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Home » Baseball

The Old Ball Game

Submitted by on October 29, 2001 – 1:07 PMNo Comment

September, 1985. Reagan’s in the White House, The Golden Girls rule the Nielsen ratings, and I’ve just started the eighth grade armed with a collection of Flashdance-tastic off-the-shoulder Esprit tops, a parted-down-the-middle-and-carefully-curled-on-the-sides hairdo, and enough Wet ‘n’ Wild green eye-shadow to sink an aircraft carrier. The whole family is staring down the barrel of the ugliest part of my adolescence, when I begin to hate them all just for existing, but it hasn’t gotten too bad yet — just the garden variety sulking and snitting. When my father announces a family outing to a Mets game, I greet the news with that that very same sulking and snitting. I don’t care about baseball. I don’t want to ride all the way out to Flushing Meadows, stuck in the back seat with my prone-to-carsickness little brother. I don’t enjoy my parents right now; I won’t enjoy my parents again for several years. But I don’t have a choice, so I sulk into the car with a large book and bury my nose in it for the drive to Shea Stadium, surfacing only occasionally to snit at my brother to shut up.

Dad gets lost. We drive around Queens for a while. We’ve got another family with us, the Haires, and it’s loud and hectic in the car; my brother whines about having a tummy-ache. We pass the Unisphere several times. “Cooooool,” my brother croons. I think it’s cool too but that doesn’t stop me from telling my brother to shut up anyway. Ma tells a story about going to the World’s Fair in 1964 and walking around the whole day in brand-new sandals that cut her feet up and how you should never wear brand-new sandals to walk around the whole day, and I will think of that story every time I see the Unisphere from then on, picturing Young Ma with her long hair, walking around the whole day in her brand-new sandals, holding hands with Dad.

Finally, we get to the parking lot at Shea Stadium. All the getting lost means that we have to park farther away from the stadium than we actually live. Everyone cracks good-natured jokes about gorp and Sherpas. I stew. My mother tells me to leave my book in the car; I sulkily decline, tucking it under my arm with a put-upon sigh and mentally composing a diary entry about the myriad burdensome injustices visited upon me during this trip to the ballpark. We walk to the stadium.

Shea is packed. “Gooden gets butts in the seats,” my dad says. That means nothing to me. “They could still catch the Cards, I think,” Mr. Haire responds. “What cards?” my brother asks. “The Cardinals,” my dad explains. I don’t know what “the Cards” means either, or what “catching” them means, but I still tell Mr. S to shut up. We file into our seats, climbing over people who got to the game on time. My mother sits between me and my brother, to prevent any further shut-upping. My dad gets out a scorebook and a pencil. Planes thunder overhead. I open my book and heave another sigh. So bored. So tragic. So twelve years old.

I don’t know why, but after a little while, I decide to watch the game instead of reading. Maybe it’s because the crowd screams and moans and roars at every pitch Gooden throws, so it’s hard for me to concentrate on my book. Maybe it’s because I can’t read and hold a hot dog and a soda at the same time. I don’t know, exactly, but I know that when Gooden comes to the plate, I’ve got my eyes on the game, because I remember him hitting the home run. I remember it cracking off the bat just like in a movie, and I remember the ball sailing out of the park in an enormous parabola, and I remember the crowd getting to its feet in disbelief and hearing that hopeful “ahhhhh ohhhhhhhh?” of anticipation that will become so familiar to me later on, and I remember the ball arcing far away out of sight and the “ohhhhhhhh?” changing to an “AAAAAAAAAAHH” as the entire park jumps and screams and hugs each other for fifteen minutes and my dad is so thrilled that he laughs out loud. I don’t know yet that pitchers can’t really hit. I don’t know that Gooden, at that moment the best in the game, will never pitch again like he does now, or that he’s just hit his first home run in the big show, or that the team the Mets proceed to beat up on 11-2 that afternoon is the worst in the league. I just watch Gooden circling the bases and his teammates clustering around home plate to welcome him and thousands of grown men shrieking like schoolgirls, and a part of me clicks into place. A great romance is about to begin.

