When the calendar turns to September, there is a bit of a melancholy feeling for baseball fans. It's the last month of the regular season, which means the 162-game schedule that started in April is winding down, No matter how old you get, if you love the game of baseball, the approach of fall can make you feel like a jilted lover.
My earliest memory as a child is the tap on the head I received from Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente when I was around 5 years old. I can still feel his hand on my head.
And my earliest recollection of crying is when he died tragically on December 31, 1972. Clemente was and is one of my idols.
It’s hard to quantify the addicting love of baseball for an obsessed fan like me,over a lifetime. I grew up in Pittsburgh and haven’t lived there since 1987. Yet I’m still a Pirates fan.
I take great pride in the fact that one of my closest friends from college has been the public address announcer for the Pirates for the last 35 years. If I had to come back in another life, I would be doing his job.
During one of my conversations with Dr. Anthony Fauci over the years, we talked about baseball and discussed his throwing out the first pitch at a Washington Nationals game during the pandemic. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said most appreciatively. I would give my right arm to throw out the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game, which means I'd have to learn to throw with my left.
I once asked another close friend, a Franciscan Catholic monk, the late Father Angelo, what his idea of heaven was. He waxed poetically, “It’s sitting in the Wrigley Field bleachers on a beautiful summer day, watching a Chicago Cubs baseball game. The score is tied, the game goes into extra innings, and it never ends.” I sure hope I make it to heaven someday!
Of course, when A League of Their Own premiered on Prime Video, I was going to make the time to watch it. After all, my favorite movies are baseball films, such as Field of Dreams, The Natural, The Pride of the Yankees, Bang the Drum Slowly.
I wasn’t wild about the film A League of Their Own, so it didn’t rank among my favorites. Sure, it had an all-star cast and a great storyline, but it lacked the backstories of the women that the new Amazon series covers both beautifully and tragically.
I think the writers of the series nailed the powerful lure of baseball as a love affair for each of the women, and more than just a passing love, it was a love whose devotions knew no bounds. Carson left her husband and her life behind to pursue that passion. And Max was willing to do almost anything, including pretending to be a man, to be wed to the game.
At the same time, these women were dealing with their self-love that was inhibited by their attractions to women. The irony is that it was their love of baseball that gave them the opportunity to confront and act on their love for other women clandestinely.
Today, the love of baseball is still as strong and powerful as it was nearly 80 years ago, and the wish to consummate that burning desire to play the game still resonates, despite the odds against hundreds if not thousands of young players who yearn, like Carson and Max, to be wed to the game.
One of those players is Solomon Bates, a professional pitcher who until recently was in the San Francisco Giants farm system. He was released in August but is still trying to work his way to the big leagues. He just signed with the Sioux City Explorers, a team in the American Association of Professional Baseball, an independent league founded in 2005. This gives him a chance to keep his dream alive.
Bates is also discovering his self-love, and after years of conflict, he came out as gay last month. He did it by meshing the love of the game with the love of himself. He talked about the importance of being your true self and then posted his impressive statistics as a way to say, “Hey, take a look at what I can do.”
While I watched the A League of Their Own series, I thought of Bates, because I knew he had to love the game so much for all he’s willing to do to play in the major leagues. I reached out to him not so much to talk about why he came out but about what baseball means to him.
“Baseball was definitely my first love. It always has been and always will be,” he told me during a baseball-filled conversation where we tried to outdo each other with our baseball stories.
“I’m not a one-upper,” I repeatedly said, but then I foolishly would try to one-up him. However, my efforts were futile since I’m going to be living vicariously through Bates as he strives to be a pitcher in the majors, something that I have dreamed about for most of my life.
“When I was young and in a classroom, I remember telling my teachers to use baseball references as a way to help me understand the subject matter,” Bates laughed. “I remember so well when I was 5 and my parents took me to my first Little League game. I just remember being in my own world and being so happy in that moment.”
Baseball consumed him as a youth. “I would have practice after school, and then I’d come home, and my brother and I designed a baseball diamond in the backyard, and we’d play our own version of a game. I couldn’t get enough of playing baseball.” For Bates that also meant throwing a ball against a wall for hours on end, something we had in common.
Bates also remembered seeing his favorite baseball movie for the first time. “It was The Sandlot, and my mom brought it home on a VHS [full disclosure: Bates had a little trouble remembering what that cassette was called, but this old man knew the VHS answer instantly]. I watched that movie over and over again. And I remember the Bambino character which was Babe Ruth. He was one of my all-time favorite players. And of course 42, which was the Jackie Robinson story. He’s another one of my idols.”
We had that in common too, and in another effort to try to impress Bates, I told him how I volunteered as a tour guide at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore over 30 years ago, and I did so because I knew everything about the Bambino, the Sultan of Swat, the Behemoth of Bust.
“Besides Ruth, I had so many favorite players,” Bates replied when I asked him who was his all-time favorite. “Derek Jeter, of course. And pitchers like David Price, Randy Johnson, and Sandy Koufax. And Reggie Jackson. I saw him once on campus when I was at [the University of Southern California], and I didn’t go up to him, which I could kick myself for. But I also saw Alex Rodriguez once, and I didn’t make the same mistake twice.”
Bates said that he ran up to Rodriguez and told him that he was a big fan, and that he wanted to play for the Yankees too someday. “Do you play for USC?” Rodriguez asked. “Yes,” Bates responded. And Rodriguez gave him the ultimate prediction about a major league future: “One day you will do it.” Bates is trying to make that prophecy come true.
Then I asked Bates about self-love, and how baseball helped shape his decision to come out. “It took a lot of self-learning and then reaching a point where I loved myself enough to make the decision to come out,” he said proudly. “One reason I wanted to come out was for other baseball players who love the game as much as I do and who might be struggling to see that gay players exist and that they can throw up some good stats.”
Bates said that he’s felt a lot of love since he came out. “The reaction has mostly been positive, and I’m definitely feeling the love; however, I’ve heard from some, particularly those from the Dominican Republic who think I’m wrong and have been quoting Bible verses to me, which I find ironic since I pray to God every day.”
No doubt Bates is asking help through his prayers from the biggest baseball fan in the universe — how could God not be a baseball fan? Inconceivable.
“I believe in myself more than ever, and I know that I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I’m capable of doing,” Bates said. “I love the game more than ever. That love has never diminished. And that love and the renewed love I have for myself is what’s going to help me make it to the major leagues.”
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, Equal Pride.