“Ballpark Concessions”

On Tuesday evening as they were on their second walking circuit around the island looking for a good dinner spot, Jackson was passing through distraction and entering irritation.  Maggie had rejected seafood (“we’ve had it four times already,” “We are on an island.” Jackson had responded, not helpfully); Italian (“too heavy”); pizza (“we have that all the time”); Mexican (“the place looks filthy”); and finally even the Island Café (“my stomach – and my lungs – can’t take two meals there in one day”).  Jackson exhaled, started to criticize, and then smiled.  “At least you are consistent,” he admitted.

So they were walking for the second time down Alister Street, away from their condo on the port and toward the undeveloped area of the island.  Maggie kept looking around as if she expected some new possibility to present itself magically.  Perhaps through magic – or at least her imagination – one did.

It had been sunset when they first left the condo but was fully dark now.  The darkness behind them, however, was overcome by a haze of light ahead of them.  As they approached they could see that the light source was five tall towers standing in a semi-circle around a poorly manicured public ball field.  The lights were not very bright and the effect was obscured by swarms of bugs in the hot gulf air.  Maggie had not noticed it the first time past – probably because it had been daylight then and no one was playing.  But now a vague glow hung over the dull green grass and brick-red clay.  These drab colors contrasted with the bright red shirts and quick movements around the field of the members of the team from Half-Fast Boat Repair.

Jackson was the first to notice the name as he steered Maggie off the sidewalk and up to the backstop – hoping she would take an interest in the game eventually as he had instantly.  Following Jackson’s pointing finger, Maggie read the team name on the back of the catcher’s red shirt, just above the number 5 in white.  She smirked.

“A good number for a catcher,,” he said.  “Johnny Bench.  Right color of uniforms, too.”  Maggie rolled her eyes and let her smile go.  She turned as if to go with it when a sharp ping rang out and a loud yell went up from the dugout of the team batting, Yankee’s Yankees – wearing white numbers on dark navy shirts of course, although Jackson always thought the Yankees should just admit that they wore black.  The batter for these Yankees, a slender male with boyish hair and wearing faded jeans was by then rounding second base and straining for third as the throw came in from right field, missing the cut-off man.  The runner slid awkwardly into the bag as the third baseman for Half-Fast (a woman) stepped out of the way and shuffled down the line toward home trying to catch the errant throw.  It bounced past her and into the cyclone fence.  The runner scrambled to his feet and started toward home, but the pitcher – a man who had been trying to get the woman out of the play at third base – quickly scooped up the ball and chased the runner back to the bag.

The entire sequence had taken fewer than thirty seconds and Maggie had only watched part of it, but she could see that Jackson was already fully engaged.  She thought about just walking on without him, or grabbing his arm and dragging him away.  She had already spent too much of their brief marriage fighting baseball for his attention – even his affection.  She did not want a night of their vacation to be spent sharing him with two co-ed softball teams.  She paused, trying to decide how to react, and looked across the street at the grocery store that was still quite busy even though it was after 9 pm.  She wasn’t sure why or how, perhaps by force of Jackson’s will, but an idea came into her mind.  She turned back to him and spoke in her most encouraging voice.

“You stay here and watch the game.  “I’ll be back in a minute.”  She could see Jackson start to question her but then stop when her tone registered.  The surprise of hearing her sound happy at his interest in the game left him speechless.  She started across the street toward the grocery and did not look back until she was about to pass through the double glass doors that had parted automatically at her approach.  She paused long enough to locate Jackson on the top row of the bleachers, on the Half-Fast side (3rd base, she thought, incorrectly).  He was applauding some action in the game she had not seen or heard.  He was still applauding about fifteen minutes later, presumably for some other action, when she returned with a large paper sack.  She held it out in front of her for balance as she climbed the bleachers, weaving through eight or ten fans clumped here and there on the lower rows.  Jackson looked surprised, but she could see that he was hopeful.  He could not have expected to have dinner watching a ballgame and he certainly would never have guessed it would be her idea.

