I remember watching Yaz’s last regular-season at-bat. The Red Sox were bad that year, most of the superstars from my childhood gone. There weren’t going to be any postseason at-bats. I watched the game alone in a TV room at a boarding school that I’d be expelled from the following year. I’d started attending the boarding school a few weeks earlier. I hadn’t had any particular desire to go to the school but had gone because my brother had gone there before me, and I was in the habit of doing what he did. Also, to send me to the school, my mother was willing to go into debt that would take years to go away. Probably she was concerned that I’d gone from a bubbly little boy who loved learning to a sullen teenager accruing shitty report cards.
Things can change. You can be a boy running on superstar feet up the road to get to school like he’s sprinting up the first-base line, and then all the superstars can leave. In Yaz’s last at bat I wanted Yaz to hit the ball five hundred feet, a thousand feet, so far it would never be seen again, the stories about it going on forever. He popped out to the infield. The game ended. It was Sunday, still the afternoon but getting dark already. I had trigonometry homework to do. Thirty-three years later, it’s still undone.
Things can change.
David Ortiz said those words twelve Octobers ago. I was thirty-six and a few months into a new life in a new city. The Red Sox were losing to the Yankees. They’d lost to the Yankees the year before, as painful a loss as any of them, and that’s saying something. The Red Sox had always been losing to the Yankees. I knew from experience that things can change in one direction, but I didn’t really believe they could change in the other direction.
Still, I watched the games, every one of them, every inning, even the last innings of the savage beating that put the Red Sox in a 3-0 hole. The next game went late into the night, as everyone knows. I watched the last innings of that one alone, my girlfriend, Abby, asleep in the next room. We’d moved to Chicago to take a stab at a life together. This is a scary step to take, especially if you’re in the habit of believing that things can change, but only for the worse.
So when David Ortiz hit that home run, a feeling coursed through me that was just about as powerful as anything I’d ever felt. The Red Sox were still down three games to one, and I was still the same person weighted down by reams of gray trigonometry homework of one shape or another, everything so far squandered, undone. But still: there was life. I ran around my apartment on superstar feet.
We’re alive, I said. I didn’t say it out loud because Abby, who I was in love with, who was becoming my life, was asleep and had to get up early to go to her job at a group home for wards of the state. I said it with every fiber of my body, believing it, thinking about everyone I knew and loved as David Ortiz disappeared into a scrum of ecstatic bodies at home plate.
Yesterday, I watched David Ortiz’s last regular season at-bat in a scrum of my two young boys, Jack and Exley. We were sitting on the floor in our carpeted basement, and I had a tiny version of the game on my phone. My wife, Abby, was at the grocery store.
“When is Big Papi going to bat?” Jack asked. He’s the five-year-old.
“Whack!” said Exley, Jack’s little brother, two. This is his word for baseball.
“He’ll be up soon,” I said.
“Is Dustin Pedroia going to bat?” Jack said.
“Well, he batted last inning, so he prob—whoa!”
I can’t remember which of the boys went flying at that point. Do you have an image in your mind of Andre the Giant when he wrestled a couple of guys at once? This is analogous to the standard mode of behavior for the three of us, especially when we’re on the carpet. Two smaller people hurling themselves at the bigger person. Bodies are always sailing through the air. Forget any semblance of coherence to a conversation.
“Why does space go on and on and on?” Jack asked when the flurry of flying tackles and somersaults next hit something like a pause.
“OK, I’m watching this,” I said, because David Ortiz was coming to bat for the last time. I stood up and showed Jack the phone, but he was now more interested in trying to shove a large beach ball up under his shirt. Exley wanted to do the same because he’s already in the habit of doing whatever his older brother does, but he had previously taken off his shirt, so he began whining for his shirt in the manner in which he generally makes demands of the world.
“Me,” he said. “Me!”
“Does it go to infinity?” Jack asked.
“What?” I said. “Yeah infinity Exley Exley Exley your shirt is upstairs hold on.”
“I don’t want it to go to infinity,” Jack said, his voice also leaning toward tears.
“Just hold on a sec,” I said, the words I say these days more than any others. I was already being pulled back to my life, and in a moment I’d be running up the stairs to get a shirt so Exley could shove a ball under it while also telling Jack that I didn’t like infinity either, infinity sucked, I’d be saying, and there would be tears anyway and then more wrestling and laughing and bang someone’s head knocking into a wall and more tears and on and on, things always changing, changing, the very pulse of life, onward, always onward, but out of the corner of my eye before life surged ahead I saw on a tiny screen David Ortiz hit the ball maybe twenty feet, surely one of the shortest journeys into fair territory of any ball off his bat, I saw this with the eyes of this life I’ve been blessed with, my we’re alive eyes, my eyes of gratitude and love, saw it as if it were the first batted ball of a boy just starting out, everything still in front of him, and this boy will race toward first on superstar feet.