KAPALKO: Perfect introduction to love and baseball

Jamie Kapalko

They say you fall in love when you aren’t looking for it. You show up at a party without looking twice in the mirror, hoping to grab a drink and some chips and guacamole, make a quick exit, head home, change into sweatpants and curl up under a blanket for a marathon of “30 Rock” on DVD before you fall asleep on the couch.

But instead, you meet someone. You stay; you chat; you don’t even think to look at your watch. This person is cute, funny, doesn’t seem crazy. You leave with a phone number, and when you get home it feels strangely like warm cupcakes are doing somersaults in your stomach. Fast forward through the sweet stuff, and soon enough you’re watching DVDs in sweatpants with this person instead of alone.

Ten years ago this happened to me.

It was May 17, 1998. My best friend and her dad invited me to a Yankees game. I didn’t care much about baseball then, but it was Beanie Baby Day at the Stadium. I obsessed over the little stuffed creatures, so I eagerly accepted the invitation and set off for my first Major League game.

I would’ve been perfectly content collecting a toy at the door, inhaling a hot dog and going right home. Love? No, I was looking for Valentino the Bear.

As we entered the stadium and headed toward our seats, I was gobsmacked by my first sight of the outfield grass.

“So this is green,” I wondered, distracted from the fuzzy prize in my hand.

I remember the day being warm and sunny, but that could be just because it fits the story. I filled out my scorecard diligently for an inning or so until my attention began to wander. There wasn’t much action.

Bernie Williams hit a home run, which I thought was exciting. He had two doubles, too, and Darryl Strawberry hit a triple. The other team, the Minnesota Twins, didn’t hit anything.

The Yankees settled into a comfortable lead. It was fairly pleasant but unremarkable.

So when Yankees pitcher David Wells got a standing ovation before the top of the ninth, my friend and I asked why everyone was going nuts. The fans were screaming, everyone was on their feet and they weren’t talking to each other. All eyes were focused, like it was life or death, but the Yankees were up safely 4-0, and the Twins hadn’t even come close to scoring. Hey, matter of fact, they hadn’t even –

“Shush,” her dad said.

I don’t remember a single pitch or play except the last one: a clean fly ball to Paul O’Neill in right field, followed by mayhem. It was like 50,000 people hitting the New York Mega Millions jackpot simultaneously. People were hugging strangers. They stayed long after the end of the game, milling around their seats, not wanting it to end.

After I was dropped off at home, I told my dad that baseball games were fun and I would like to go again.

He explained to me that what I had just seen was history, and it was called a perfect game. That was why it seemed so boring until the end – the fact that nobody on the Twins had gotten on base made Wells special and me lucky.

There are different ways to fall in love. It’s usually gradual – attraction first, then liking, then love. But my romance with baseball was more dramatic; it was a whirlwind, thanks to that one game.

I was fascinated by the sport. It had given me a remarkable gift, and I wanted to understand it. I started to watch games with my dad, and I began playing softball the next year – an affair that would become more intense than my love for baseball.

The skeptics scoff. “You saw baseball at its best. Of course it was great. But how could it ever measure up after that?”

Sure, the perfect game is probably the rarest feat I’ll ever witness in person. It was a flawless first date.

But it didn’t make anything I saw after it any less exciting. In baseball, the normal – the ground balls to short, the 1-for-3 days, the ordinary games – are necessary. Without these, how could you be thrown off your feet by the diving catches, the walk-off home runs, the perfect games?

I met baseball when it was dressed in its finest tux. But I got to know it and love it in its sweatpants, too.

For 10 years I have loved this game. For 10 years I have been a little girl, entranced again and again by the spectacular, the unpredictable, the magic. Stunned, dumbfounded, again and again.

Valentino the Bear – my matchmaker – was, fittingly, white with a red heart on its chest. Like all Beanie Babies, its tag bore a short poem. Valentino’s poem said, “Keep him close when feeling blue / Feel the love he has for you!”

It’s been 10 years, and I don’t have the bear anymore. It’s gone the way of other artifacts of my fickle pre-teen taste – in the garbage. But I still have baseball. And I still feel the love.

———————-

Jamie Kapalko is a junior English major from Belmar, N.J. She can be reached at [email protected]