And it’s a romance, all right. On ICQ last night, SJ and I got to talking about the way that love is so important to all of our lives, and yet it resists description and discussion in any but the most banal terms. It’s too big, too elusive. I feel the same way about baseball — nothing I can say about it does it justice. I couldn’t name a bigger cliché than the bottom-of-the-ninth-inning home run that wins the game, and yet it’s like a little miracle every time it happens, even during the regular season when it doesn’t matter as much, like the time I took in a Yankees game in a bar in Brooklyn, mostly to get away from my then roommate, who’d adopted losing his mind as a pet project, and Pat Kelly came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth with a man on and the Yanks down one. Jeter replaced him the next year and everyone promptly forgot about him, but at that time, Kelly played shortstop, and hit, predictably, like crap most of the time, so all of us at the bar glanced at the TV, shrugged, “Pat Kelly. That’s that then,” and went back to our conversations, and Pat Kelly proceeded to hit a McGwire-sized home run that’s probably still hovering in New York airspace somewhere — I mean, he crushed the damn thing, and the Yankees won by a run, and the whole bar just stared openmouthed at the television for ten silent seconds, and the television showed the Yankee dugout, where all the players sat there staring openmouthed at Pat Kelly circling the bases for ten silent seconds, and finally one of the bartenders said, in a tone of surprised admiration, “Pat fucking Kelly. Now I’ve seen everything.” And all hell broke loose in the bar — high-fives, people bellowing, “Pat Kelly? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” Or the time the Couch Baron and I watched a game of the ’98 World Series in a little sports bar called No Idea, and Brosius came up with two men on and the whole place started grumbling about how much he sucked and how bad he hits in the post-season, and I turned to the Couch Baron and said, “He’s gonna put one out — it happens every time, no men on base and he hits like my grandmother but in this situation he’s gonna get it done,” and a Wall Street meathead sitting next to us overheard me and laughed to his friends, “Get this, she thinks Scotty Bro’s gonna uncork one,” and they all laughed too and said they’d take that bet, and Brosius dug in and worked the count to three and two and then he turned around on a slider that didn’t slide and hit it out for a home run and everybody in the bar went crazy and the Wall Street meathead yelled over and over, “I KNEW he could do it — didn’t I tell you guys? Brosius is the MAN!” and the Couch Baron elbowed me and rolled his eyes, and I giggled.

I can only tell stories about games I’ve seen and seasons I’ve watched, home runs that towered or shot out of the park, times when baseball kept me company or when I shared it with other people. It’s hard to put into words, the companionable afternoons spent on the couch with Djb, flipping between the Mets and the Yankees on TV and handing the bag of Doritos back and forth. Or the night Slim and I, thinking the Yankees might clinch the division title, busted out a subway map and planned our assault on the Yankee Stadium ticket window immediately after the game, only to fall asleep on his living room floor during the post-game show when the Yankees wound up dragging the drama out for twelve innings and then, in the end, losing. Or the Pettitte Is A Hottie Who Looks Like A Young Travolta v. Pettitte Has An Enormous Ass And Talks About His Lord And Savior Jesus Christ Way Too Much To Qualify As A Hottie case, argued endlessly in the court of me and the Couch Baron. Or lying in bed in the dark on hot summer nights, WFAN on the radio and my phone next to me, trying to get on the air to complain about Jose Canseco. Or crying real tears when McDowell and Dykstra got traded to Philadelphia. I have a thousand stories about baseball, and I love to talk about baseball, but loving baseball…well, why do we love anything? It’s a sort of magic, in the end, and magic doesn’t bear explaining.

Baseball is a only a game, played by mortal men. I know that, in my head. I know that it’s vaguely ridiculous for grown-ups to hit a ball with a stick and run around in circles, and to make a living at it. But it’s a game with hope built into it. On a baseball diamond, perfection is attainable. That home run in the bottom of the ninth? It could happen. It’s not impossible. Pat Kelly can win the game. Dwight Gooden can pretend he’s a slugger. We can pray for magic, for a miracle, and get it.

Maybe it’s naïve to love that about baseball, childish and unrealistic, especially these days with everything that’s happened in the world and everything that keeps happening. Maybe it’s my sappy, melodramatic nature. But that’s what I’ve always loved about baseball: hope, magic, the possibility of sudden startling heroism…a good story, baseball, and always the potential for a happy ending.

It doesn’t make sense, really, but that’s love for you.

October 29, 2001


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