I can't think of a single negative thing that has happened in my life that baseball couldn't help me get through. And believe me, in the three decades since the game became a part of me, it has had its work cut out for it. I'm a master of making my own messes, then doubling down on the misery, beating myself up for every misstep, and eventually becoming so buried under my sense of hopelessness that I don't have the first clue where to begin the necessary cleanup. But no matter what, regardless of my fiasco du jour, I have always been able to rely on being pulled back from the brink by two or three hours of balls and strikes, hits and outs.
Even when I've found myself in binds that were not of my doing, I've always shown a unique knack of taking a bad hand and going all-in, my always-bad bluffs never going uncalled, leaving me to seek solace in the comforting logic of sets of three, nine, and 27 being put together by larger-than-life characters clad in pinstriped polyester.
Back as far as I can recall, my traumas -- whether self-inflicted or out of my control -- have always been bandaged by baseball. I remember vividly being the puny six-year-old who stole glances at his mother as she sat dead-eyed and dutiful while he was being beaten from shoulders to toes by the pastor of her church for having the temerity to get up and visit the restroom before the three-hour sermon had concluded. That same frail child soiled himself in a service not long thereafter in fear of a redux, only to be met with a more severe retribution. In both cases I found escape in isolating with books about baseball checked out from the local library I viewed as the home I hated to leave, temporarily forgetting my circumstances while enraptured by the tales of Ron Luciano, Joe Garagiola, and others.
Never one to kowtow to what I knew in my heart to be wrong, regardless of how forceful the lesson was delivered, the next decade saw me spend more time out of my home than in it. At the urging of the aforementioned pastor, who combined the most insidious traits of Jim Jones and the still-unheard-of David Koresh, I was remanded to a mental hospital at age eight due to a label of incorrigible defiance. There, a fish out of water, I not only continued to flee reality through burying myself in box scores and books about the pastime, but I was occasionally able to watch actual live games on television - something that had never been available to me at home since the so-called devil box was verboten.
After a month in that strange yet enlightening scenario, I was discharged to return home, only to be promptly removed by the state and placed in the custody of my paternal grandmother, an infallible saint about whom nary a less-than-glowing word has been spoken.
I didn't know her son, and she didn't know where he was, but none of that mattered then, just as it had never mattered before. The house I had always looked forward to visiting had become my home, and living with a freshly retired 61-year-old woman and her equally wonderful mother was the closest thing I had ever had to a normal childhood. Instead of belts and boards there were explanations. In place of collecting cans alongside blind curves to afford a box of spaghetti noodles was laborless trips to grocery stores where I was urged to pick out what I wanted. As loving and comfortable as the situation was, of course I carried a heavy homesickness, always missing my mother and the two sisters I'd spent my entire life alongside.
Never anything approaching a fool, Gran did her best to alleviate that loss she could so clearly read written all over me. One way was making sure that my cousin Amy and my sister Heather, nine years my senior, spent some of their precious teenage time with me to serve as a substitute for the sisters I'd never been without. They made me feel included not only because anyone who ever met Gran would never consider letting her down, but because of who they were at their cores, even at an age when their peers were most concerned with having the biggest hair to catch the most eyes at the mall food court. That's not to say their hair went neglected; neither would have looked out of place in a Mötley Crüe video, and I felt cool merely by association.
Along with handcrafting a makeshift family dynamic to put me at ease as best as she could, another selfless effort she made was encouraging my love of baseball and making a point to mix in televised games alongside her faithful standbys of Golden Girls, golf, and The Price Is Right. It was there that I learned the things about the game that you can draw only from watching it, and also there where I watched my first World Series, although I don't recall seeing Kent Hrbek tag Ron Gant, and I must have fallen asleep before Kirby Puckett hit his most famous home run.
When the courts saw fit to again entrust me to my mother's care after my nine-month vacation, my eyes had been opened to the ways of the world, and I liked what I had seen. As nine years of existence bled into ten, and the Braves lost another Fall Classic, I had cast aside any fear of damnation I once had, and was excommunicated from the church as a heretic and a blasphemer, barred from the cult due to fear that adults would see the logic in the words coming from a 50-pound basket of anger, the only person in his flock the false prophet couldn't dupe. Left to my own devices on Sunday and Wednesday nights, my routine held steady over seven days instead of just five; I threw a baseball against the exterior wall of our rented brick house until the sun clocked out, and camped out in my bedroom listening to the exploits of Jose Rijo and Chris Sabo on the radio broadcast of the nearest big league team, always riveted but never as much as when that shell of the 1990 champions would face my bizarrely beloved Padres.
Those Padres had a rough go of it in 1993, and I was shaping into a fire sale of a human being right along with them. My latest means of feeding my baseball obsession was going directly from school to the laundromat three blocks from that same brick house, and watching Cubs and Braves games on the television there while chainsmoking my way through countless packs of filtered Camels, which cost just $1.75 after tax and could be purchased by even the smallest child. Shortly after I turned 11 and the trees began to shed their leaves, the Blue Jays defended their crown, this time taking down the Phillies, whose bandwagon I was securely buckled into. It wasn't just me, and it wasn't even just the residents of my small hometown; the entire state of West Virginia was rooting for them because of one John Martin Kruk, the uncle of my classmate and the reason I first gravitated toward the game.
It was in that fifth grade class that I quit school. Oh, sure, they could make me show up, but they couldn't make me try. Until that year, I had never received anything less than an A on any report card, and my first B was my most shameful moment to date. My perfect record ruined, I stopped caring or doing assignments, and spent the remainder of my school career passing on unearned C's and D's gifted to me by teachers who didn't want to deal with me for another year.
It was around this time that the most devastating baseball season I'd experienced to date gave way to the worst year of my young life. Barely a month after the strike halted the pursuit of numerous records, most notably the chase of Roger Maris' high-water mark of 61 home runs by Ken Griffey, Jr. and unlikely leader Matt Williams, and a month before the World Series would have, should have been, I turned 12 and had no clue what horrors awaited me before I would turn 13.