Wednesday, October 31, 2007

missing the friendly confines

The other day I was walking my wet bike home from work thru the park on Capitol Hill, when I came across a little league game. I would have walked past it, except the team that had just retired the side and was flooding the dugout near me had on Cubs jerseys. I had a breath of nostalgia run thru me and stopped to feed the homesick hunger my teams colors evoked in me. I leaned my bike against a wall and half sat on the horizontal crossbar. So as I watched the kids throw and catch, the former a little wildly, the latter, rarely, and the dads talk about opening day at Safeco Field and the Mariners prospects this year, I realized how much baseball is a part of my life.

I am from Chicago, where we have two teams (one for each major league) that personify two sides of town (north and south) and unite (or divide) families and friends city-wide. And the loyalty is fierce. I mean, I was mildly interested that the White Sox were in the World Series last year, I was even grudgingly happy for my friends who are diehard fans, but, oh I wish I could even begin to tell you what it was like for us two years agothe euphoria of that time when we were watching our boys in blue in October, as Wrigleys ivy was turning red and our hopes were so high it made us dizzy. But I cant revisit that. Not yet.

My love of baseball is deep. Its in my bones. As I watched the mini cubs' center fielder drop a fly ball, pick it up with his mitt and take three big hopping steps before deciding where to throw, I felt not only his emotions but the movement of his muscles. How hard it is to pick up a baseball with your glove tip, especially wearing your older brothers glove thats just too long for your hand to snap shut. Standing so near this game I can feel myself a part of so many other games as a kidI can bring up the tangy smell of the aluminum bats we used, can taste the grit of the brown dirt that clung to us, whether from sliding into second or just kicking our cleats dirty while sitting in the dugout. I can feel the supple leather of my mitt, the acid on my tongue when tightening a knot on it with my teeth. The sharp scent of the bruised grass from shuffling my feet in center field, the sting of sweat in my eyes, the slick of the catchers mask on my forehead and chin. These things are comfort food for my brain.

I hear the coach cheering and my vocal chords know the drill Go, Cubbies! almost croaks out of my own throat unbidden. The sky here is a predictable, but unfamiliar dark and shifting grey, allowing a respite from the rain for a few good innings at leastI never had to play under a sky like this one, in fact, what I remember most about playing little league is looking out beyond center field at the tangerine sun sitting in ready position just over the fence, looking for a fly ball to come its way. Playing outfield was never that bad when the late afternoon sun is backing you up.

Okay. So Im talking about nostalgia here. So shoot me. But its a passed down kind. I come by the love of this game honest, from both sides of the family tree. Baseball seems to be the one thing my grandfathers had in common. They were very different menone a hard-headed, hot-tempered engineer, and the other a level-headed, soft-spoken banker. Or so Im told, they both passed away before I was born. But I have heard my parents tell of their memories of each of their fathers listening to games on the radio while fixing stuff around the house. These memories always surfaced when we were painting the garage or stripping the trim on the house; always when Grandpa Foxs old transistor radio had been pulled out and tuned in to catch the static roar of fans punctuated by cracks of the bat. I sometimes confuse my dads memories of the baseball stars of his youth and pick-up games in the park with my own. He had such a mythic attitude towards themthe golden days of the game. Maybe it was no different then, maybe its Dads nostalgia colored, like mine, as it was understood by a 10 year old. But still, in some ways that feeling is tradition, something reverently enacted in deference to earlier timesa bit of how I feel when I hear Casey at the bat the way I smile when I see Babe point with his bat, even if Ive only witnessed it on old film stock in retrospectives Its a cultural phenomenon shared thru timeharkening back to the good old days whatever those are. Its a part of the root structure of so many Americans identities. I mean, Ken Burns did an epic series on it for Christs sake. Its about as American as you can get.

