Day 36 of our quarantine. Many folks are still saying this is the End of the World. And Major League Baseball announced a few days ago that they will be pushing back Opening Day even further than originally thought. Some are saying we might not even have baseball this year.
You might think baseball is kind of a waste of time. And hey, you’re probably right. After all, when the word is falling apart, the last thing anyone needs to be losing sleep over is the importance of solid relief pitching.
Then again, a ball game is hard to describe to non-baseball people. It’s difficult to give adequate detail to the symphony of little things happening in a ball park. Like the smells. Or the sounds. Or the excitement you feel when you struggle for six hours just to find an illegal parking spot.
I remember when my old man took me to my first ball game. I must have been five. Maybe six. We were walking through the long parking lot, he was holding my hand. He wore a Phillips 66 ball cap. I don’t know how I remember that.
It was a big stadium. There were huge ramps leading upward to the general admission (crummy) seats, which was all my old man was willing to pay for. He was so tight he had to use WD-40 just to get his wallet out of his pocket.
We sat in the upper decks with the riff raff of society, just like ourselves. The players were so far away that they looked like little fruitflies crawling on ripe pear. I had never felt quite as giddy as I did that day.
You see, you never forget your first glimpse of a ball field. The tight-cut grass, green in the setting sunlight. The geometric chalk lines, red dirt, the sounds of thirty thousand having a conversation at once. Everyone is hungry or thirsty.
A man was selling beer. He had a little hose coming from a keg he wore on his back. My father bought a plastic cup and paid the man an arm and a leg for the beer, then complained about the price between every sip.
The Cardinals were exiting the dugout, moving nonchalant. My father was a notorious Cardinals hater. The Cardinals were wearing their travelling gray uniforms.
My old man was booing them. He was unified with the rest of the crowd, who was also booing. That’s how baseball works. When your tribal members cheer, you cheer. When they boo, you boo. If they were to set fire to the general manager’s BMW, you would provide the matches. There’s something about loyalty between booers.
I grew up hating both the Yankees and the Cardinals. The other teams were okay. They didn’t bother me too bad. I wasn’t worried about what the Dodgers did, I didn’t care about the Sox or the Mets. But the Yanks, and the Gashouse Gang were of the Devil.
It was a good night for a game. I remember this clearly. There is more to a ballgame than the game itself. In fact, the game doesn’t move you half as much as other little factors. Non-baseball fans sometimes fail to understand this.
A ball game is 50 percent weather; 50 percent obnoxious drunk fans who get thrown out of the game by the police. It’s ambience that matters most.
The ambience was perfect that night. It was the quintessential evening. The crowd was wild. The Cards were losing. We couldn’t have been gladder.
In the the eighth inning, a man was selling hotdogs. My old man ordered three. He ate two. I ate one. He griped about the price of all three. Daddy was in the middle of his second hotdog when there was a pop from the bat.
A Cardinal hit a foul. The ball was sailing right to us.
I will never forget what happened next. My father removed his cap and held it up. And it was magic. Time slowed down. The ball plopped right into his hat.
I screamed. Our section screamed. My old man screamed. Our hotdogs and popcorn became casualties of war. My father stood and displayed his white ball to his adoring public. It was the greatest day of my childhood.
And the rest of the game was a blur. We went through the final innings with smiles permanently fixed to our faces.
But my story takes a downward turn. Because when the game was over, there was a boy who had been sitting about three rows down over, wearing a Cardinals hat. His team had been murdered. Before we left, my father handed the ball to the boy and said, “That was a good game, son.”
The kid lit up like a gaslight. And I was crushed. How could my father have given our trophy to a stranger? A CARDINALS FAN? But he did. And he didn’t explain himself.
When we got to the truck, I was pouting. He fired the engine and we waited in a long traffic jam of vehicles which stretched all the way to Timbuktu.
I finally came out with it. “Why’d you give our ball to that boy?”
My father smiled. “You didn’t want that ball, did you? It was hit by a Cardinal.”
But he was only joking. So he offered me something a little more concrete.
“Because,” he said. “If it’s in our power to make someone else happy, even just a little bit, it sorta quadruples our own happiness. Don’t ever forget that.”
I never have. And I’ve never forgotten him, either.
I hope baseball comes back someday. Preferably before the world ends.