Here at Bat Flips and Nerds we sometimes get people who want to contribute but don’t know what to write. We often say to them, “Why not write about what got you into baseball?” I have never written one of those posts, nor can I. In truth, I don’t remember. Instead, here’s a story about hamsters.
I have a history of harbouring fugitive hamsters.
My first was called Ginger. Round and redheaded, she looked like the sort of hairball a cat would cough up if it licked a leprechaun.
We adopted Ginger when I was about seven from a pet shop in a mall frequented by pensioners. This particular store was notorious amongst my friends for its free hamster giveaways, where you could enter a draw to win your own rotund rodent. On more than one occasion, pals who won soon found themselves with more than they bargained for when their prize suddenly gave birth.
In the cold light of adulthood, this no longer seems to me a coincidental development. Now I recognise the contest for what it truly was—an ingenious scheme by the pet shop to rid itself of pregnant hamsters, like shamed Victorian families shuffling unwed mothers off to nunneries.
Like many of her ilk, Ginger was especially fond of running around in a translucent plastic ball. One day, my dad suggested we liberate Ginger and allow her to explore our enclosed front porch untethered.
I expressed my doubts about this idea. If this were that requisite scene in a war film where everyone hovers over a giant map, I was the plot-foreshadowing second-in-command. My dad reassured me and reiterated The Plan. I protested. What could go wrong, he asked? He was a wise grown-up. I was a child. I relented and opened the ball.
Giddy with emancipation, Ginger scurried out, beelined for the porch corner, found a hole in the floor and was never seen again.
My second hamster was called Trixie. She was grey, and could be mistaken for the unidentifiable clump of collected material you find when you rearrange your furniture. She spun around the bars of her metal cage like a gymnast, hence her name.
Ginger and Trixie were my first real pet-able pets—I’d only ever kept tropical fish. Trixie entered our lives as my sister left for university and rendered me, effectively, an only child for the next decade. As fellow only or pseudo-only offspring know, pets are a great upgrade from imaginary friends: far more tangible, a lot less effort and—especially if kept in cages—ready to play at your whim. Loneliness becomes far more manageable in the company of a hamster.
But Trixie had other plans—and she, too, escaped. She was on the run for several days, if not weeks. I feared the worst: she’d pulled a Ginger.
One day, as I was playing with my imaginary friends in the basement (reversion was inevitable) I heard a scratching sound coming from the wall near the stairs. I moved closer. There was definitely something alive in there. I called my dad.
The Great Hamster Rescue began. Dad found some sort of hammer, smashed a hole in the drywall, and there she was—smug, smoky-grey and blissfully ignorant of the fact that the price we paid for her was far less than the cost of the inevitable repairs to the wall.
Happy life resumed—for a time.
Trixie and I had something in common: we were both nocturnal. By the time I was eight, my parents would leave me to put myself to bed. It was a fine arrangement for me because it meant I could stay up to watch the Blue Jays, which I did every night they were playing. I could sing, word-for-word, the jingle for Stetson cologne that aired between innings and recite the bit of compulsory copyright legalese at the end of each game.
To this day, hearing a broadcast featuring Dan Shulman and Buck Martinez invokes for me the same sort of immediate, nostalgic comfort as cinnamon toast or my mum singing Joni Mitchell.
And yet, I don’t know how this routine started. My parents were casual fans at best. At some point a baseball book appeared in my basement, but I don’t remember if it was the chicken or the egg—did I get into the game because of the book, or did we buy it as a result? To add to the enigma, I now can’t find a shred of evidence the book ever existed, and a search for the title yields some sexy ‘gay jock erotica’ but no baseball books for kids.
But—I swear—it was how I learned that catchers’ equipment is nicknamed the ‘tools of ignorance’. It’s why, for a time, I could recite all of Casey at the Bat.
Somehow, by the time I’d reached grade three, I’d taught myself baseball.
It was sometime between October and March. I finished watching TV, turned off the basement light, and ran up the stairs to outwit any ghosts who might have been scheming to catch me. I stopped, as was routine, to say goodnight to Trixie.
