A week before my son Jeffrey was to leave for his freshman year in college, he asked me to drive to Berkeley with him to shop for sneakers. Berkeley is 45 min away; Amazon is a click away, AND it happened to be Move In day at Cal. But, his interest in finally thinking about items he needed for college made me jump at the invitation. We both knew the trip would take twice as long, but memories of our 14 hour road trip to Wyoming had him prepared with podcasts of interesting stories, and I was looking for any excuse to spend our dwindling time together. On the way home, he asked me if I had ever listened to The Green Fields of the Mind by Bart Giamatti. I smiled, thinking – he’s got to know that any big baseball fan is familiar with this infamously lyrical and heart-pulling essay, and for a lifelong Red Sox fan like me, even more so. It wasn’t the end of September or beginning of October when many baseball announcers and writers reference this now classic piece of writing from the former Yale president and baseball Commissioner, lamenting the inevitable end to a season that can only last “in the green fields of the mind”. But for some reason this essay was on Jeffrey’s mind.
Without waiting for my answer, he started the audio of Giamatti’s reading of his essay. And, the minute the famous lines were uttered: “It breaks your heart, it is designed to break your heart”, the unspoken message between us – with 18 years of parenting my oldest as I knew it about to end – was understood. We weren’t talking about baseball anymore, and for Jeffrey and I, this was the end of our season. My tears came freely but subtly as Giamatti neared the end of his essay:
“It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.”
Together, Giamatti’s words and voice struck the perfect chord, capturing what I had always felt as a baseball fan, but now allowing me to feel the same hope, dread, anticipation, sadness, excitement, longing for what was, yet knowing you cannot stop what will be – as I close the books on 18 years of parenting my lead-off hitter.
Giamatti also talked in one of his public appearances about how baseball relates to the concept of Going Home, and his musings on why home plate was not called 4th base. “Home is an English word virtually impossible to translate into other tongues. No translation catches the associations, the mixture of memory and longing, the sense of security and autonomy, the accessibility, the aroma of inclusiveness, the freedom from wariness, that cling to the word home, that are absent from ‘house’ or even ‘my house.’ Home is a concept, not a place, a state of mind where self-definition starts; it is origins. A mix of time and place and smell and weather wherein one first realizes that one is an original — perhaps like others, especially those one loves, but discreet, distinct, not to be copied. Home is where one first learned to be separate, and it remains in the mind as the place where reunion, if it were ever to occur, would happen.”
He goes on to talk about how baseball is unique because it is the only sport where the goal is to come back to where you came from. (Although I think cricket also applies.) In other sports you are trying to go away from your home, to invade and move towards another’s home. Arriving at “4th base” and coming home is truly a cause for celebration as Giamatti describes. A manager doesn’t care how you get there – home run, RBI single, error, sac fly – just touch that base and come to the dugout where open arms await you.
As I search for a way to encapsulate my feelings on the evening after saying goodbye to my son in his dorm, I think back to that car ride home feeling the nostalgic, satisfied, yet sad mood that Giamatti evokes so eloquently when something ends. Already, I am eagerly awaiting my son’s return, ready to welcome him to 4th base with open arms, knowing that just like baseball it is meant to break my heart – because goodbyes are inevitable. As the game progresses, as the season comes to a close, as our children grow, and milestones are reached, the inevitable end sits in your stomach as you prepare to cope, accept and finally appreciate what is supposed to happen.
You will always return home I try to convince myself, and return for good. But, only in the enclosed green field of my mind.