Full disclosure: I have a thing for baseball players. Some of my biggest college crushes were Northwestern Wildcats playing the field, and some of those I admired went on to professional careers. I’ve also been to the big stadiums during regular season games, but I had the chance, in Arizona, to see my first spring training game. It’s smaller, more relaxed, and more intimate.
For me, it had to be the Cubs. As a long-standing and sometimes suffering fan of my Chicago team, I had to see them in their spring stomping grounds. They did not disappoint. I was sitting right behind the dugout, and they came over to interact with the fans during their warm-up. I quickly became distracted and felt a flush of heat that was not the desert sun. There they were, stretching and squatting, flexing and folding. This particular team of the Cubs I have to say is . . . hot.
I was not really paying attention to my friend because I was, quite frankly, ogling. I then thought: Hey, these are respectable, highly trained athletes and you are objectifying them simply for their bodies. This is on the same level as men taking yoga because women have nice asanas. I am officially a dude.
By virtue of where I was sitting behind the dugout, after each inning, the men would slap backs, smile, and run right to me. This is good stuff. I could live here.
I noticed a lot of the fans wearing a jersey with the name of their favorite player on the back. It seemed odd to me to wear the name of my hero on my back. I wondered if I could make up a Shakespeare jersey or maybe Thoreau or Austen or Angelou. If I become a famous writer, would any man wear a Buchanan jersey? I would only license them if they were made of free-trade organic cotton made by women’s cooperatives in Peru. (Phew. I am not totally a dude.)
The Cubs did not disappoint and won the game. High fives all around. My friend and I called an Uber, and a really friendly man picked us up at the stadium. Turns out, he used to be a professional baseball player. He had even played for the Cubs. When I asked why he left the sport, he said he was too old. He was in his 30s. His was a story of challenges: being traded without any say in the process, trying to hold together a long-distance relationship with a wife and kids, playing for his favorite team ever, then being cast out.
It’s easy to see in the Arizona sunshine men at the prime of their youth and physical prowess, playing a game that they, and the country, love — the allure of spring training. The shiny possibility of everything to come: fame, fortune, admiration, your name on everyone’s back. But where is the winter of the sport? Life not lived under the lights? Instead of stretching and squatting, they are grimacing and groaning, eating ibuprofen like candy for past injuries. Are they prepared for their second act?
I asked our Uber driver if it was ever still fun for him to play. He mentioned a sort of senior league but the answer was no. I thought of the irony of him driving to the stadium every day to pick up the fans that once cheered for him.
I still cheered for him. He was kind, polite, and emotionally open. After he dropped us off, he was going to pick up his daughter for a special night. I hoped that he would hit his stride again and when tossed that next opportunity in life, would keep his eye on the ball and take a swing.