The Baseball Field

There is a baseball field behind my grandpa’s house in Seoul. To get there, you walk down a narrow alleyway, sharing the asphalt road with mopeds and cabbies and drunkards.

Soon, you reach two buildings that lean on each other; they form a narrow tunnel. You slide inside, deeper and deeper, until you reach a thin chain-link fence. Most people stop there. But, over the years, my grandpa discovered that he could pull up the bottom and climb through. Knowing him, he probably created this pathway long ago.

The other side is different. The buildings are taller, the people are louder, the cars move quicker. But you probably won’t notice because, on the horizon, there is this jarring patch of green grass, framed perfectly by fine red dirt. It’s the only break in the skyline, like silence amidst a vigorous Beethoven symphony.

You can hear the pine bats slapping baseballs left and right. You can hear the soft pitter-patter of balls tossed from mitt to mitt. There is little talking. Just playing.

It’s the kind of place businessmen come to eat their lunch — the kind of place old people spend their day. It’s not necessarily quiet — the cars and the buses and people syncopate dissonant city sounds. But it’s peaceful, orderly.

In the spring of 1990, my grandpa walked me through that tunnel every day. And for hours, we watched baseball. It was boring and monotonous. But he was my grandpa, and he made it seem important. So, in my memory, it became important. It became wonderful.

Fifteen years later, I returned to Seoul. I walked down the asphalt road and to the tunnel. I squeezed under the fence. But on the other side, there was no baseball field — just some gray office building.

I complained to my grandpa, and he said they moved the field elsewhere — too far for him to walk. It seemed wrong; in my memory, that was the perfect ball field — better than Yankee Stadium, better than Fenway Park. I always thought, even in their old age, my grandpa and grandma could walk down to that grass and find peace.

But my grandpa said, “Sungsoo, it’s OK. We’re too old to climb under that fence, anyway.”

And then he said, “I just remember going there with you when you were little, and that’s good enough for me.”

I guess that’s the beauty of sports, and maybe life, too. After the moment, there is still the memory — and it is often better, often romanticized, often sustaining.

Sometimes, though, people miss that point. Like, this week in North Korea, where officials are punishing their soccer players for a poor World Cup showing. They forgot how hard it was to qualify for the tournament; they forgot how exciting it was for their nation to simply be there. Now, it’s just about the losses — the pain.

In recent months, I’ve become very interested in North Korea. It’s part of my heritage, just like that baseball field. And the more I think about it, I wonder if that nation’s true suffering isn’t what happens to them in the moment, but what happens to them in their memories.

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