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The beauty of baseball

The beginning of the 2012 baseball season is upon us, and the Cubs, Dodgers, and Mets are all undefeated. When you say that out loud it seems like anything is possible. And isn’t this how we’re supposed to feel about baseball?

The official end of winter may come in March, but the unofficial first day of spring doesn’t arrive until the players take the field and the fans take their seats. It’s all blue skies and manicured grass from now until October. Opening Day, or perhaps we should call it opening week, will always feel this way.

Baseball stirs something in us; it takes us back to a time when we could be excited about the game without worrying about the trappings of adulthood; tickets magically sprang from our fathers’ wallets and mustard-slathered hot dogs appeared in our hands.

Even now, when we travel to games and get stuck in traffic, keenly aware that we’ll soon be fighting for a twenty dollar parking space, we can’t deny the euphoria. We park and fight the crowd and swing by concessions and ascend the stairs to our seats and, suddenly, there it is: the world’s most perfect diamond.

Baseball stirs the ghosts of our youth, and we see ourselves for who we were and what we wanted to be. It’s the American Dream unfolded in two hours, or perhaps a little longer if it happens to be televised.

This is exactly how I feel about baseball, but, as a kid, my appreciation for the game was impeded by my attempt to play it. Basically, I was afraid of the ball. But the fear wasn’t natural; it was learned. It came after several errant fastballs to the hip, maybe a couple to the thigh, perhaps even one or two to the shoulder.

I was in the fourth grade and making my first attempt at playing real baseball. I’d grown up with machine ball and coach pitch, but this was the first time I’d faced someone my own age, meaning the young pitcher lacked both the precision of a machine and the conscience of an adult.

I wasn’t even facing him in a game; it was practice, and the pitcher’s father was our coach. He’d called me to bat because his son needed to practice pitching to a lefty. I was young, but I was old enough to see the writing on the wall.

The first pitch smacked my knee. I stepped out of the batter’s box and hobbled the pain away, which I imagine as a cross between the electric slide and the pee-pee dance little boys do when they really have to go.

“Shake it off and get back in there,” the coach said. Then he looked at his son atop the mound. “Right down the middle: throw some strikes.”

“But don’t you get to walk to first base when you’re hit with a pitch?” I asked.

“Not in batting practice,” he said.

I should’ve known it was all downhill from there. Now, I realize that it was kind of like “The Hunger Games” in that one child was trying to kill another while an adult cheered him on. The next pitch hit me in the thigh; he was moving higher – he’d be aiming for my head soon.

“Just caught the inside corner on that one,” his father said. I was trapped, and I stood frozen, refusing to swing as baseballs pelted my body. I could hear the kids in the dugout whispering and laughing about my refusal to react. The coach fussed at his son for not throwing strikes, paying no attention to how bad those pitches hurt. I was only ten years old, but I was old enough to feel humiliated.

We call baseball “a thinking person’s game,” a moniker never more fitting than in last year’s World Series when Tony LaRussa, the thinking person’s thinker, almost out-thought himself with his bullpen. We often create baseball metaphors for life, so here’s one: life doesn’t always allow you to throw perfect pitches, nor does it allow you to face them. You have to think about when to swing, when to bunt, and when to stand in and take the hit.

If I’d been a thinking person when I was ten years old, I probably would’ve found a better solution than standing in the box and getting pelted pitch after pitch.

Because of this, I prefer to think of baseball as a reflecting person’s game. Baseball, like life, teaches you valuable lessons, but only in reflecting can you learn them. I learned a valuable lesson: I should’ve swung at those pitches instead of allowing them to hit me.

I’ve never been afraid to swing at a pitch since. Even if I miss, I know there’s another one coming. It’s just baseball – anything is possible.

Wiley Cash is from North Carolina and currently teaches at Bethany College in West Virginia. His debut novel, "A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME" will be released on April 17 (William Morrow).