I was raised a Catholic. My parents were not zealots, but you could find accessories like a rosary, Bible, crucifix, and prayer candle from the Good Catholic Starter Kit around the house just in case a friend was in need of a prayer or an emergency exorcism. Being Catholic meant going to church, so every Sunday I'd be forcibly removed from bed, restrained in Polly Flinders, and I'd thrash and wail as my father tried to strap patent leather Mary Janes onto my kicking feet. I hated church, and secretly my parents hated it too, but we came from a long line who every Sunday (and again every third Wednesday for confession) felt obliged to perch on rickety wooden pews that could splinter your ass at any moment if you didn't sit very still. Even when we moved hours from our closest judging relatives we still went to church.
"Why do we have to go if Grandma won't know we didn't go?" I'd ask my father.
"Because Jesus will know, and he'll find a way of telling her," he'd reply. It's unclear whether or not he actually believed that, but we continued to devote an hour a week to prayer and praise until I was a teenager. That tradition ended with this generation, however; I've realized that a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle after a restful night of sleep certainly trumps holding hands with strangers and the smell of incense. Of course, if Grandma finds out, I will spend eternity kneeling on a thin plank of wood that has been stingily shrouded by a strap of leather and cushioned by a squishy chicken cutlet praying for forgiveness.
I don't retain a lot of knowledge about religion from my churchgoing years, but even as I got older and more cynical, I liked listening to the homily. These anecdotes and allegories are little nuggets of wisdom packed with lessons about friendship, honesty, revenge, and redemption that serve to expose universal truths to the attendees, sort of like an episode of The Cosby Show but with more kneeling. Most of the homilies were geared to the older audience and I'd chuckle along with my parents when they found something humorous even though I didn't fully understand. I don't remember all of them, but the current landscape of the baseball world recalls to mind a homily about ham, or the hamily*, if you will.
* Be warned, this is a bastardized version of the story that the priest told, but my rough memory of the specifics is enough to serve as a guide in the creation of my own allegory.
In the Hamily, the priest told the story of newlyweds named, as most couples in homilies are, Joseph and Mary. Joseph and Mary were hard at work fixing dinner for Mary's parents, who were headed north from Boca to witness the Christmas miracle. Joseph was nervous about seeing his in-laws and wanted to prove he was a capable provider, so he did what any reasonable man would do: he bought a ham.
Of course in church stories, men don't do the cooking, so Mary was tasked with making the ham ... except she had never made a ham before. As she removed the butcher paper, juices leaked all over the floor. She dropped it onto the cutting board --THUD! -- and stared helplessly. She sized up the piece of meat, looking at it from every angle. She considered basting it in butter like a turkey or smothering it in rum before baking it, but Mary and Joseph lived in a time before the Internet so she couldn't go to FoodNetwork.com or ask Jeeves for help. She paused, eyes closed, desperately trying to remember how her mom prepared ham when she was a child. The answer came to her. She reached for a knife, cut off about one-eighth of the ham at one end, put the remainder in a pan, and popped it into the oven. Yes: this was exactly how her mom made it.
Joseph stared in bewilderment. He grew up poor on a farm and not only did he wrestle the hogs, he ate quite a few of them, too. (He isn't described anywhere in the story, but I pictured Joseph as a hybrid of Ron Swanson and the Brawny Paper Towel guy.) He was shocked that his bride put an edible hunk of hock in the garbage can. "Why'd you do that? It's a waste of good meat!" Joseph exclaimed, resisting the urge to eat the ham from the bin. Mary admitted that she wasn't sure why she cut the end off, other than that her mother always did.
I conquered Target today, grabbing just three items: Milk, whey powder, and a copy of Sports Illustrated. Just before I entered a line, however, I impulse-bought two more things: a pack of Wrigley's Doublemint gum and a pack of Topps baseball cards.
I swore off baseball cards earlier this year, but sometimes knowing that they are within my grasp, I cave. Target is smart, putting the cards so close to the door -- I'm more likely to grab a pack when I know I can quickly retreat to my car and thumb through the cards undisturbed than if they were in the toy section and I have to carry them around the store. As for the gum, I chew that particular variety because that's what my father chewed.
One's affinity for baseball is likely acquired in much the same way. Ask someone how they got into baseball and it's usually tied to childhood, be it via father, mother, or the television that raised them. It's the same for all hobbies, really. I've had a thing for nail polish since my aunt painted my nails while we watched cartoons. I suppose if I had grown up with a best friend that liked comic books or Star Wars that probably would have rubbed off on me, too, because like it or not, we become products of our environment. Sure, we can reject things about our upbringings and adopt new perspectives, but for most of us there's an element of perpetuating the status quo in everything we do.
Acceptance, sometimes of things we don't understand, or like but don't understand why we like them, engulfs us. It's easier to keep things they way they are; there aren't many people who embrace chaos and constant reinvention. We are creatures of habit and we create and crave loyalty, even if there is no real motivator beyond familiarity. We have a preferred path for walking home from the train. We have a pizza joint that we favor more out of habit than culinary approval. We have baseball.
The more I think about our dedication to baseball, the crazier it seems. Of course, I don't know how it feels to be inside the heads of other passionate fans, but it's incredible that so many have adopted such a circular framework into their lives. There are slight nuances every year, but the commitment to willingly sit, season after season, on a fiberglass pony on a merry-go-round to nowhere is baffling once you frame it as such. Each year, the players and the events subtly change (Miguel Cabrera may hit 42 home runs instead of 44 next season, and the Orioles might make the playoffs again), but the intrigue and arguments are largely the same. As Craig Calcaterra said to me this week, "It's the cycle. Learn it, live it, love it." Yet, we don't run from the repetition, we sit attentively and argue on cue when the same controversies arise at predictable points in the season.
