How Ernest Hemingway taught me to love baseball


In December, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on family.

In college, when I began dating the man who would become my husband, he told me that his family loved baseball.

"Okay," I said, treating the news as if he'd said they all liked the color blue -- a fine distinguishing characteristic, but nothing that had anything to do with me.

"No, you don't understand. My brother plays baseball in college," he insisted. "I spent my whole life going to baseball games and tournaments."

I nodded.

Growing up, my father was the only one who liked sports, he'd rush us home from church on Sunday so he didn't miss his "religious programming." A Dallas Cowboys game.

The importance of my sports knowledge didn't sink in until my then-boyfriend's father, Gary, started greeting me at the door on my visits to their house with a baseball trivia question.

"You can't come in until you tell me what number Kirby Puckett was."

"I'll answer your question when you can name five Faulkner novels," I'd say and duck under his arm.

"To understand us, you have to understand baseball," Dave once told me over a dinner of burgers at our favorite diner. I shrugged.

"What's to understand?"

The second year we were dating, I started my senior year of college. One of the classes I signed up for was on Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. I loved Faulkner, whose wild characters and dense prose often made me laugh out loud. But I cared nothing for Hemingway. I hated his female characters and the cold feel of his short sentences. But I couldn't take a class on one without the other, so I signed up.

We began that semester with Hemingway's short stories, starting with the collection "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and then moving onto "In Our Time." I was surprised at how often sports were on the periphery of his writing -- the depressed prize fighter in "The Killers," the match fixing in "Fifty Grand" and hunting in "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

It was something I'd never noticed before, how consumed with physical action his characters were, how sport gave them an identity, whether real or imagined, that could in turn devastate and define who they were.

I told Gary I was reading Hemingway.

"Oh, he's my favorite author," he said on one of my visits. I was shocked. I didn't think he read anything besides books on management and Mickey Mantle biographies. He told me his favorite book was "Old Man and the Sea," and I rolled my eyes.

"Hey, I guess I'm not an English major," he said, "so I can't tell you why I like it, just that I think it means something to me." He smiled, but I could tell he meant it. When I picked up "In Our Time," I decided just to read it like Gary would, without prejudice.

"The Three-Day Blow" is everything I hate in a story -- boys going into the woods to talk about women and get drunk. But when I read it that fall, I was 21 and in love with a boy who loved baseball. Reading the story again, I saw baseball in a way I'd never seen it before. Upset over a breakup, Nick Adams, a character who became an alter-ego for Hemingway, goes to a cabin with his friend Bill. They get drunk on whiskey and talk about women, but that topic contains mystery and heartbreak. So, they talk baseball. Alternating between love and disillusionment for the sport, their words become metaphors for the other things they can't bring themselves to say. When Nick declares "...baseball is a game for louts" he might as well be saying "love is a game for louts."

Baseball is more than a metaphor in this story. It is a thing wholly and completely on its own, a series of events, small stories, with characters and plot, which give the two boys a common language and experience.

When all else failed, baseball was a way to be part of something together -- some way to touch and connect with something great, to believe that whatever else fails, here is a thing that mattered, a place where winning was possible, and hope always prevailed. After all, win or lose, the only guarantee is that there will be more games and another season, another chance.

That same semester, during Thanksgiving break, as I began to write my final paper for the class on baseball, Hemingway and love, Dave asked me to marry him under the stars while we danced as Carole King's "Far Away" played from the CD player on his Mazda. We went back to his parents' house and told them.

After hugging me, Gary and my soon-to-be brother-in-law took me to the basement to watch the Twins' 1991 World Series video. I laughed, but I watched the whole thing, listening to their analysis and finally memorizing Kirby Puckett's number, 34.

Lyz Lenz's writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Marie Claire, Pacific Standard, Buzzfeed and the LA Review of Books. She lives in Iowa, but you can find her on Twitter @lyzl