Ten or 15 years ago, when the Major League Baseball umpires went on strike, I became pretty fed up with baseball and didn’t watch much of it anymore. This was after being an avid fan of the Cubs for as long as I could remember. When I was growing up, any time we’d visit my mom’s mom, if there was a Cubs game on, she’d be watching it, and that bled over into my home life. I remember coming home from school many Fall days to find that my mom had turned a Cubbies game on as background noise. This was during the days of Andre Dawson (I have most of his baseball cards, including the rookie card, which at one point looked like it was going to be worth something), Ryne Sandberg, and Mark Grace. The Cubs sucked as always, but boy did I love to watch them; boy did I love to hear Harry Caray bellowing with a week’s worth of hot dogs and beer rattling around in the back of his throat, “Cubs Win, Cubs Win, Holy Cow, Cubs Win!”. I can still hear the rhythm and tone of the patter Steve Stone and Harry Caray exchanged, and I’m hard pressed nowadays to find anything comparable on TV. When I was a teenager, my family took a vacation to (or through?) Atlanta, and we scheduled it so that we could see a Cubs game. We sat fairly close to the field on the third-base line, and I remember thinking every fly ball curving toward the foul pole was going to be a homer. Man, was it ever cool.
But then the umps went on strike, and before long, I was off to college, where I eventually cultivated a disdain for sports. Sure, I went to a bunch of football games my freshman year, and I camped out overnight (literally in a tent) down by the Dean Dome in accordance with the Byzantine requirements for snagging student tickets. My roommate and I even went to a few baseball games, and I went to at least one or two swim meets to support a classmate and friend of a friend who had national standing. But by my junior or senior year, I had grown fed up enough with meeting in crummy classrooms or attending literature-geek events in poor facilities that I harbored this disdain for the wealthy sports establishment. I suppose turning my nose up at these things also made me feel like I was part of some elite class that could do without the celebration of brute strength in an environment that purported to strengthen the intellect.
Nevertheless, my roommate and I took a road-trip between our junior and senior years during which we caught two baseball games. We paid some family I don’t remember how much to park in their yard near the stadium in Atlanta and had very real concerns that the car would be either gone or stripped when we returned. We sat in the outfield at Turner Field and overlooked Tony Gwynn (now a commentator, along with Cubs pitcher Rick Sutcliffe) and his Padres up against the Braves. I don’t remember who won. It wasn’t so much about who won (especially for this baseball fan in self-imposed exile) as about eating those incomparable hot dogs and sitting quietly in the sun waiting for something to happen. Our plan was to drive as far west as we could without rushing too much within our timeframe and then to head back. We made it as far as Houston, where we watched the Astros play the Marlins (a fairly young team at the time, if I remember correctly) in the Astrodome. When I was younger, my knowledge of baseball trivia was near-encyclopedic, and I can still remember that Phillies superstar Mike Schmidt once hit a ball in the Astrodome that never came down because it became lodged in a PA speaker. This was long before our visit, of course, which was just before Enron Field replaced the dome as home to the Astros in 2000. The game wasn’t memorable, and there weren’t many people there at all. I don’t know what tickets we bought, but we wound up close to the field down the first-base line, watching the game over the bullpen.
Recently, I’ve found myself interested in baseball again. I don’t know what provoked the interest. But now I’ll channelsurf in the evenings and on weekends for some game or another, preferably a National League game (never seemed fair to me that the AL didn’t make their pitchers hit, so it’s always seemed a weaker league, though the NL feels to me like the underdog precisely because their pitchers have to hit), and especially a Cubs or Braves game. Most any game will do, though. Tonight, off and on, I watched the Cards rout the Phillies 10 to 1 or 2, with six homers (two by one guy, two back-to-back, and three of which landed in one late inning). Ouch. I watch Baseball Tonight if I can get away with it. M hates this, of course, because she signed up for the lesser evil of computer geek (sports guys tending to consume way too much time and beer) and seems to have gotten the ole bait and switch (or the bait and augment).
When my dad visited a couple of weeks ago, I took him to a Tennessee Smokies baseball game as a belated Father’s Day gift. It was a selfish gift, I have to say, though not entirely so. I couldn’t possibly count how many times we went out in the back yard to toss a ball around, how I’d throw a wild one over his best leap and 15 feet into a briar patch in the woods that bordered our yard, how he taught me to throw a curve, a screwball, a painfully telegraphic knuckle ball. Our going to the game was a revival of those times, now more than half my life ago. We’ll try to go to more games if he’s in town for them.
At the game we attended, we watched the local team (a Cubs farm team!) hand a Braves affiliate a loss. We got tickets just off the first base bag, on the first row. I hung my hand over the railing and took a picture of the inside of the dug-out (and would you believe these seats were less than $10 apiece?). We sat there mostly quiet, noting stats that appeared on the scoreboard for new batters and making our armchair calls. That’s what baseball is about for me. You just sit and watch, sit and listen. It’s peaceful, and the sound of a baseball crowd is like none at any other sporting event I’ve attended, muted and lulling until CRACK and everybody’s watching the ball slicing toward the foul pole hold your breath hold it hold it and there it went foul and the stadium groans and sighs and simmers down again.
From the stands, in my experience, baseball is a game of good will. We watched the Smokies mascot doing his stupid tricks, and I was irritated at first, but eventually I came around and laughed as he pantsed his partner in crime who was pretending to be a base-coach for the other team. A generally understated guy, in the later innings, I found myself yelling and applauding for a good hit on either side (though mob mentality and an unshakable allegiance to the Cubbies made me generally favor the home team). The good will at a baseball game is infectious, for it was surely the laughter of others at the mascot that brought me around. You hear somebody talking about a call or a strategy, and you want to turn around and validate it. It’s simultaneously relaxing and exciting (anticipation!). There are kids running around the field doing contests between innings, and everybody on both sides laughs and cheers for them, and then you stand up and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch. For even someone who tends toward individualism, there’s something very appealing about the brotherhood to be found at a baseball game.
And yet, when that something you’re sitting and waiting for happens, whether it be a bad call or a fielding error or a long ball, that brotherhood dissolves, with half the crowd jeering and half the crowd cheering. Until the next at-bat, when things more or less reset, and you wait for the next flurry of activity and excitement. There’s just not much better than this.
The Phillies lost their 10,000th game tonight. One player got his first home run of the majors after 93 at-bats, and in spite of their 9-run deficit, the Phillies dugout lit up for him. The Cubbies are currently at about 9,400 losses. I’m off to check the Smokies’ schedule to see when I can catch another game.