Mary's parents arrived, but Joseph was still fixated on the ham incident hours earlier. He looked at his hands; his palms were sweating. He couldn't believe that the woman he loved, the woman he had married, had defaced dinner so carelessly, so inexplicably. Before they sat down to dinner, Joseph asked his mother-in-law about the ham. "Why do you cut off the end?" he asked, barely maintaining his composure. He revealed none of the anger and hurt he felt, though in his mind he could see the meat in the Hefty bag, lonely and abandoned and well on its way to a premature putrefaction.
"Well, I'm not really sure," his mother in law replied. "That's just how my mother made it. When she calls tonight, we can ask her."
As baseball fans, we willingly embark on irresolvable arguments about the Hall of Fame. Sure, there is relative newness in these conflicts in that the elder members of the BBWAA would rather label those who apply math and reason as members of a vigilante sabermetrics brigade than engage in meaningful debate, but that doesn't alter the familiarity of the discussions. Disagreeing about the Hall of Fame is nothing new; people have been arguing the worthiness of candidates since the Hall's inception, so while we're preoccupied with Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell this year, we could just as easily be in [ANY YEAR] debating [ANY PLAYERS]. This is not to diminish the argument as it's one of the most important we will have each year, but rather to observe that it's just another annual tradition in a pastime full of recurring references.
When the Hall voting is over, we rely on articles like this one to spark other debates, such as whether the National League should adopt the designated hitter. It's a debate that's 40 years old, but we keep going. When we've exhausted that for the season, we'll engage in rote arguments about anything -- instant replay, six-man rotations, remote trade scenarios -- these topics that hold us hostage like the slashers in horror movies. We know they're somewhere in the house waiting to jump out as soon as things are still, but nevertheless we allow ourselves to be baited. It's masochistic, but we crave it, as if a few moments of silence might suffocate baseball forever.
It's not just that the same debates reappear, but that every year is largely the same experience whether it's the hot stove, spring training, or the 162-game season. Every April, we'll delight in small sample sizes; every July, we'll debate the merits of the All-Star game and reach the same conclusion. If you went to your calendar now and put an exclamation point on any random day at the end of September, you'd have accurately predicted that day as an exciting day in baseball. It's not because you're clairvoyant, it's because tight division races happen nearly every year. Yet, we spend each season like a goldfish that is continually surprised to see the treasure chest at the bottom of its tank. We forget things knowingly.
Joseph was questioning everything now. How could he have married into a family where not only could the women not make a ham, but they never paused to question their behaviors. If Mary's family was content to recapitulate a nonsensical ham recipe that was handed down from generation to generation without ever attempting to understand or improve it, what else did they do without understanding? Childlike wonder and inquisitiveness? Mary's family had none of it.
At least the ham tasted good. Joseph grudgingly enjoyed it, but there was still something about it that didn't make sense to him. Joylessly, he drank eggnog and trimmed the tree* before opening an ill-fitting sweater his new in-laws had given to him that made him hate them even more than the ham had. Joseph faked a smile and shook a box that contained a butter dish that his in-laws inexplicably thought he would like, but before he could open it, the telephone rang. It was Mary's grandmother, her mother's mom, calling from the nursing home just to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.
*This fantasy of Christmas Eve tree trimming has always puzzled me. Do people actually wait until Christmas Eve to get a tree and its accoutrements, or is that just something happens in movies and stories to underscore that it's the Christmas season for those who might otherwise failed to figure it out?
Now that Grandma was on the phone, it was Joseph's chance for an answer. He mumbled to his beautiful bride, "Ham...ham...ask...ham...ham..." before shouting, "We must know about the ham!" Joseph didn't realize it, but his father-in-law, who has been largely absent from this story, shot him a stern look for acting like such a child. But still, Joseph continued to mumble, "hammy ham hammy ham ham," while Mary swatted at his hand, practice for their unborn child who would be a hounding nuisance as it got older.
Finally, Mary asked, "Grandma, why did you always cut the end of the ham off when you made it?" Joseph wrung his hands in anticipation of the response.
"Because it wouldn't fit in the pan," Grandma said. Because it wouldn't fit in the pan.
That was how the story ended when the priest told it, but I like to imagine that on the following Christmas, even though Mary and her mother had been erroneously wasting meat over the years, they decided to cut the end off anyway as a nostalgic nod to her grandmother -- and to irritate Joseph. As a devotee to baseball, it makes perfect sense for the story to end that way, coming full circle, as we knowingly embark on an endless stream of verbiage about hypothetical Hall of Fame ballots, designated hitters, and trade scenarios before settling in for a season of thinking that we know more than the professionals on the field.
Once you realize and accept that we're forever reenacting and even regurgitating the same experience, as though fandom were yearly trips to Disney World, there's a certain peace in knowing that we are on the road to nowhere. Even though we can no longer be surprised, we choose to keep participating because there is still the possibility of something new, the faint hope of change. We become experts, we learn more and study the nuances of the game as a way of elevating our experience. We don't leave the maze even though we are free to do so at any time, victims of baseball's Stockholm Syndrome, hoping this will be the day that we learn something, or better yet teach someone something, during our 365-day-a-year captivity.
It sounds bleak, but it's not; baseball is a relatively benign pastime, and if it weren't baseball, it would be something else we let possess us as a way to pass the time.