She was by this point very fat, and slept half-in, half-out of a clay hut that wouldn’t look out of place if they remade The Flintstones with an all-hamster cast. Her fuzzy pink bum and nubby tail stuck out from one of the hut’s holes.
I poked her protruding posterior. It was cold.
Like baseball, I can’t remember when I learned about death. Both feel intrinsic.
And yet, standing there in the dark with a dead hamster, eight-year-old me knew her life had changed forever—mortality had transformed from an imaginary enemy into something far more tangible.
I was overcome by a wave of pins-and-needles numbness. I ran up to my parents’ room and woke them.
“I think Trixie is dead,” I proclaimed matter-of-factly before bursting into the sort of guttural, hiccupy, stutter-sobs only kids can produce.
My parents shot out of bed, turned on the light, and started suggesting anything they could do to mollify me. The whole world of treats was on offer—did I want ice cream? Dad would go out for some ice cream! Maybe some candy? Any kind of candy to stop the kid from crying. I refused them all.
Because it hit me suddenly, viscerally, that there was only one thing that would genuinely help—but it was the off-season.
In between heaves and blubbers, I asked for the next best thing:
“C-can-can you—get me—b-baseball movies?”
In my memory, one of them then immediately sped off in our jellybean-shaped Ford Taurus, cartoonishly leaving behind oil-slick tracks and puffs of exhaust smoke—it might have been Mum.
She returned with a stack of DVDs from Blockbuster Video: all three Major Leagues. Mr. Baseball, I think. A League of Their Own.
And for a few hours, I was…okay. Not as okay as I would have been if Buck and Dan were there to to keep me company, let alone Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Joe Carter, Robbie Alomar, John Olerud, Pat Hentgen and Ed Sprague. No, it wasn’t the same as watching it live—but it was something. It quieted the noise of the Big Bad Thing for just a little while, and for that I was grateful.
It became clear that somehow, over the lifespan of a hamster, I hadn’t just learned about baseball—I’d absorbed it. It had come to bring me the immense amount of peace and joy you’re taught as a kid should only come from God.
When spring came, and with it the boys of summer, I appreciated their renewed presence so much more. The negative space, as it often does, had illuminated the immense importance of what was—finally—there to see.
Toronto had a new catcher, Charlie O’Brien, an Oklahoma native with long auburn curls that tumbled out the back of the hockey-style mask he invented. I quickly adopted him as my favourite player, a decision that led to complicated feelings about Benito Santiago, his rival for playing time.
I approached my parents a few weeks into the season and told them I was finally ready to accept a new hamster into my life.
“Well, we could get you a hamster…” said my mum. I held my breath and waited for the let-down.
“…but how about a cat instead?”
I insisted on a ginger one. Mum called every pet shop in the phone book only to discover Ottawa was all out of redheaded cats. Finally, she found a place across the border in Aylmer, Quebec. We drove almost an hour for me to meet a tiny marmalade kitten with big green eyes and disproportionately large ears.
I named her Charlie.
You shouldn’t be reading this right now.
You should be watching your favourite team play.
But instead you’re streaming reruns, reading autobiographies of your favourite players, listening to podcasts—whatever it takes to fill the void.
Perhaps, like me once, you’ve marathoned Major Leagues 1, 2 and 3 to stem what feels sharply—and perhaps surprisingly—like grief.
Of course, none of these alternatives are the same. But, at least for now, they’re something to quiet the Big Bad Thing for just a little while.
This week, several people have told me to ‘stay sage’ in their new pandemic-era email sign-offs, so here’s my best effort to turn their misspelled salutations into a few words of wisdom.
From my eight-year-old self:
1. When the indefinite off-season ends, you will never be more grateful to watch your team sprint onto the field.
2. Never, ever, let a hamster out of her ball.
Rachel is a London-based journalist and part of the Bat Flips and Nerds editing and podcasting team. You can follow her on Twitter @rae_steinberg or get in touch if you want to submit your own “how I got into baseball” tale. It doesn’t have to be about rodents.