There are five universally recognized love languages; that is, the ways we express or experience love with those close to us. They range from quality time to acts of service, and everyone has one main way they prefer to communicate. Katie Russell Newland’s mother had a sixth option, seemingly out of left field, as her own preference—sports.
As the fifth child of six, Newland learned early on of one surefire way to grab her mom’s attention: baseball. “Mom could talk her way into a sports conversation with anyone, often surprising men […] Soulful, intelligent and intuitive, she connected with people instantly,” writes Newland in her recent debut book, “A Season with Mom: Love, Loss, and the Ultimate Baseball Adventure.”
Growing up in New Orleans with no official MLB team to stand behind, Newland and her mom found refuge in the Chicago Cubs whose games were nationally broadcasted through WGN. The certified underdog of baseball for a century worked its magic on the pair, and they sat captivated by the long stretches of quiet afternoon games together.
“This was really the only time I had with her, and it was the one thing we shared together,” Newland says. “I think that’s what made baseball so special—the connections you make in and around the game when watching it. It’s the type of sport where you can have meaningful and deep conversations with someone while also watching the game.”
When Newland was 13, she, her parents and Newland’s childhood best friend ventured from the south up to Chicago to finally enjoy a Cubs game in person. Like all die-hard Cubs fans, they ate at Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse during their trip. While seated at the same table Caray would occupy when visiting the joint, Newland’s mom excitedly suggested that they visit all of the ballparks in North America.
Visiting 30 MLB stadiums is no easy feat, but they were up for the challenge. Over the next few years, they attended a handful of games from Chicago to Atlanta. Their trek halted around 10, however, as Newland’s mom was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. And then in 2012, three years after her mom’s journey ended, Newland herself was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and melanoma.
As Newland went through intense chemotherapy and radiation, she was able to draw strength from her mom even without her physically there.
“In many ways, while it was scary to think, ‘Oh gosh, my mom didn’t survive with her cancer and what does this mean for me?’ I realized that was a gift from my mom,” says Newland. “Watching her go through it gave me the practice to understand how to navigate it and the courage to fight it. And she wasn’t even there. She was just a model for living, even in the face of death, and she just kept going in spite of everything.”
For a while, Newland figured the dream to visit the MLB ballparks had died when her mother passed away. It wasn’t until she was two years cancer free and visiting home for the holidays that the idea popped up again.
After a whirlwind few years, Newland realized there was a lot she hadn’t fully processed. On a whim, she went to an afternoon showing at her mom’s favorite movie theater. She didn’t know much about the film “Wild,” but as she sat there watching the story unfold on screen, she knew it couldn’t be a mere happenstance that it was the movie she ended up seeing.
Based on the best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed, “Wild” depicts a daughter embarking on a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail hoping to make sense of her life and her mother’s death.
“By the time the credits rolled, I knew what I needed to do,” Newland writes in “A Season with Mom.” “Swap out the Pacific Crest Trail for 30 MLB ballparks, trade nature for some of the largest cities in North America, tweak another detail here or there and boom! I had a plan for the next nine months.”
In a single baseball season, Newland accomplished the goal she and her mom had set together decades before but never had the chance to complete. Her trip sent her bouncing from city to city in a scattered cross-country voyage, featuring scenic train rides up the west coast and gridlocked Ubers on suspension bridges. She made new friends and reconnected with old ones. She saw a lot of great baseball played. She even finished the tour with a bang, throwing out the first pitch at her beloved Wrigley Field. But most importantly, she found a piece of her mom.
“The secret to understanding who I was could only be unlocked by knowing who she was,” writes Newland.
Newland believes her mom was at her best when she was traveling and watching baseball. The ballpark tour combined two aspects of her mom that made her come alive. Through them, Newland was able to understand her mom—and herself—a bit better. Newland didn’t just follow her mom’s logistical plans when she set out on the tour. She also followed her lead.
“We were very different. I was very shy, and I was definitely an introvert. And she was not,” Newland says. “I think for most of my life, I sort of watched from the sidelines her navigate her life, and I didn’t really understand what she was doing until I actually took the baseball tour.”
Newland cements her mom’s legacy in “A Season with Mom,” a poignant exploration of her mother’s storied life anchored by Newland’s ballpark visits. In letters to her mother for each stop, Newland recounts memories of her mom’s free-spirited and spontaneous nature that weave into Newland’s own desire to live a more meaningful life. The result is more than a story about baseball or cancer—it’s what Newland calls a love story.
“It’s a love story of the unpredictable and complex world in which each of us lives,” Newland writes. “Ultimately, it’s a reminder to you, the reader, that you don’t have to love everything you go through, but you should know that everything you go through can bring you closer to your love.”
“A Season with Mom: Love, Loss, and the Ultimate Baseball Adventure” is now available wherever books are sold.