BasebalLife: A hot stove confessional

Winter is an illness.

Those of us living in the frozen north forget what it was like to be warm, much as those who are sick long to remember what it was like to be well. Winter also lends itself to introspection; after all, taking a walk or mowing the lawn or just getting out for a drive is a chore. What is there to do but huddle under a blanket by a warm fire, a hot beverage at hand, and wait for the temperatures to rise, the sun to stay out a few moments longer until the birds return and baseball comes back to the radio?

These are my hot stove confessions.

The Milwaukee Brewers weren’t always my team. There can be no zeal like that of the converted.

Baseball seemed a million miles away in the late ’80s and early ’90s in central Wisconsin. Cable was only beginning to proliferate there, and the Brewers, like many ballclubs, were still bound to local TV deals. While the Brewers were on statewide radio, few games were televised outside the market proper. This isn’t to say I didn’t like baseball, but that there was a no man’s land that existed where my family lived. That, and the Crew was sliding toward irrelevance and futility after Team Streak in 1987, and the fact that my grandparents still lived in extreme southwest Minnesota.

I’ve written here before about how my grandmother loved baseball. Indeed, Minnesota is a state rich with local baseball history, from Moorhead to Red Wing. She was the offensive powerhouse at church picnic games, big bat but couldn’t run for anything (a certain grandson can relate). For years, she would sit in her kitchen with WCCO tuned in for Twins games. And as the Brewers faded and Twins surged in 1987, we were sent Homer Hankies and buttons and World Series paraphernalia.

Even when they moved to Wisconsin to be closer to my mother for the impending winter of their lives, my grandmother’s transistor radio would sit in their dinette against the window, hoping to catch the signal from 830 AM roughly 215 miles away. (On some summer nights, she could.) To this day, I wish I had understood and loved the game then as I do now; my perception of our relationship would be much warmer if we had something to which we could both relate. There are holes in my soul in at least two places: one to the paternal grandfather I never met and yet family insists I am in some way reincarnated, and the other to the maternal grandmother I did know and couldn’t appreciate while she was yet amongst the living.

In this regard, we must actually rewind further yet, back to my infancy. While I was born in suburban Milwaukee and claim it fully as my roots, I say so with a considerable asterisk: my family moved from Milwaukee (Muskego, then Hartford) to the southern Twin Cities suburbs in the early 1980s. My earliest memories are of life in the Twin Cities. My earliest memory is looking out the backseat window of our car and seeing the decaying remains of Metropolitan Stadium alongside the Met Center on Highway 77. You would know those now as the Mall of America and an IKEA. My first baseball game was as a toddler, going to the Metrodome and seeing the Twins and Brewers play. I don’t remember anything except they did a postgame handshake line. I don’t know what year that was or anything else beyond that.

The Metrodome was flawed in many ways, a football stadium terribly reworked into a ball field, but its *ahem* distinctive roof on the northeast edge of downtown Minneapolis enchanted me from my boyhood all the way through my first foray into college, when I lived mere blocks from it. By all rights, I probably should be a Twins fan.

To this day, I still can’t work up the animosity certain Brewers fans of purer, older blood have with the Twins, and it’s certainly not the same as the rivalry between the Packers and Vikings, and nothing like Brewers-Cubs. I’m not sorry about this.

I grew older, Michael Jordan captured the attention of America’s youth, then the Bucks improved and my hormones were sending me in one direction–the pediatrician’s office, namely, for acne medication–while my religious identity was pulling me another and baseball took a backseat. The 1994 strike hurt, too.

Beyond all of this, I’d watch day baseball in the summers. On WGN. Not as often as I watched those game show reruns on USA Network, but I wasted many a gorgeous summer sitting in front of the tube.

Yes, as a child, I would voluntarily watch Cubs games. Ryne Sandberg was really good. I developed an impersonation of Harry Caray and it always occurred to me that Steve Stone was annoyed to be with the obviously-drunk Cub Fan Bud Man Caray. I giggled to myself at the sight of Paul Assenmacher‘s name.

To be fair, WGN was on cable and the Brewers weren’t. They also could play at night, whereas the Cubs still played almost all their games during the day. I also had no idea what I was doing. My dad was a football man, raised on Lombardi’s Packers. Baseball was secondary. After all, like many who were raised in that generation, the Braves slummed their way to Atlanta and the Brewers were mostly terrible in that first decade of their existence. My older brother was enamored with a young Oakland Athletics first baseman named Mark McGwire. He even had that now-ridiculed Bash Brothers poster on the wall. It made more sense then than it does now, as the pop-cultural references more relevant then are not so much now.

There was no real baseball loyalty in that house. [In distinction, there is in this one.]

It was the Twins’ return to relevance that brought me back to the game. Twins fever enraptured Minnesota sports fans as they returned to the postseason just to hit the buzzsaw of the Rally Monkey Angels and titanic Yankees years in and out. Those postseasons got my attention. I turned my attention to the lowly Brewers, then run and run into the ground by a blind trust. The game lured me back, those dramatic postseasons hooked me, and the slow, often painful renewal of the Milwaukee Brewers sealed my testimony.

I still get the tingles when I see the green arc of Miller Park’s roof. I will stop at Ken Burns’ Baseball whenever it’s on. I’m teaching my children the fundamentals of the game. I nearly wept every time I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. I’m storing up pennies for an eventual trip to Cooperstown. The game finds its way into your soul. If it doesn’t, it’s entirely possible you may not have one.

I make no apologies for the fact that baseball is bigger for me than my love for the Brewers. This is the greatest game on the planet, and this final month of waiting for spring training, like that nagging sinus infection, can’t pass by soon enough.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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