Looking Back with Joy and Sorrow

The past has an irresistable allure. Perhaps there’s something safe in the known, particularly as we face such uncertain times in the coming weeks and months. There’s a comfort in returning to the sanctity of our memories, rose-colored though they may be, to relive moments of bliss, contentment, and peace.

It’s a powerful drug, nostalgia. I confess to being a relapsing addict to the stuff. I have a playlist on Spotify called my “Nostalgia Playlist.” Songs, TV shows and movies take me back to times in my life that, for one reason or another, have powerfully lodged themselves into my consciousness. Even the way the light lengthens in the twilight of a late summers’ day or the sight of a harvest moon over the barren trees takes me back to events of my past that have long since faded from my coherent memory. I know they mean something; perhaps the nostalgia has become a memory unto itself.

Nostalgia is not a bad thing, per se. It reminds us of who we are by reminding us of who we’ve been. Nostalgia allows us to grasp the long arc of time that has led to me being right here, right now, writing this article, and to you sitting in front of your computer or tablet reading it. It is important, however, to remember that a stroll through one’s memories cannot turn into a permanent vacation. For as powerful as nostalgia can be, it is merely made up of ghosts, old actors on an old film reel still spinning long after the audiences have left the theatre. They can make us laugh as we remember the things that have been, but they can also make us cry with the way things are now.

You’re probably wondering what this all has to do with a baseball blog. Is there any sport more positively soaked in nostalgia than baseball? The names Dimaggio, Mantle, and Ruth still preside over the Bronx like the titans of Greek mythology. In no other sport are players so constantly compared to the legends that came before them; in no other sport are the fans pursuing the past more fervently than the future. Baseball is the sport for the nostalgic because the mere thought of it conjures not the optimistic possibilities for the future but the sepia-toned memories of the past.

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During the shutdown, MLB Network has been replaying classic games and classic moments from the last thirty-five years of the sport. On one hand, it’s been an education for me. I really only became a baseball fan in 2006, when the Tigers made the World Series. I was too young to remember some of the stars of the 1990s in their prime. I’ve been dazzled by the pure joy with which Ken Griffey, Jr., played the game. I’ve been flummoxed–and not a little bit terrified–of Randy Johnson’s stilt-legged brilliance on the mound. I’ve been on the edge of my seat watching John Smoltz and Jack Morris duel frame after frame, knowing that one mistake could mean the difference between glory and irrelevance. The players that I’ve known as old men standing on the dais at Cooperstown I now see as the giants they were before age took its inevitable toll.

But I’ve also been able to relive my own past with baseball. A few days ago, I was watching a replay of the 2013 All-Star Game. Brian Dozier — with the Twins! Andrew McCutchen — in the black and yellow of the Pirates! Michael Cuddyer — in an All-Star Game! And at the end of it all, as he was for so many years, was Mariano Rivera, pitching a clean eighth inning in what would be a final accolade in his unparalled career. It was like all my friends from high school had gotten back together for a picnic to relive the glory days.

There were moments of poignancy, too. There was David Wright, playing in front of the home crowd in what would be his final All-Star Game before injuries took their requisite pound of flesh. There was Matt Harvey, bright-eyed and optimistic, before a tragicomic farce of Mets-ian proportions laid low his promising career. Troy Tulowitzki, Clay Buchholz, Chris Davis, Carlos Beltran — the list of names that had great seasons in 2013 and are now personae non grata is lengthy.

As a Tigers fan, the game reminded me of just how good that 2013 team was. Miguel Cabrera looked athletic, a far cry from his current state. Prince Fielder legged out a triple–a TRIPLE!–in this game. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander were still wearing Tigers uniforms. Jim Leyland prowled atop the American League dugout. For a moment, I could forget the ignominy of the last few seasons and live in a world where everything was safe and comfortable again.

Then Jose Fernandez took the mound.

Jose Fernandez was my favorite non-Tigers player–still is, arguably. I loved the energy he displayed every time he toed the rubber. Watching him was fun, because when he played the game, that’s what it was–a game. It wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously. It was a game for kids, a game that a very special, very talented, and very lucky group of adults got to play every summer for millions of fans. His radiant smile reminded everyone on the field and everyone watching at home what this game was really about.

I watched him pitch that inning in the 2013 All Star Game. I watched his electric stuff baffle hitters. I watched him flash that smile as he strode back to the dugout. And in my head, all I could see were the headlines that would move me to tears three years later.

“Jose Fernandez Dead In Boat Crash.”

“Marlins ace Jose Fernandez dead at 24.”

24 years old. That’s exactly how old I am now.

I had been living in the past. I had, for a fleeting moment, been able to relive the summer of 2013. And then, like that, I was back in 2020.

Damn it, nostalgia. You got me again.

I don’t have an argument for you. I don’t have a clear and concise thesis statement, followed by a well-structured series of paragraphs laying out my evidence and arguments and wrapping up with a witty yet topical conclusion. That kind of writing is for my brain to handle, and right now, my heart is too broken up to let my brain work properly. Instead, I’ll leave you with these two videos. They’re both from the first game played at Marlins Park after Fernandez’s death. The first is the tribute paid to Fernandez by the Marlins in a pregame ceremony; the second is Dee Gordon’s lead-off home run.

Nostalgia is often about looking back to the good memories, the idyllic days of our past. I’ve done plenty of that in my life, and I’ll do plenty more. But that’s not what nostalgia is about, not always. It is joy tinged with sorrow, it is sorrow laced with joy. It is a reminder that the most powerful memories we carry with us are often not the ones that makes us smile; instead, they’re the ones that remind us how powerful a thing our emotions can be.

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