“Hungry?” she asked.  Jackson nodded with the same look of surprise as she sat down several feet from him.  She placed the sack on the foot rail below them and quickly laid out a checkered red dish towel on the bleacher between them.  The tag was still stapled to the corner of the towel, but it looked nice against the aluminum bench.  “Ready for a picnic at the ball park.”  she added, knowing it did not need to be in the form of a question.

“Anytime.” Jackson answered and Maggie smiled at his truthfulness.  She then pulled from the sack a large summer sausage, a box of crackers, a block of cheese, a small paring knife and a large strand of red grapes.  “Amazing.”  Jackson beamed at her.

“I bought some wine but I forgot to get an opener.  Guess you’ll have to settle for some beer.  It matches the surroundings better, anyway.”  She saw Jackson look hesitant as she put her finger in the ring and started to pull the tab on a can of beer.  “What?  You think it won’t taste good with your dinner?”  she inquired.

“Well,” he hesitated again.  “It’s a public park.”

“Right.” she nodded sharply.  “Better not offend these fine citizens by the public consumption of alcohol.”  She spoke in a light tone, but loud enough that a couple two rows in front turned to look at them.  Jackson diverted their attention by applauding some movement on the field.  Maggie shrugged, put down the unopened beer and cut Jackson a slice of cheese and sausage.  He took both with a cracker, but stopped before putting them in his mouth.

“I remember the first time you fed me this stuff.” he said.

“Me, too.” Maggie answered with a grin.  “Only then it was because we didn’t want to leave the apartment and this was all that was in the fridge.”  She glanced out to the field with a look of mock disgust.

“Right. This is a distant second.” Jackson said, wanting to keep her in this mood.

“Sometimes you make me feel like a distant second, you know.”  she replied, realizing a little too late that she had not tried hard enough to hide her conviction about the statement.  Jackson heard her clearly but paused, not sure how he should respond.  “It’s okay,” Maggie excused him.  “I know you’re trying.”  She meant that, too.

It had seemed incredible to her at first, but gradually she had realized through the first two years of marriage that baseball was a true rival, not just for his attention, but even his affection.  She had reacted angrily at first, unwilling to accept any explanation for such an insult.  When even that had not broken baseball’s attraction, she nearly panicked.  After all, the same response in connection with another woman had jolted Jackson into a proposal.   This rival had, however, proven much harder to defeat.  Eventually she had come to accept the fact that this was a part of her husband and tried to view it as a modest fault.  Jackson was relieved by her first realization, but continued to struggle with Maggie’s lack of understanding.

Now her encouragement – first at simply deciding they should have a picnic at this game and then at even his failures of the past – gave Jackson the confidence to try to explain himself again.  His earlier efforts had been quite unsuccessful, but that was before he realized that Maggie viewed his relationship with baseball as infidelity.  She seemed less judgmental at the moment and he took a chance.

“What do you see out there on the field?” he asked in a tone that was clearly a preface.  Maggie looked casually toward the field as she finished chewing a large bite of cheese and spoke carelessly as she swallowed.

“Five guys and five girls.”

“True enough.” Jackson admitted, “but that’s not everything.”  He paused, but Maggie did not offer any further observations.  She knew he was ready to give his and she didn’t mind.

“I see a poorly coached team.”  Jackson observed.  Maggie looked again at the players and then back to Jackson, as if giving him the sign to continue.  “You see, they’ve got a girl catching.  That’s the first mistake.  In softball, as in baseball and any sport, really, you need to place your best players where most of the action will be.  Now, assuming that all five of your male players are better than all five of your females (which is not always true, I’ll admit), I think you should put a guy at catcher, shortstop, first base and left field.  Catcher because covering home plate is the object of the game.  Most people think a guy playing infield can cover home, but I like to see the catcher control every pitch like they do in professional baseball.  You need a guy at shortstop because that’s where most of the ground balls are hit and he can cover second base.  The first baseman is obviously important to get outs on ground balls to the infielders.  You need a good left fielder because most batters are right-handed and most pull the ball in slow pitch.”  He paused as a batter for the Yankees lined a pitch sharply just outside the third base line.

