The Year in Coming Close

The month that Blue Jays pitchers and catchers reported to spring training marked the first anniversary of my husband and I trying to have a baby. 

Stacey May Fowles is a novelist, essayist, and reviewer. She is the author of the novels Be...

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I’m not sure exactly when I developed the habit, but at some point in my baseball-watching career I started wagering on games.

I don’t mean in the traditional gambling sense. Instead I would tell myself that if there were a victorious baseball outcome, it would have implications in my day-to-day life. For example, if Jose Bautista hits during this bases-loaded-tied-in-extras game, it means the universe will give me that much-needed raise I’ve been hoping for. If Marcus Stroman pitches that one last strike out, that health issue I’ve been worrying about will turn out to be nothing. If Josh Donaldson produces a walkoff homerun in the ninth inning of the last home game of the season, everything will work out just fine.

For whatever reason, I would sit in my Rogers Stadium seat and suspend my disbelief, childishly thinking that the baseball gods would take time out of their busy schedules to send personalized messages my way. Otherwise rational and even cynical in my non-baseball life, I’d treat a regular season game like it was some sort of psychic divining rod dictating my fate. This odd practice soon evolved into involuntary impulse—a wager would suddenly pop into my head at any given pivotal game moment, and whatever happened at the plate would become rife with meaning.

As a long-suffering Blue Jays fan, I made these tiny and perhaps foolish wagers over years and years of inconsequential games. I’ve never actually tracked the accuracy of the baseball gods on their imaginary calls, but that always felt kind of beside the point. I was likely doing it for a harmless jolt of magic, a belief in the divine for someone without much investment in any higher power otherwise. It was a prayer of sorts. But when 2015 rolled around everything became so much more weighted, every tiny moment so much more meaningful.

The month that Blue Jays pitchers and catchers reported to spring training marked the first anniversary of my husband and I trying to have a baby. Given that my thirty-sixth birthday fell on opening day, and all those previous months of bouncing between fingers crossed hope and total disappointment, the baseball season coincided exactly with a medically dictated need to “take the issue seriously.” 

For those unaware, taking the inability to get pregnant seriously means invasive, anxiety-inducing tests and a barrage of questions from insensitive doctors. It means acupuncture, supplements, injections, and restrictive diets. It means arduous cycle tracking, daily temperature taking, clunky and expensive ovulation kits, and difficult emotional and monetary decisions about treatment and procedures. More embarrassingly, it means an ugly low-level resentment for every single pregnancy announcement and birth you’re privy to. It means earnest counseling and inevitable public weeping. And for me it meant a final, painful diagnosis of “unexplained infertility”—a frustrating combination of words that together mean something is wrong, but no one has any idea how to fix it.

*

All of this also meant that baseball, the one place I had always gone to for solace in the face of painful circumstances, became ever the more vital. It didn’t take long for me to realize that infertility is a taboo subject, something people either feel deeply uncomfortable addressing, or are ill equipped to talk about. Attempts to reach out about what I was feeling were often met with embarrassment, ignorance, or an entirely useless chorus of “just relax and it’ll happen.” 

The game was a perhaps frivolous little thing that kindly assuaged the silence and loneliness of grappling with my failure to conceive, but it was also my best treatment option. Despite how isolated and shameful I felt because of what was quietly happening to me, despite feeling like I wasn’t allowed to talk about it to even the people I was closest to, I could go to a Sunday afternoon game, take in nine innings and a few beers, and feel decidedly less alone.

There was a reigning city-wide belief, punctuated by a poetic bat flip, that was entirely glorious. 

Lucky for me, the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays did an excellent job of distracting me from the inevitable abyss of “what ifs” and “when?” with 173 home and away games over seven months. The team’s increasing success blotted out my more fatalistic thoughts and feelings about infertility, and consistently gave me something to look forward to and celebrate when things felt truly dire. When I made the very difficult decision to quit my full time job in the interest of reducing that stress that everyone kept citing as a problem, watching and writing about baseball gracefully filled my days, and silenced the nagging worry that I would never become a mother.

When the dog days of summer hit, the Toronto Blue Jays looked like genuine World Series contenders for the first time in decades. After taking a ballpark road trip to California in late July—one where I watched the Jays win a three game series against the Oakland A’s—I maintained my immovable faith and kept a keen eye on that arduous cycle tracking. I returned to Toronto to watch a newly signed David Price gloriously debut at Rogers Stadium with the knowledge I was, after seventeen months of trying, finally late. A few days late turned into a few weeks late, and I couldn’t help but selfishly think the baseball gods were rewarding me for my devotion.

