On Labor Day

And realizing that the summer was finite after all.

Labor Day means a lot of things. In name — if not terribly often in practice — it’s a commemoration of the hard work and sacrifices made by American workers acting collectively to better their workplaces and lives. In practice, it’s a long weekend at the end of summer, and it’s a time for sales, trips to the beach, barbecues, ballgames and relaxation.

It’s a time for things to end, and for things to begin.

Yesterday, I took my family to see a minor league baseball game — the Louisville Bats, Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and last-place finisher in the International League three years running. That description is not meant to be a criticism of the Bats, who, as they do every time I attend one of their games, did exactly what I asked of them. They showed up to the ballpark, put on matching uniforms, arranged themselves in the correct places, and played a reasonable simulacrum of a game I know and like. They provided adequate pretense for me to drag everyone there and try in vain to explain the nuances of baseball to two preschoolers who just wanted to know when we could go to the playground beyond right field.

That isn’t to say that the team’s not bad, either — the game’s deciding run was scored on a two-out ground-rule double when their centerfielder lost a wholly catchable fly ball in the sun. They are bad — it just doesn’t matter. I am not here for that.

I don’t appreciate summer quite as much as I did as a child, when it felt like an endless ocean of idle time, free play and mild academic regression. Who could? It’s still a hopeful time, though, when any weekend not spent doing something — or not doing anything, but not-doing-it well — feels like a tragedy. At Memorial Day, there’s an echo of that same feeling, of looking out over a broad horizon of sunny days, bike rides and alcoholic seltzers drank while sitting in an inflatable pool. When summer shows up, it swears to you that’ll never leave, and there’s time for all of this.

Baseball’s the perfect sport for this feeling. There’s so many games, such an endless drumbeat of competition, that nothing feels too consequential. Even your best pitcher can have a bad outing, a big lead can be blown in the ninth inning, a game can end in heartbreak — and yet, it doesn’t really matter because there’s another game in 12 hours and six more this week and even then there’s five more months in the season. There’s a lot of games, is what I’m saying. And it’s perfect. We shouldn’t be bothered with consequence in the summer. 

We can spend all summer dreaming that none of this matters. School’s out of session. Offices are lightly attended, and (if you’re lucky) might work on a modified workday schedule. Sports blogs and radio fill space and time with the idlest of chatter, of hypotheticals and what-ifs and whatabouts. Beside the pool or at the beach, at a barbecue or a ballgame, we can chatter on the same way, about what we might do or who we might be or when we might get around to doing it or being it. 

Then Labor Day weekend swoops in like an afternoon thunderstorm, dousing us with the realization that it was all finite. Summer was never going to end, but then it did. School’s back in session. Football returns, with its deep self-seriousness and insistence that yes, all of this matters, every play is for the rest of your life, war metaphor, grainy footage. Knute Rockne! Do your job! ARGLEBARGLE. Even Major League Baseball puts its business pants on, quickly decides it’s going to take itself seriously, and makes a panicked few-week run toward the clinging-to-the-roof-and-screaming intensity of October baseball, a game wholly separate from the one they’ve played all summer.

Minor league baseball knows better than this. Sure, there’s practical reasons for the league to shut down after Labor Day. September call-ups to the majors. Competition for fans. (I’ll note that yesterday’s game was played the same day as the University of Louisville’s football opener against Notre Dame, and the crowd seemed sparse even for a last-place team.) At the root, though, minor league baseball knows what it is. The team shop was selling Paw Patrol-themed baseball jerseys; presumably something they’d forced their beleaguered players to wear for a theme night earlier in the season, the kind of thing you wouldn’t dare ask someone to do in September when people are watching. It’s a summer thing, just like some of my own more ill-advised tank tops. 

On the last day of a bad minor league baseball team’s bad season, on a beautiful sunny day with fluffy clouds drifting across a brilliant blue sky, I ate a food-service cheeseburger and tried to work off a hangover from a wedding the night before. Baking in the very-direct midday sun, as I tried to describe to my son that “we want the red guy to throw it to the other red guy without the grey guy hitting it”, it might’ve been easy to convince myself that the summer was still forever, that none of this matters and there will be more tomorrow.

Then the game ended, and there’s no game tomorrow.

Some of the half-wit ideas conceived over beers this summer are already happening, and some of them have already died on the vine. School is back, and my children are two inches taller than they were when they left it. I hope that they develop a healthy love of sports but not an unreasonable one, one that connects them to me with happy memories of summers that would never end, and not one that takes more from them than it gives. I don’t have full control over that, though. In the hospital, as a terrified new parent, I was handed a tiny child and saw a blank slate that I thought I’d be writing on forever. Four years later, I don’t feel terror at the expanse of that time but instead at the brevity of it, and I realize that slate was never as blank as I thought it might be. Their childhood isn’t endless any more than this summer was, and they’re well on their way to being the people they’ll grow to be. In the days that I didn’t think were numbered, I’ve already contributed a lot through my own genetics, fumbling good intentions and hopefully-forgivable mistakes. They’ve already begun evolving in ways beyond my influence, and I can only hope to help. 

The summer is short. The things we have set in motion are already moving.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)