I took in my first game at Olympic Stadium 10 years after the storied Montreal Expos played their last inning there. It was March, 2014, and the Toronto Blue Jays scheduled two spring training games against the New York Mets at the Big O, sweeping the short series in front of an astonishing two-day crowd of about 96,000.
That drunken, celebratory weekend was heavy with the kind of reverent nostalgia that baseball can bring. The decaying stadium, surrounded by dirty piles of late winter snow, was more than made up for by the electric energy that filled the building from field to roof. The shoddiness of the sound system became irrelevant when drowned out by the enthusiastic cheers of former Expos and current Jays fans. In fact, in that sea of red, white and blue old-school jerseys and caps, I’d never seen so many grown men shed genuine tears in a single location.
Baseball has this uncanny ability to transport us back through time and unearth our most basic human feelings. We remember our lives through its poignant wins and painful losses; the phrase “remember when” is repeatedly thrown around in conversations about its grandeur. Often referred to as a child’s game, baseball keeps us young, allowing us to focus with great intensity on something that we know, at its core, is relatively meaningless. Though having a good cry over “just a game” may seem mockable, it’s also a truly beautiful and rare thing – in a world so harsh, cynical and jaded, a world where it can be difficult to be honest about our emotions, it’s wonderful that we can be so childlike and feel so much, if only for a handful of hours at a time.
Though on its face, the idea of time travel may seem like a strange, even absurd subject for a baseball novel, it’s actually a perfect metaphor when you think about how a single game can pull us so deftly into the past. Rooted in the same rampant nostalgia I felt that day at Olympic Stadium, Bob Levin’s Away Game centres on protagonist Hank Bauman, who discovers an ability to transport himself to the past via an old baseball-themed board game he stumbles upon in his mother’s attic. Though Hank’s first journey back through time puts him in the stands at Game 7 of the 1955 Yankees-Dodgers World Series (our protagonist seems mostly unfazed), this trick he’s discovered gives him a more vital purpose than merely reliving thrilling past matchups.
Through his visits to the past, Hank ends up reconnecting with the dad he long believed died tragically in a fire, and he finds himself compelled to alter his estranged father’s fate. While he does so, he grapples with his own personal demons – a strained relationship with his son and the unprocessed grief over the loss of his beloved wife to cancer. With the narrative revolving around the Rattlers, a minor-league team in the small town of Colton Creek, Ohio, Away Game paints a portrait of another time period in rich detail, and mines our inexplicable love for this thing so meaningless: “What’s to sell? You throw a ball, someone tries to hit it. You wait half a minute and do it again. You either like that or you don’t.”
In the tradition of so many baseball narratives, this is a novel about personal relationships more than it is about anything that happens on the field. It’s about fathers and sons, husbands and wives and the camaraderie that happens between fans of the game. But it’s also a story that doesn’t shy away from issues of racism and sexism in the mid-20th century, using its compelling narrative arc to reveal the game’s ongoing and very necessary role in historical social progress.
With a book that seems to overwhelmingly be about taking stock of the past, it’s hard to resist viewing it through the lens of the author’s own life. Levin, who is a features editor at The Globe and Mail, has written openly about his four-decade experience with cancer, and the influence it has had on his life. Currently facing the disease for the fourth time, he’s “trying to rise above the fear and fatigue and rally to the ordeal ahead. Rallying is its own reward, no matter the outcome.” Knowing that, it’s hard not to come to this book without notions of hope, mortality, legacy, and endurance – both in life, and in the memories of others.
It’s no surprise that great baseball literature is rarely really about the game itself. It’s about how we relate to each other through what plays out on the field, and how we use those highs and lows to better understand our humanity and ourselves. It gives us a safe haven to work through our emotions, and genuinely express both our elation and our defeat. With its otherworldly twist, Away Game adds to the long tradition of making it safe for us to cry at the ballpark, and further unpacks the long asked, yet ever-unanswerable question of why we love this game so very much.Report Typo/Error
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