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Ghosts of Baseball's Past 10 min read

Ghosts of Baseball's Past

The joy of live baseball, plus how to die in good health, a pub trivia cheating scandal, ships and crews that fix underwater fiber optic cables, the staggering realities of ants, and much more.

By Cary Littlejohn

This weekend I went to a college baseball game: the hometown Missouri Tigers versus those other Tigers from LSU.

It was a beautiful day for baseball, and as we sat up in the shallow stands (about 7 o’clock in relation to home plate, with a wonderful view of the action and only mild risk of a foul ball), I thought about how much of my life used to revolve around baseball. It was my favorite sport, the one I’d played the longest, the one I wanted to be seen as being good at. 

Seeing these young men play ball took me back to the last point in time in which I played competitively, about the time where I was making decisions that would affect my four years of college, when suddenly I didn’t want to play anymore. 

It’s not that I lost the love of the game; I hadn’t. I still haven’t, as I remembered this weekend, watching with itchy energy that wanted to grab a ball and glove for a long toss. 

No, the desire was still there, but the ability just wasn’t. It made me think of two separate quotes, one from The West Wing and one from Moneyball

In The West Wing, Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff, comes to a tough realization.

JOSH: You know, there comes a day in every man’s life, and it’s a hard day, but there comes a day when he realizes he’s never going to play professional baseball.

His loving, ever-faithful assistant Donna speaks for many out there who have to deal with the Joshes of the world (for there are many of us).

DONNA: And you’re just having that day today?

In Moneyball, a scout relays this harsh truth.

SCOUT: We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game, we just don’t—don’t know when that’s gonna be. Some of us are told at 18, some of us are told at 40, but we’re all told.

Both lines were written by Aaron Sorkin.

That’s what I knew when I was 18, finishing up high school and not trying at all to play in college. I hadn’t ingested that much Sorkin dialogue at that point in life, but I knew those same truths. 

While Josh’s comments are played for laughs, the scout’s are played as somber truth-telling. I think my interpretation of that realization all those years ago was closer to how the scout said it: A part of me was sad because a part of me, the part that got some pride from identifying as a baseball player, was dying; I would soon only speak of baseball’s glories in the past tense. 

But as I’ve gotten older, I think I can talk about it more as Josh said it (or as Sorkin intended the audience to hear it): I can make a joke out of it.

It’s a crazy dream, to play professional baseball, or to make even a modest living playing the game into your 30s. It’s what makes the possibility of an autograph or maybe even just a fist bump from a star on your favorite team still seem enticing even as we age: We realize what it takes to be as good as they are. As kids, we just aspire to it, try to replicate it, and our sense of the world is boundless because we don’t even know our own limitations at that point. 

Not so at 18, when you’ve played against some truly talented folks and realized they’re just going to a community college. You realize quickly how big your dreams once were, how much your arm and knee already hurts, how much muscle you’d have to put on to be remotely competitive. And so I let go.

Now, at 36, the dreams are milder. I’d like to get on a proper pitcher’s mound again and see if I can still make the catcher's mitt pop from 60 feet, 6 inches. I’d like to take real batting practice, on a field instead of in a cage to see where my hits were landing. I’d like to take infield practice and roll up a double play. 

When touring the Louisville Slugger factory and museum in Louisville, Kentucky late last year, I stepped into a batting cage for the first time in almost 20 years. Each crack of the bat as I made contact felt like time-travel. That’s as close as I’ve been to baseball in a long time, and sitting out at the game this weekend, it felt all the more magical. The scout in Moneyball called baseball “the children’s game,” and that’s pretty much all I was the entire time I played it competitively (though I didn’t realize it when in high school and it meant the world to me).

Kids’ dreams of baseball are all forward-looking. As an adult, my thoughts of baseball are invariably of the past. And that’s OK, because, as Moneyball would go on to remind us: How can you not be romantic about baseball?