And then when I had a very early miscarriage in mid-August, the overwhelming feeling of personal failure was soothed by the team’s sudden surge of success and all the public joy that surrounded it. It was the Jays, after all, who had taught me to bounce back after minor set backs and disappointments. It was the Jays who had taught me there’d always be another game.

Given my past history of making wagers, it was unavoidable I’d make the big one when the fall playoff buzz began. As I watched our boys of summer drench each other in bottles of Bud after taking the American League East, I suddenly thought, “If the Blue Jays win the World Series, I’ll have a baby.”

I immediately hated myself for thinking it. 

* 

It may seem ridiculous to say so, but the game of baseball and all its clichés are much like dealing with infertility in the long term. There’s a great deal of “maybe next time” that you tell yourself in the face of predictable, routine failure. The abundance of games, the lack of a running clock, the stats on success, the way you get up tomorrow and try again after brushing off another devastating defeat—all of that feels familiar to the determination it takes to try to conceive in the face of repeated negative outcomes. After all, it’s a long season. You’ve got so much time. You say “no big deal,” and “I’m okay, just disappointed,” and you move forward and try again. You know it’s better and healthier not to stress or wallow. Never focus on the loss lest it derail you from being focused on the potential of the future.

The Blue Jays going into October were a master class in bouncing back from setbacks. Putting on your Josh Donaldson jersey and attending those home games was like a training ground in resilience. Game Five of the ALDS, with its fifty-two minute seventh inning and now-mythical Bautista blast, was nothing less than an orgy of hope. Even in the more absurdly disappointing moments, like a 14-2 demoralizing blowout that made Cliff Pennington the first position player to ever pitch a playoff game in MLB history, there was a certain levity to the letdown. Dioner Navarro laughed and clapped from the dugout as if there was always a tomorrow to turn things around. With all the stress, all the burying our faces in our hands and praying we could do it, there was a reigning city-wide belief, punctuated by a poetic bat flip, that was entirely glorious. 

 I didn’t know how to express my feelings about my early miscarriage, and I didn’t know how to properly grieve something I never even knew.

The sweet-faced counselor the clinic assigned me told me that part of the reason infertility is so emotionally harrowing is because we’re falsely trained our whole lives to think that anything can be accomplished via hard work. If you want something bad enough, they say, it can be yours as long as you are willing to put in the time and make the necessary sacrifices to get it. But the truth is that sometimes life is simply nothing more than unfair, and no amount of effort or wanting or wishing for something will ever make it happen. Even though you’re always going to cling to the smallest sliver of faith, even though you know how much you deserve it, you have to get comfortable with the fact that maybe something you want so bad will never be yours. 

That final game of the Blue Jays playoff bid, a best-avoided memory now, was rife with the most desperate kind of faith. I was in a bar on King Street and the mood was blistering, electric: every person in the room connected in their firm belief that wanting it more, deserving it more, would dictate the final outcome.  Jose Bautista was, as always, heroic, driving in three runs with a pair of homers, including a two-run shot that tied it up when the Jays were down to their dismal last five outs. When a forty-five minute rain delay hit in the eighth inning, we all sang Drake’s “Know Yourself” in unison, and drunkenly reminded ourselves it’s never over until it’s over.

And then Josh Donaldson grounded out to third, and it was over.

I’d been trying to get pregnant for nineteen months and twenty-three days. 

* 

I’ve often said that maybe those who have deeply emotional and perhaps even excessive reactions to sports are those who have difficulty expressing their feelings about other issues in their lives. When I hysterically wept in the back of a cab after the Jays lost their final shot at a 2015 World Series, it was of course because I really wanted them to win, but it was also because I didn’t know how to be upset about not being able to have a baby. I didn’t know how to express my feelings about my early miscarriage, and I didn’t know how to properly grieve something I never even knew. So instead I cried about a bunch of men not getting rings. It felt so much easier to weep for them than to look at my own complicated misery head on.

It’s so strange to be so sad about not getting a thing you didn’t even really think about having before. When you come so close and lose it, the aftermath tends to be a period of regret instead of a celebration of all the otherwise miraculous achievements behind you. In some ways we got greedy. We thought that feeling like we deserved something was enough to make it happen, and in doing so we forgot to applaud how far we’d come.

I really needed the Blue Jays to win the 2015 World Series. But maybe, according to the baseball gods, I needed them not to win a little bit more. Maybe it was more important that I abandon my big wager and come to terms with the fact that sometimes things are simply unjust, and we can’t get what we want, and that it can be okay—even beautiful—regardless.

Maybe I needed to focus on what baseball has always taught me: it’s a long season of many games, and there’s always next year. 

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