poignant leaders. Regardless of what type of personality we carry inside, there is sure to be someone on our team that we can associate with.

teamworkAnd when we see all these personalities mesh together to form a cohesive team, it is an inspiring sight to behold. Coming together as a group to achieve a common goal is not only an admirable ambition on a baseball diamond. It’s an aspiration in our everyday lives.

As the flood of emotions ebb and flow over the course of a baseball game and an entire season, we become a little more entrenched as a fan of our favorite player, a follower of our favorite team. Yes, they play a game for a living and it is, after all, only a game. But, those players and that team can teach us so much about how we handle our own life. How we can carry the right attitude within ourselves in the face of victory or defeat. How we can work together as a team to achieve a worthy goal. How we can remain persistent and determined regardless of the score. How we can always continue to hope and see a window of opportunity in any situation.

As I prepare to don my lucky hat and situate myself in front of the television, I will imagine myself sitting inside the dome at Tropicana Field. I will cheer. I will sigh. I will gasp. I will pace. Most of all, I will hope. And although I may be watching the final game of the season this evening, I will do it with the knowledge that this sport and this team have taught me a tremendous amount about the important things in life.

A ray of light that reminds me to focus on the current day, the current game and just keep taking one day, one inning, one out at a time. Let your inner child out and enjoy every …  single … moment.