A Yearly Spring Training Pilgrimage: The Miracle of Memory

There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at the table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long…

Perhaps memory is the seat…of miracle.

– Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

I sipped the burnt coffee from the Surprise, Arizona Hampton Inn as I listened intently to my father. The soggy residue from powdered eggs remained on our table in front of us as familial stories slipped from his mouth with an ease akin to the “eggs” as they slid down our gullets.

My father – with a carefulness in his voice – whispered as he recalled the past.

An unfamiliar glimmer in his eyes (was it sorrow, joy, something else?) shone that early morning in the desert and were revealed to me by the rays which splashed over the local hospital and cascaded through the windows of the hotel dining room. With each and every story tumbling from his lips, these eyes glanced farther and farther through me and to some unseen place.

He was speaking to me, but he was not speaking for me.

As a kid I remember asking my father on multiple occasions where our family immigrated from. His answer always made me laugh while simultaneously frustrating me: “We are Texans. This is who we are now, and that is all that matters.” He chuckled – proud of his local patriotism, but even more proud of what he undoubtedly deemed high quality dad humor. In reality, though, the “joke” shrouded a stained history – stories he was familiar with and others he didn’t ever want to know. For him, this is a history forever to be compartmentalized to the past and never to be hatched in the present or the future.

In more stable environments, I could have asked my grandparents, my aunt, or some other blood relative about my family history, but they were all as accessible to me as a football stuck high in an unclimbable tree. All of this should have been a clue to my preadolescent mind that something was amiss in my family, and I should have taken off my shoe to try and dislodge the football from high above. Instead, I shrugged my shoulders, scampered inside to retrieve my glove, and proceeded to toss the baseball around with the neighbor from across the street.

That morning, I swirled the small pool of egg run-off with my fork as I waited to ask my dad the question that intrigued me the most about the relationship between him and the stories from the past.

My dad, half-brother, and myself have been coming to Surprise to watch the Rangers during spring training nearly every year since they moved to Arizona from Port Charlotte, FL. Our first year to attend was my sophomore year of high school, and for the few years following our initial pilgrimage to the land of burgeoning baseball, the elderly, and chain restaurants, some incredible moments occurred – memories only possible in March on the deserted plains surrounding Bell road.

I talked to the highly touted pitcher, John Danks, about life as a minor league baseball player in between a bullpen session and PFP – as a 15 year old kid.

I listened to former columnist and radio personality, Randy Galloway, disparage the intellect of Hank Blalock and the Surprise bar scene (The local Applebee’s failed to quench his thirst).

I had the entire starting roster from the 2005 Rangers team sign a baseball. Why I sought such a collection of autographs (I remember being especially giddy about the Richard Hidalgo signature) from such an uninspiring group of ball players, only the unadulterated desires of a teenage superfan can say.

Orel Hershiser mocked me during PFP when an errant ball off his fungo found its way through my bare hands and rattled around my feet as I sat in the bleachers behind the backstop. He demanded I run a lap around the bases to atone for my sins (I’m pretty sure Kam Loe and Chris Young just stayed on the circuit because their gangly limbs inhibited them from ever fielding a ground ball cleanly). My shyness refused participation in such a public act, so he berated me a little bit more. I must say, though, I redeemed myself ten years later when I snagged a foul ball of the bat of Hanser Alberto down the third base line in Scottsdale. Take that, Orel!

I interviewed Rangers General Manager, Jon Daniels, for an article I wrote for my university newspaper. After I was done, we were subsequently locked into Surprise Stadium. Seeking an escape route through an unmanned door, we accidentally meandered into the Royals clubhouse as their team bus returned from an away game. It is the only time I have seen my dad run with any sort of conviction or pace.

I could go on and on…

While my love for the Rangers is as strong as ever and my knowledge of inconsequential minor league players is as comprehensive as ever, these memories from the sun-drenched valley is not what compels me to take the 6:00 am flight out of DFW in order to catch a 9:30 am practice one morning every March. It isn’t the possibility of being asked to shag fly balls during batting practice on the back fields (but, man, I am ready to rob some Gallo homeruns when my number is called). It isn’t to watch Bubba Thompson emerge from the dugout to crush a line drive bomb to centerfield in a major league game or to be mesmerized by LHP Brock Burke tossing two scoreless innings against a primarily a much more seasoned lineup.

No, those are not the reasons I travel to Surprise every year.

About five years ago, the stories which roll so trippingly off my father’s tongue now, began to leak slowly to myself and my brother. A life, a history, a past once borne to a despair only meant for himself became territory for two of his sons to traverse. These memories – knit into his own wounds and his own soul – are now sketched out for us. They fill a space which once was void for us, and in a way, obtain a fleshly quality as Marilynne Robinson would say. His memory, and the memories of his ancestors, now become our own.

A miracle has been performed among the bad hotel food and intolerable west valley drivers. It is a miracle I pursue every single year like the anxious youth at church summer camp who gravitate to the alter after the week’s culminating fire and brimstone sermon one summer after another.

I think the overwhelming question of human existence is, “Who am I?” We seek the answer to this question through varied means — our jobs, our religions, our hobbies, our relationships. Personally, my identity is bound up in my faith first (Christian) and my vocation second (humanities teacher), but there was always this longing within protruding from an incommunicative place. Oftentimes, we are unable to speak this darkness into light ourselves; we need someone else to do so. The beauty of a miracle is that it transforms you from some external source, a source outside of yourself. There is nothing you have done to deserve it…

The voiced memories of my father produced a miracle for me. And, I think it produced a miracle for him, too. They have filled the space that was once empty which – while the lives of those lost won’t “step through the door finally” in any literal sense – the lives of those who walked this earth once before roam freely in my heart and cultivate an answer to the question, who am I?, that had previously kept my soul barren.

I asked my father what he has received from researching the stories of his heritage and telling them to myself and my brother. His response was a simple as his steady and timid recollections that morning. He said,

“Pride. I was originally afraid to find out who my people were, but after doing some research, I realized I am proud of who I am and where I came from.”

So, who are we?

We are a people who fought bravely in the Civil War and WWI; we are a people who owned and farmed Blackwell Island in NYC (which Edward Hopper depicts in a painting); we are a people who have lost and won battles with alcohol; we are a people who were once left for dead in a coma on a hospital bed only to awaken to live another half decade; we are a people of murderous intrigue; we are a people who took full advantage of the American dream for the benefit of their loved ones; and, most importantly, we are a people, as Wendell Berry says, that “Love the Lord / Love the world…/ Love someone who doesn’t deserve it…/ [and] Practice resurrection.”

The misty film gleaming in my father’s eye that morning at breakfast had nothing to do with baseball, but for me, it had everything to do with it. At the core of the game is a desperate struggle to return home. You always begin with an 0-0 count, pristine, clean, with unbound expectation, but failure, frustration, and fullness is only truly experienced when you overcome all that has been thrown at you. You get caught in run downs, you get picked off at first, you eat dirt as you slide clumsily into third base like Ian Kinsler once did. But, sooner or later, you trot (or sprint) around third base and arrive at the place you were always meant to be – and “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where [you] started and know the place for the first time” (T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”).

The miracle of the memories – not of spring training itself, but of the ritual of attending each year with my father and brother – constructed an identity that was once lost. By sharing yearly space with my father, by providing him the opportunity to share his space with us, we both now can answer the question we all consciously or subconsciously seek to answer. Who am I now that the memories are mine, that the memories are ours?

I am a McGee.

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