It is my belief that in order to truly enjoy baseball, you need to have experienced baseball. That doesn’t mean you need to have played it, but you need to have at least watched it live. Major League baseball or collegiate, semi-pro or minor league, high school or even church league or city league ball – it’s all good. You need to understand the tension between the pitcher and batter, the thrill at the crack of the bat and the collective holding of the breath as the ball soars towards the outfield or beyond. Groan at the weak dribbler up the line, or the heart-breaking double play. Grow bored of multiple walks. Or the jubilation of the come from behind win, the walk-off hit that clinches the victory, or the striking out of the self-assured Casey at the bat.
And a Major League game – that is indeed a treat. Not just the quality of play, but the sights and sounds and smells (popcorn! hot dogs! nachos!) of the fans and the hawkers and the vendors. The taste of a grilled bratwurst with spicy mustard and sauerkraut bought at a game is as wonderful as any liveried cuisine in my book. (Hey! No dissin’ my book, now!)
I’ve been lucky. I’ve had quite a few wonderful baseball experiences for someone of limited means.
They weren’t exactly memorable growing up, those baseball experiences, but they were there. In 4th grade, I got sucker-smacked in the eye with an errant ball hit during recess, leaving me with a major league shiner, an eye that turned all sorts of colors from red to brown to green to yellow, and a healthy fear of any small, spherical object hurtling towards my face. That didn’t keep me from being the practice batter for my dad to use as he tried to hone his pitching arm for the church league he played on. I rarely swung (kind of hard to do with your eyes screwed shut), but that didn’t matter – he just needed a target batter’s box to throw to. He had a lot of heart but not a good arm, as the bruises on my legs would attest to despite his focused efforts and sincere apologies afterwards.
My mom has a great baseball history – growing up just outside of Philadelphia, she used to attend Athletics games in Shibe Stadium with her father. She spoke fondly of running around in the empty stadium as though it were a playground, while the “men folk talked”. It wasn’t until recently that she casually mentioned that her family’s backyard neighbor across the alley was none other than Connie Mack himself. I mean, Mom, c’mon! You could have clued me in a bit sooner, woman! (Love ya, Mom!)
But when I was growing up in southern Iowa, the St. Louis Cardinals were our team. We never made it to a game, but on Saturday afternoons we used to listen to the Card’s radio broadcasts while baking in the kitchen. It’s a mighty sublime memory. Later, in 1978, I (as part of collegiate choral group) sang the National Anthem at a Cardinals game – the very game where Lou Brock was awarded a plaque for breaking Ty Cobb’s record for stolen bases (892 – he ended up stealing 938 bases in his career). I remember standing about 20 feet from Mr. Brock as he hoisted the trophy over his head to the adulation of the crowd; most of the rest of that day is a blur.
But I didn’t really consider myself a baseball fan until 1987, when the Minnesota Twins won their first World Series (I had moved to Minneapolis for good in 1984). That was the year – admittedly, not until the end of the season – that I jumped on the Twins bandwagon and never jumped off again. I can still remember how nervous I was watching the postseason games; in fact, I could not watch when things got tense. I had to go to another room, with my fingers in my ears so I couldn’t hear cheers or groans, until my husband would let me know if it was “safe” to come back. For years, I claimed that the best birthday present I ever received was Don Baylor’s home run in the 5th inning of Game 6 that changed the tide of the game and got us to the decisive Game 7, against the same St. Louis Cardinals who I had once followed, but now (and to this day) I consider an arch nemesis. During the World Series victory parade in downtown Minneapolis (I worked in an office building right on the parade route, and our bosses let us out to be part of the celebration) I was able to high-five Mr. Baylor as he rode by in his open convertible, a perfect ending to a perfect season for me.
Those were heady years for me and baseball. A partner in the firm where I worked learned that I was a Twins fan, and he would occasionally siphon his season ticket seats to me: front row, behind home plate, just outside the net. Talk about being spoiled! There is nothing like being so close to the action, to hear the interplay of the batters and the umpire, to be within spitting distance of the warm-up circle, to see up close the action at the plate. Then there were those magical moments: having Jacque Jones throw a Luis Rivas foul ball to me – to me! – cementing my love of both players for all time, even though they may be mere footnotes in Twins history; being absolutely hammered by a screaming line drive foul from the bat of Shannon Stuart that left a huge bruise on my shin – I displayed that bruise proudly until it finally faded away (perversely, the woman sitting next to my son, who was there every game, snatched the ball as it careened over my son’s lap, squirreling it away in her bag as I was sitting in shock, afraid that my shin bone had been cracked, so I didn’t even get that trophy for my pain); and the best, the absolute best memory of all – when Kirby Puckett surveyed the crowd after taking some warm-up swings, looked right at me, and winked! At me! Kirby Puckett winked at me, and smiled that amazing smile of his. Yes, indeed, at that point I truly felt that I could have died and gone to heaven.
Since then, there were good baseball memories (we won another World Series in 1991; had some absolutely wonderful players, many of them “local boys” and even more coming from our farm system; a few times I went to playoff games with my son – even sitting in the bleeder seats it was so much fun being there with him; I even had a surprise parent-to-parent conversation with Kent Hrbek in a Toys ‘R Us when he was looking for advice on what bike to get his daughter) and bad ones (losing seasons; beloved players being traded away; losing seasons; injuries; losing seasons; and the tragic death of Kirby in 2006 after his career was cut short by glaucoma – he was only 45).
But the point of all my reminiscing – and yes, I do have a point! – is that my love of baseball came not from watching the games on television, but in going to the games and experiencing them live. Even sitting in the farthest most seats, up in the rafters, can bring an appreciation of the game and of the rest of the people around you, from the kids who start off so excited and end up asleep in their parents’ arms, to the little old ladies keeping score on their cards with little pencils just like they do for every game, to giggling groups of young women fueling Instagram and Snapchat, and young men enjoying the beers and the open air and the athleticism on the field and in the stands.
When your entire experience of baseball comes from watching it on television, it’s easy to regulate what’s happening on the field to something working off a script; remote, affected, expected. The athletes we see appear larger than life, not really real, easy to dismiss, just like other sports that seem to bluster hotter on attitude and spectacle than aptitude and ability. With other sports, it seems the biggest drama is the drama, not the game. The swagger. The aggressiveness. How far you can get away with the push. But not in baseball.
But if you are watching the game from the stands, then you are part of the game. If you hear “the roar of the crowd” and smell the hot dogs grilling, see the excitement in the stands as well as on the field, feel the October breeze on your face (or the July sweat trickle down your back), participate in the focus on the field, clap along with the organist, enjoy a cold beer (or soft drink) or a sundae in a batting cap or decadent sticky cotton candy – or a brat with spicy mustard and sauerkraut – then the splendor of the game becomes even sharper, more genuine. Splendor that is happening right there in front of you. You can enter into the state of pure competition, that has captured our American hearts and minds for generations. A game, as Richard Carlin pointed out, where the offense never touches the ball, a game of duels. Where there are no time clocks, no sudden death, where the game is played until someone wins by coming home.
And by all means, root, root root for the home team. ‘Cuz you know, if they don’t win it’s a shame. After all, there are only three strikes before they’re out at the old ball game.
You gotta go. You’ve got to experience baseball live. And when you do, save a brat and a beer for me, will ya? The next round’s on me.