, Salem, MA


May 7, 2013

Column: Spring, swings and other important things

Last month, my wife and I traveled from our home near Boston to visit Washington, D.C. By a happy coincidence, we arrived at the same time as the Atlanta Braves, my hometown team. I watch nearly every Braves game online — they keep me tethered to home and to my dad, and they help me fit in as a Southern transplant in baseball-crazy New England. But this game was my only chance this year to see them in person.

For all the marvels of television and the Internet, there is still a certain magic to being in the stadium. The magic is part sensory — the crack of the bat or the thrill of a runner stealing a bag — and part story — the personal circumstances of those who step between the lines or the narrative of an individual game unfolding pitch by pitch, inning by inning. These stories zip across the grass and dirt, buttoned up in fabric that bears the names and emblems of our homes, tied to sounds and images that have a way of sticking in our memory.

Plenty of storylines ran onto the field that day in gray Atlanta uniforms, but one stood out: penciled into the cleanup spot was a 26-year-old rookie who had battled substance abuse, depression, and existential crisis to muscle his way into the major leagues. After high school, he had journeyed around the country in a truck that was about as beat up as he was, searching for answers to life that he hadn’t been able to find through baseball. Somewhere amid stops as a pizza guy, a ski lift operator and a janitor, the itch to play ball returned.

He found his way into the Venezuelan Winter League and emerged with a nickname to match the buzz gathering around his feats of strength on the field. When “El Oso Blanco” finally arrived in the majors this spring, he homered in his first game, and his legend was still growing seven games later when the Braves landed in D.C. Only the day before the game I attended, he had taken a 96-mph fastball thrown high at the letters of his jersey by one of the game’s best pitchers and, somehow, smashed it into the left field bleachers.

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