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Going to the ballpark alone: Seeking solitude in a social sport

Author Stacey May Fowles was present at Yankee Stadium to see the New York Yankees trounce David Price and the Boston Red Sox 8-2 in May 2016.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Stacey May Fowles is a Toronto-based writer.

On a Saturday afternoon in May, 2016, I went to a baseball game by myself. I bought a single aisle seat in section 233 at Yankee Stadium, and took the D train from Manhattan to the Bronx alone. I dutifully followed strangers in Yankees caps to make sure I didn't get lost, and then grabbed my own at the team store as a strategy to blend in with the hordes. I took the escalator up to my level, purchased a beer in a plastic souvenir cup, and, during an unseasonably chilly three hours, watched the Yanks beat former Blue Jay David Price and the rest of the Boston Red Sox, 8-2. It was in so many ways a perfect day, and one I desperately needed.

At least once a season, I try to fit in a solo pilgrimage to the ballpark, just like that afternoon of solitude in New York. I've been gifted a single front-row seat on the third-base line at the Rogers Centre and enjoyed the presence of the friendly season-ticketed lonely hearts seated around me – some chose to strike up a conversation with a stranger, while others remained glued to the headphone-assisted privacy of their in-game radio broadcasts. One year during spring training, I stationed myself directly behind home plate at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., where I spent a relaxing afternoon quietly watching Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander lead his team to victory. I spoke to no one besides the kindly beer vendor, and took a fifth-inning opportunity to sprawl out by myself on a grassy berm.

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The experience reminds me that solitude among the buzz of a busy stadium is like a kind of meditation. Even when there are thousands of people around, it's really just you, your thoughts, your favourite pitcher, and the nine men in your lineup.

Baseball is an incredibly social sport to love. It's a game that attracts a vast community of fans to buoy you through wins and losses, good times and bad. Sometimes I even measure my affection for baseball in the many connections I've made, and the community I've fostered through it. In the digital age, baseball is a game you can watch with countless others without ever leaving your couch, with each play celebrated or lamented via shared online musings. I often find myself forming my in-game reactions from that cacophony of voices, and I value the experience because it pulls me out of my solitude and into the world.

For those of us who are introverted, baseball provides a comfortable space to talk about something outside ourselves. When people discover you love the game, it can replace the usual chit-chat about work and relationships. The excitement, joy, and devastation that baseball provides means you're never short of things to talk about, especially when you want to steer the conversation away from things you'd prefer not to discuss.

Baseball can also be a good facilitator for those times when you need to talk about what's really important. Ever since my dad was my first seatmate, the ballpark has been a safe place for me to confide my thoughts and confess my deep dark secrets to friends old and new. The graceful (and yes, at times excruciatingly slow) pace of nine innings makes it easy to pay attention to both the sporadic action and the person by your side. Further, there's something about sitting next to someone – as opposed to across from them – that makes it easier for those who struggle with their feelings to share them. Watching a ball game creates the same sort of conversational ease as taking a long road trip with a beloved companion, with the bonus of a freshly grilled hot dog and intermittent on-field entertainment.

But, in the spirit of good baseball life advice, and at the risk of treading too far into metaphor, sometimes you just have to take the D train to the Bronx and go to the game on your own. Sometimes you have to strip away all the other voices in the conversation, and just listen to yourself for a while.

In September, 2015, I left my magazine marketing job of seven years and pursued writing – about the game of baseball and other things – fulltime. It was a scary, yet necessary decision, though one that I recognize the inherent privilege of being able to make at all. Leaving the security of a steady paycheque and the bonus of health insurance meant a lot of emotional buildup and a great deal of saving for the financially insecure days that were sure to come. While I may have thoroughly prepared myself in all of the important logistical ways – the contents of my bank account made me relatively comfortable, and I had a few reliable freelance writing gigs and a solid backup plan in place – I don't think I was cognizant of what can happen when you become untethered from the daily socializing that comes along with a traditional fulltime job.

When I finally packed up my desk, the Toronto Blue Jays were in the midst of gunning for their first postseason presence in over 20 years, clinching the American League East in the first few weeks of my new, self-imposed exile from the regular working world. While I was enthusiastically cheering them on, I was also realizing that I had long forgotten the fine art of being alone (if I had ever really learned it in the first place), and finding that one of the only times I was around other people now was when I was at the ballpark. The daily quiet and the inevitable loneliness hit me hard during what was already a time of uncertainty. Suddenly, the lifeline that the ballpark and the baseball community had always offered became all the more vital.

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Showing up at an office from nine to five, and then going home to eat dinner with your partner, means there's little time to face who you are, or even to hear yourself think. Now that every one of my workdays requires at least eight hours of being completely by myself, I've had to relearn that skill of solitude, to admittedly mixed results. Some days, I'm optimistic and think I've really come into my own voice as a result of that ever-present quiet. Other days, I worry that I'm descending into a kind of anxious, shut-in void that makes me reluctant to put on pants and go to a social event.

What the experience has taught me is how often we measure our skills and our talents – and understand our beliefs – relationally and competitively, and how in doing so we ignore who we are and what we really want. We habitually compare ourselves to others to a debilitating degree, believing our successes can only be captured by how much we've outpaced someone else. We deal in acceptable ideas. We disregard our own capabilities. We waste a lot of time and emotion on what everyone else is doing well or badly, when we should be investing in and celebrating ourselves. And sometimes we simply forget that we like our own company, or that we love things for our own, deeply personal, individualistic reasons.

In short, we forget ourselves, and how to be alone.

It was for this reason that trip to Yankee Stadium, eight months after making the jump to terrifying freedom, felt particularly meaningful. Of course, if you love baseball and you happen to be in New York, going to see the Yankees face the Red Sox is exactly what you should do, regardless of whether or not you have someone to go with. The historic rivalry has an innate thrill to it, and is much more jovial and warm-hearted than the legend would suggest. The mass booing of retirement-bound David Ortiz was oddly light and comical, and a Yankees fan and a Sox fan in front of me in the beer line had a good laugh about the absurdity of it all. It was a joy to chat with complete strangers, to talk ball with people of varying allegiances, and to dictate my own schedule of when it was time to sit and when it was time to wander. I didn't have to explain or listen to an explanation of a play, or say a single word. I even went ahead and sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game at full volume without reservation or embarrassment – simultaneously solo and in a beautiful, jubilant choir of thousands.

But I also think I bought a single ticket because I needed to fully embrace the quiet, and have it just be the game and me for a little while. Amid the ambient sounds of the stadium, the ump's calls and the smacking of ball to glove, I needed to remind myself that yes, I am capable, and that yes, my love for baseball (and the love I get back from it) is not predicated on any interaction or external validation. Sure, the game is undeniably a community endeavour, but your love for it can only deepen when you take the time to realize what you alone bring to all its tiny dramas, losses, and victories. You can better appreciate its meditative effect, its rich solace, when it's just you, and the game, and a Blue Moon Belgian White in your Yankees souvenir cup.

Over the last year I've faced a great deal of uncertainty and doubt. I've been scared and anxious, worried about what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, and where it all will take me. I've felt unsure, and perhaps I've made the mistake of looking outside myself, and of comparing myself to others, to find the answers. If only for an afternoon, I needed to go ahead and buy a single ticket and remind myself that maybe I already have all the answers I need.

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And as always, the ballpark generously reassured me. Baseball, it said, means you're never alone, but it also teaches you that it's okay to be all by yourself.

Excerpted from Baseball Life Advice by Stacey May Fowles, which is available in stores April 11. Copyright © 2017 by Stacey May Fowles. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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