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Happy tears and baseball

I learned about a thing being real because of a game.

World Series: Red Sox v Cardinals Game 4 Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

If you’ve been reading the site for the last few weeks, first of all thank you, and second of all you’ve likely noticed we’ve been running through some themes week after week. These have been throughout SB Nation as we try to get through this sports-less period. This week, the theme is all about moments in sports that made us cry. This is an entry along the lines of that theme.

I wasn’t always the brightest kid growing up, which is less a dig at myself — I got good grades, and we all know how important grades end up being in life — and more just an observation about children in general. Kids can be bright for themselves, but there is a lot of mystery that eludes kids until they get older, or concepts that are just beyond their grasp. It’s not the same for every kid, but part of growing up is learning new things, and you can’t do that if you know it all as a kid.

Along with having those natural gaps in my knowledge, I was also never one to be overly emotional, at least when I got older. My younger days certainly saw its fair share of temper tantrums. But in my late pre-teens and early teen years, I wasn’t exactly in tune with what was going on inside of my mind nor anybody else’s. Whether that was just naturally who I was or I was trying to project some sort of masculine ideal I believed in is a conversation probably better left for a therapist than to be had in this space, but the point is emotions weren’t really a subject matter with which I was overly knowledgable. A gap, if you will.

I say all this as a precursor to a weird admission about something I believed when I was younger: I thought happy tears were made up. I had seen people in movies and on TV cry when they got happy, but I genuinely believed it was one of those things they put in TV all the time that you think is real but it turns out it is extremely rare, if a real thing at all. Kind of like quicksand. It was, weirdly enough, baseball that showed me that tears of joy are actually a real thing that real, mature humans experience.

I started watching baseball — like, really watching, not just happening to be in the same room while my dad or my brother was watching — in 1998, which was of course a hell of a year to start watching baseball. To be honest, at that point I don’t really remember caring all that much about the Red Sox, or any one team in particular. I just liked watching the game and learning about it. I remember watching the Yankees that year, perhaps the best team of the modern era, and being marveled by them all the way through their World Series, quickly learning that I was supposed to hate them, not marvel at them.

Mark McGwire Scans Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB via Getty Images

But I, like everyone else, mostly remember 1998 for the home run chase. As someone who just started watching baseball, I had no historical context for what Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were doing that summer, and I certainly had no intuition for what the chase meant in terms of the conversation around baseball following a strike in 1994 that I had no idea even happened. I just saw that it made people really excited, and also jacked men were hitting dingers every night. It was cool.

As the summer went on and turned into early fall with the season winding down, it started to become clear — or at least as clear as it can be to a seven-year-old — that this was something special, and my brother and I started getting really into it. I remember the night McGwire broke the record vivdly, because I didn’t see it happen. At least not live. But I remember my mother waking both me and my brother up and going into my parent’s room to watch as the game paused and McGwire’s family took the field with him and they cried. Happy tears. The thing I wasn’t really sure was real. It’s my first real baseball memory, and it’s one I’ll never forget.

Of course, for as real as that moment was — or at least the emotions since the coming years would erase some of the “realness” of the chase — it was still a thing that happened on TV. Mark McGwire and his family were real people and not actors, but happy tears were still just a thing I saw on a screen inside a box. It was, again, baseball that brought it to life for me, though.

This time we jump six years to the future. It’s 2004, and I am now 13 with a better head on my shoulders, but also I’m a 13-year-old boy so one could argue I actually have the worst possible head on my shoulders. Now, I don’t need to retell the story of 2004. We all know what happened and what it meant, but for someone of my generation it was a little bit of a different feeling. By this point I was all-in on baseball and a total diehard. I listened to sports radio basically 24 hours a day. All I played was baseball video games. I knew all the players on the Red Sox and basically every other team. I was obsessed.

And yet, I didn’t have the connection with that team someone else from an older generation could. I could know and learn everything there was to know about baseball and I could be as big a fan of that particular team as possible, but it wouldn’t be the same. Even with the heartbreak of the previous season, I just didn’t have the experience to fully appreciate 2004 for what it was. I knew the history, of course, but I hadn’t lived it. So when the final out was made, I was psyched! Of course I was! The Red Sox, my favorite team in sports, just won a championship! But it was just normal happiness, not something greater. Until I looked over and saw real emotion in the eyes of my parents, who had experienced and lived through all that history. Or at least a good chunk of it.

And all these years later, that’s what I remember about that night. Not Johnny Damon’s leadoff homer. Not Derek Lowe’s performance. Not the final ground out. Not Joe Castiglione’s call. But the happy tears, and for the first time getting some acknowledgement that these were an actual thing, and even something as dumb and ultimately fruitless as baseball can bring them out.