But there is something about baseball that I dont understand, cuz it can be boring and slow. And kinda pointless, and kinda weirdly individualistic, what with the role of a pitcher and everyone batting one at a time. Much more so than other team sports like soccer which I love and wish America would join the rest of the world and start treating as a professional sport. But baseball is an American sport, and being American, though Im not proud of that outside of the ballpark, it makes some sort of crazy sense to me. Of course its individualistic. Of course it is more popular than soccer here. Its statistics and averages and probabilities are tempting figures; the desire to see men run in a circle is so compelling it itches, and till a long fly ball is caught every breath in the stands is held tight. But why? I dont know.

Because this sport is also oddly difficult. The skill required in hitting a 90mph fastball with a bata ball 3 inches in diameteris kind of obscene. The concentration and stamina it takes to be ready for any given fielding opportunity, and then to actually perform each of them is monumental. Not to mention the patience and attention span needed to hurry up and wait. How on earth did we decide it was a good idea for children to play this game? Attention span alone, not to mention eye/hand coordination and reflexes, but dealing with personal tragedies like striking out every time you are up for 9 innings straight, or dropping the ball that allows the winning run to score, and the juvenile shunning that accompanies them, my god. Separately, these are hard things to do, but all at the same time? When I think of all of this, I remember some painful moments and vow to protect my progeny from such humiliations. I cant lie and say all my memories are good, but I can say they are vivid and very much a part of who I am whether I want them to be or not.

And sometimes I dont. sometimes the whole baseball and apple pie thing makes me gag. Whose country, whose history is this? Not a lot of people I know. And most of the time I wouldnt be caught dead identifying myself as American in any way, especially not having to do with the grossly overpaid and self-aggrandized professional sports culture that has been created. But still, baseball gets to me. I choke up at the seventh inning stretch, if not the national anthem. I get caught up in it like a dramatic movie, and most of all, I remember the feeling of putting on my mitt on a mid-summer afternoon and having it feel like a part of my hand. I revel in thinking about how my ten-year-old self, along with my brother and neighbors, used to play whiffle ball (just like dads stick ball, but plastic) in the alley behind our house, home plate spray painted on the cement. Third base was a section of the garage door, so you were counted safe as often with your hands as with your feet. And there were two people per team, so there were tons of ghost runners who were exactly as fast as you and couldnt be tagged out, but a force totally counted. I loved those times most when it was more dark than dusk and from center field (the only field attached to our super-narrow diamond) I could hear the whir of the whiffle off johnnies fingers, almost feel the power of the cut seth made with the thin bat, sense where the ball started hanging in the air and be ready to catch it and tag the bag before annie reached it. Of course then wed have to call the game cuz dads headlights were shining in our eyes and he was waiting to remove third base and park the car. That time of day always meant we were dirty and sweaty and sick of arguing over phantoms and it was time to eat dinner.

So its nostalgia, so what? Its like home cooking (which I also miss, by the way). But why baseball? Is it just shared experience? Maybe its like learning a language when you are small and forever after being able to speak like a nativemaybe baseball got soaked up in the sponge of my young mind in a way that indelibly marked methe memories of childhood too strong to overcome logically. These kids all the way out here in Seattle are having a very similar childhood experience to mine just outside Chicagosome details are different, they play on Astroturf for onebut most things havent changed. First basemen have to have good reach, shortstop is an enviable position, pitchers have a lot of pressure to deal withthese are givens in all our minds and the kids that grow up in Manchester England, though they speak our same language (albeit strangely) they dont understand the meaning of a pop fly at the bottom of the ninth with two outs like we do. Maybe I stopped today for a moment of something that reminded me of home in this far away place Ive thrown myself. And maybe its to feel more at home in this new city, having something in common with these people that surround meat least we all love baseball, even if they dont eat white bread or have greasy spoons here. Even if snow is an exception in winter and coffee culture reigns. At least we all love baseball. Too bad the mariners arent national league.

1 comment:

seth said...

“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”
- Jacques Barzun