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. I wrote recently about returning to the doctor for the first time in a long while. It had taken months to be seen, and I could feel the pull of the doctor to be in any number of other exam rooms as he talked (a bit too loudly for my taste) of my various maladies and possible solutions. It all felt so rushed. “But what about the rest of this laundry list of things I wanted to ask you about?!” There will be time, hopefully, at my next visit, months from now. I thought about that experience with the doctor and the anxiety the idea of confronting my own health and how things are actually running under the hood while I read a piece in The New Yorker titled “How to Die in Good Health.” It gave a sobering statistic right there in its subhead: “The average American celebrates just one healthy birthday after the age of sixty-five. Peter Attia argues that it doesn’t have to be this way.” I couldn’t help but think of my dad because of how true that stat proved for him. I think about all the people I know in or around that age, and I think about how not so very far away that number feels from my own age. It’s an interesting story, not for the groundbreaking revelations it provides (the secrets to about as long a life as you can hope for yourself are exactly what you’d guess), but differences in doctors’ views on what the purpose of life is, especially the later stages of it.
  2. In the midst of establishing primary care, I’d talked a good deal about both my dad’s and mom’s cancers and how their specter loomed over me, influencing the way I viewed my own health. In a follow-up to that doctor’s appointment, I went back to visit with a psychologist. He was a kind and gentle man, thoughtful and full of grace, new to the job at the university but retired from practice. That chat alone felt like it did wonders for me, and I can honestly say I’m looking forward to the next time I chat with him. It was with this in mind that I read Alex Belth’s essay in Esquire about what happens when your longtime therapist passes away. He wrote in a honest, confessional way, and it was easy to understand the loss of someone who knew so much about him, had guided him through so much, had helped him learn about himself.
  3. A couple of months ago, on a trip back to Wyoming to visit my friends, we attended what had been one of our regular weekly activities: trivia. It’s hosted a 7 p.m. every Tuesday, but people start showing up after 5 trying to reserve tables because there’s just not that much sitting room. I hadn’t played trivia in forever, not since I’d left Wyoming in 2022. But some things hadn’t changed, and one team’s name rang a bell: Trebek’s Rejects. They clearly hadn’t stopped playing together since I’d left. And they were pretty good. Good enough that we’d wondered aloud more than once, “They’ve got to be cheating.” It was with that memory in mind I devoured what will no doubt be the most delightful story (in both its craft and its subject matter) you’re likely to read, at least in this newsletter. What happened when it was discovered that a team had cheated at bar trivia in Washington, D.C.? It can sound like such a silly waste of time to hear that The Washington Post wondered that question along with the locals and decided to write a story about it. But, in actuality, it is an incredibly readable soft news/lifestyle feature written in knowing and lightly mocking tones and full of some keen observations about the niche subculture of bar trivia, those that take it seriously, and the city in which this all happened.
  4. As I’ve made clear in previous entries, I love a good ocean-based story. And this one from The Verge is quite simply one of the best online features I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a wonderful story, with a gripping narrative and tons of interesting history and a stunning visual presentation. It’s all about the unsung heroes of our interconnected world: the people who repair the cables on the ocean’s floor.
  5. Rusty Foster, the clever mind behind one of my favorite newsletters, Today in Tabs, was profiled by The New York Times. He’s got a really nice thing going up in Maine, and it’s reassuring that one doesn’t have to live in the middle of the media Mecca to create something widely beloved.
  6. The weekend saw the 25th anniversary of the school shooting at Columbine High School, which in many ways, introduced us to the culture of mass shootings that has defined the past two decades. Dave Cullen wrote the book on Columbine, and he wrote an updated preface for the anniversary, and it was excerpted in The Atlantic.The enduring fandom and lionization of the shooters remains as sad today as the shooting was 25 years ago.
  7. One of my dear friends will, with unsurprising regularity, update me on the status of her backyard when it comes to one stat: the presence of fire ants. She (and any right-thinking person who’s ever been bitten my them or seen their mounts dot an otherwise pristine yard) find them infuriating. My brother and his wife recently quoted the wisdom of her grandfather: “You can’t kill fire ants; you can only move them.” This piece from Aeon is chock full of amazing facts about ants of all kinds and chronicles their amazing ability to spread and conquer. The one mind-boggling stat from the piece: “They are something new in the world, existing at a scale we can measure but struggle to grasp: there are roughly 200,000 times more ants on our planet than the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way.” No matter how many times I read that, I always shake my head in disbelief at first and then awe.
  8. A week ago, Uri Berliner wrote a gossipy tell-all of sorts about his employer: NPR. He said the venerable news outlet was run amok with “wokeness” and too many Democrats, and as such, had lost its way. Alicia Montgomery, a former colleague of Berliner’s and now the head of podcasts over at Slate, penned a response of sorts that acknowledged many of the struggles and shortcomings of NPR but pointed out that “wokeness” wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the list.
  9. I’ve got just what you’re looking for if you’re interested in a thoroughly bleak overview of the current state of affairs in Hollywood. A recent Harper’s piece has been making the rounds, and it’s been widely praised as one of the best, most succinct histories of the streaming era, what led to it and what it’s wrought for writers and creatives (which is nothing short of the erosion of writing as a stable profession).
  10. This weekend I introduced my girlfriend to the classic 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley. She was captivated by the film’s twists and turns and loved the performances. I’d assigned this viewing for us as “homework” ahead of watching Netflix’s new limited series Ripley, of which we watched the first two episodes and compared to the film version quite a lot. A lot of our discussion used points made in Mark Harris’s essay for Vulture on the timelessly ambiguous question: Is Tom Ripley Gay?

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

'Hearts of Darkness' in Honor of Eleanor Coppola

'Civil War': Art Worth Arguing About

Hitting Against a Major League Pitcher

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

4/16: ARGYLLE (AppleTv+); Shogun (Hulu)
4/18: Top Chef, S19 (5) (Peacock)
4/19: Top Chef, S19 (Peacock); Survivor, S46 (2) (Peacock); Survivor, S45 (Peacock)
4/20: Survivor, S45 (2); Top Chef, S19 (Peacock); THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY* (Paramount+)
4/21: Ripley (2)(Netflix);Top Chef, S19 (2) (Peacock); Mizzou Baseball vs. LSU; Survivor, S44 (Paramount+)