It started when we were just joking around like we always do, like we have for 30+ years, old friends ribbing each other via text message about the World Series. And the next thing I knew I was standing in my kitchen with my phone in my hand, sending increasingly defensive, angry messages, while trying not to cry.
I was born and raised in St. Louis Cardinals territory. Grandpa Pete watched every Cardinals game on TV with the sound muted and the radio blaring, because everyone knows radio announcers are better than TV, right? My little brothers played baseball as soon as they could hold a bat. Their dad (my stepdad) coached their little league teams. Sports of all kinds — baseball, football, basketball, wrestling — ruled weekends both on the local field and on TV. And yet, I paid little attention. Sports was something “the boys” did, and shared.
I wasn’t much of a sports fan until I was grown and long gone. The first time I moved out of state, I right-off learned that following local sports was a fast way to meet people and be welcomed into a community. Sports were a way to feel settled, to feel like part of the place. In Phoenix I cheered for the Suns and Charles Barkley; in Cedar Rapids I bought a black and yellow Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt; in Seattle I followed the Seahawks; in Minneapolis I rooted for the Vikings and the Timberwolves and the Twins. Here in northern California, where I’ve lived longer than I’ve lived anywhere, it’s all about Giants baseball and getting together with friends and the neighbors to watch the playoffs while we share food and cheer for Buster and The Panda and crazy man Hunter Pence.
But sports is not always about sports, even during the World Series. Weeks have gone by, and it’s only now that I see what brought on the tears. In one text message amidst the lighthearted dozens where I was cheering for the Giants, a good friend wrote, “I can’t imagine a place I could move to and not be a Cardinals fan.” A perfectly innocent statement, right? And yet in that moment, standing alone in my California kitchen, I felt the 2,000 mile blood-rush of loss; the ache of not being back home with old friends; of the baseball playing brothers I have not seen in years; of their once-coaching dad they no longer speak to; of Grandpa’s blaring, staticky radio, You are listening to Cardinals baseball!, gone silent; of how very far away home has become. How, some days, that distance feels an awful lot like loss, irretrievable and permanent. How it feels a lot like grief.