By KOLBY PAXTON
Sunday night, at approximately 7 p.m. local time, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt fired an impressive fastball into the mitt of Astros outfielder J.D. Martinez, and the 2013 Major League Baseball season was born.
It was an interesting dynamic, the Watt first pitch. The 6-5, 295-pound “Swatt” is the biggest star in town, both literally and figuratively. He is the wrecking ball off the edge for one of the premier teams of the most popular league in the country. Many in Minute Maid Park would have failed to name even one Astro without first glancing at a program, yet seemingly everyone was very much in tune to the identity of the mountainous man in the bright orange jersey.
Until Justin Maxwell plated two runs with a fourth inning triple, the biggest moment of our national past time’s biggest night was a 73 MPH fast ball, wide of the strike zone. In essence, the scenario served as a microcosm of the current state of American sports: Football swallows everything whole, at all times, always.
The season is long, removing the sensation of significance from months upon months of 5-2 final scores. And our collective attention span is short, further reducing the likelihood of constant engagement at any point prior to September. Still, the game will forever have its place. No sport is quite so romantic as baseball.
Baseball is John and Ray Kinsella having a toss beside a cornfield in Iowa. Baseball is four days in October when the Bambino’s curse was finally lifted from Boston. Baseball is spellbinding and magical. More so than any place else, those awe-inspiring diamonds are the birthplace of our childhood heroes.
For me, those heroes were Frank Thomas and Greg Maddux, David Justice and Pudge Rodriguez, Ryne Sandberg and, of course, Ken Griffey Jr.
I named my dog for the latter, wore No. 24 every chance I got, mimicked his cocksure batting stance, and attempted to master the art of the outfield as he had. I wore his cleats and his gloves and his wristbands. I flipped my hat backwards, painted on the eye black, and tried to remember to strut – or at least jog – out of the batter’s box when I knew the ballpark wouldn’t hold my tee shot. Junior was my guy, my all-time favorite professional ballplayer, and it’s not close.
Having said that, the distance between he and my favorite amateur athlete is no closer. Far surpassing “The Kid” was a diminutive second baseman, who also wore No. 24, for the Fort Cobb-Broxton Mustangs from 1996-’99: One Jenny Ridenour.
I didn’t have an older sibling, but I didn’t need one. I had Jenny, an older cousin in title, but a sister in practice. As far back as I can remember, I have revered her, imitating the appearance of her jumpshot – though, rarely the result, mind you – her work ethic, and her outward disdain for losing. She taught me how to compete, made me want to be a ballplayer, and supported me when I attempted to provide the encore to her multi-sport exploits.
Only recently was I fortunate enough to experience a baseball/softball game – the Dominicans 3-1 win over the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic – that surpassed the thrill that I associated with watching Fort Cobb win the Sterling (Okla.) Softball Tournament 15 years ago.
It’s fitting, then, that Jenny turned 32 years old just a few hours after Watt threw out the first pitch of the season, and on the same day as the rest of the league begins play. Millions of children all over the globe will surely hold players like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout to the same youthful esteem with which I once regarded Griffey. But, if they’re lucky, they already have a sibling that far surpasses Harper, Trout, and the like.
Our athletic careers are over, save for competitive running (another sport that she led me to) and pick-up basketball, but Jenny’s influence on me as it relates to sports is far from finished. You see, she has a daughter, McKenna Rian, who will soon be a cheerleader or a tennis player, a point guard or a second baseman, and I will again look to her for guidance and inspiration in hopes that I will one day equal her aptitude as the parent of an athlete.
Happy Birthday, Jen.