I fell in love with baseball in 2004 – the year I had a nervous breakdown.
The two weren’t connected.
Back then I was an overly earnest 19 year old from a rural backwater struggling to find a sense of place at university.
I’d arrived in Durham a year earlier to study law, a subject to which I took an almost immediate aversion. A small-town tall-poppy, I struggled to reconcile with myself the fact that I was running with a new, smarter pack. I was too stubborn to know when I was done; to give up and go home.
I was similarly wracked socially. Too heavily accented and lowly bred for half of the student body I also came with the smart mouth and self-important air of the adolescent pseudo-intellectual.
After a year of bouncing between social circles, public fights, ‘organised fun’ and a last minute scramble to find housemates for my second year a realisation dwelled on me.
I was an insufferable prick.
Worse, an insufferable prick who spoke in a barely decipherable Northern patois.
I didn’t care too much for being an insufferable prick. A fact which drove me to ever more self-destructive behaviour.
I drank heavily, barely ever attended lectures and alienated, one-by-one, those few acquaintances my larger than life faux-persona had corralled in the previous twelve months.
Oh, and I never slept. Not ever.
Which isn’t to say I was living it large. Far from it.
Night after night I sat glassy eyed in front of the TV in the front room of a rented terrace.
I watched a lot of baseball.
To begin with, I barely even engaged with it. It was just the background hubbub of another numb evening inside my own head.
But slowly, guided by David Lengel and Jonny Gould, I began to develop an affinity for the game; to think at its pace and lose myself in its contemplative spaces.
At first, baseball helped me to shutdown; to quiet the frantic noise causing me so much issue. I found myself at my calmest between the hours of 12 and 3am every Sunday and Wednesday.
Baseball put me to sleep. Literally and figuratively.
And then, eventually, it taught me to feel again.
That quiet, angry numbness, that grey palette began to be shaded by a single story.
The Boston Red Sox.
THOSE Boston Red Sox.
That home run.
Those guys; that man.
A man whose warmth, smile and generous spirit was so apparent. Even through a TV screen and over a great ocean.
It’s overstating the fact to claim that baseball, the Red Sox, or Big Papi saved my life but their influence seemed to snap something in me.
As my emotional attachment to them grew so too did my attempts to re-integrate and to seek help for my condition.
It’s to Carol Carr, my University tutor, and to my Mum who I owe the realest debt of gratitude. But the romantic in me knows Papi played a hand, too.
I passed my second year exams and watched every minute of the 2004 playoffs through pre-digital fuzz on a portable TV set in the corner of a dorm room on a corridor of friends I’d re-found.
My finding baseball also taught me a few things about my life.
Those quiet, contemplative pauses are beautiful and dictate the pace and poise of everything. We need them. Or at least, I do.
Emotion should be embraced, not suppressed.
And that it doesn’t matter if you fail at first. You can move on, find your place and be loved. I owe Papi that one for sure.
After university my life and career led me to come adrift from baseball.
A chance conversation with a colleague led me to divulge the source of my love of quiet, of slowness and the recognition of my own introversion.
There and then, in 2014, baseball came back into my life.
And there was Papi, that smiling totem, ready and waiting to beckon me back.
In the meantime he’d been busy burnishing that reputation as a Boston icon in the wake of the Marathon bombing, but that same easy charm let me know there was still room in his fraternity for that confused, contemplative boy from Cumbria.
In May 2015 I made my pilgrimage to Fenway Park to pray at Papi’s Altar.
There was no laconic home run, no skyward pointing and there were no mic drops. Just a handful of scruffy ground outs in a routine Red Sox win.
Papi’s was unquestionably the second broadest grin on show that evening. My girlfriend claims never to have seen me look so happy.
Contemplating the baseball world without the man who has bookended and so influenced my own obsession is a tough lot.
Without him there’s no blog, no podcast and there aren’t those memories. Arguably there’s no degree and no ability for self-reflection and self-betterment either.
Across a distance of 3000 miles one man birthed an obsession, then awoke it again 10 years later.
You need to be a pretty special person to achieve that.