Maggie didn’t connect the event and his comment.  She was trying to decide whether or not to listen, whether it was worth listening to.  This was her husband talking, teaching actually, about a subject that he knew well and clearly cared for deeply – too deeply she thought.  She neither knew the subject nor cared for it, but she loved him.  Did that require her attention?  She was still trying to decide when Jackson continued his lecture.  She cut herself another piece of cheese and summer sausage. It was, at least, a lovely night for a picnic.  It hadn’t registered with either of them that the wind had calmed.

“That leaves pitcher and short-fielder to cover with your fifth guy.” Jackson continued.  It’s really helpful if you have a woman who can pitch strikes.  There is no real strategy in slow-pitch pitching – just try to get it over the plate and make them put the ball in play.  If you’ve got a girl who can do that, you can put your fastest guy at short-fielder, as an extra infielder and centerfielder.  He can cover the other two-thirds of the outfield and even back up the shortstop at second base, depending on the hitter.”  He paused again as the Yankees made the third out in an inning and the players hustled out to their positions.  They had scored five runs and were in good spirits as they exchanged high-fives with their teammates and some took gloves from the Half-Fast players who were coming off the field.

“They used to do that even in the major leagues – share gloves.”  Jackson said as he nodded toward the field.  “That is, after they started using gloves, at all. It wasn’t until late in the 19th century when Spalding Sporting Goods was started that gloves became readily available and most players got one.”  Maggie thought about what to do with all this new information.

“I like that they share.”  she said.  She had noticed two girls in particular who might be sisters but were on opposing teams.  They had stopped behind second base to talk for more than a minute between innings.  The one who was playing for the red team was now batting.

“C’mon! Hit the ball Sherry!” her counterpart called from her crouch at second base.  Sherry did her best to comply and swung at the first pitch, but missed.

“You don’t see that kind of fraternizing and cooperation any more in the major leagues.  It all ended with a guy named Ty Cobb.”  As Jackson was speaking, the girl named Sherry had taken the next two pitches, one for a ball and one for strike two.

“C’mon, Sherry! It just takes one!” the girl at second base called out to her again.

“She better be swinging now,” Jackson said, and then added under his breath, “not that it will make much difference.”  Maggie was turning to reprimand him for insulting Sherry when again she heard the ping of the aluminum bat – not as loud this time, but firm.  She turned back to the field in time to see the ball floating over the head of the girl at second base.  It landed softly in the grass and took two hops before it was picked up by the centerfielder racing over in front of the woman playing right field. Another yell came up, louder than before, because this time everyone – so it seemed to Maggie – was yelling, the red team in their dugout, the black team on the field and the fans in the bleachers on both the first and third base sides.  Sherry had run unsteadily to first and was now standing with both feet on the bag and both hands over her mouth.  Maggie could see the smile in her eyes.

She raised her hands above her head and almost screamed out “My first one!”   Maggie started to applaud with the others, and she then noticed that Jackson was already.

“Probably her first hit ever.”  Jackson observed.

The crowd finally quieted after another minute or so of cheering.  Jackson, Maggie and the rest of the fans sat back down and the game continued at its friendly pace for another thirty minutes until the Yankees batted around and scored six runs in the bottom of the sixth, making the score 12-2.

“Ready to go?” Jackson asked as Maggie gathered up all the wrappers from their dinner.  They had eaten everything except a small piece of the summer sausage.  As they were stepping carefully down the bleachers she asked the woman on the first row if she could give the meat to her dog – a black lab that had been stretched out quietly through most of the game, save only for a few barks in honor of Sherry’s base hit.

“Oh, sure, go ahead.” the woman replied and Maggie dropped the meat in front of the dog’s nose that lay flat on the grass.  Like a crocodile he snapped it up with his mouth without lifting his jaw off the grass.  As they walked back toward the dimly lit port, with the dark waters of the ship channel acting like a black curtain behind it, Jackson put his arm around Maggie’s shoulder.

“Thanks for the concession.” he said.

“Well, maybe I should open a stand at the ballpark in Dallas.”  she replied cheerfully.

“Actually, I was referring to your willingness to watch the ballgame, but I think I like your interpretation even better.”

“It wasn’t so awful.”  Maggie replied.  “They were fun to watch playing.” she admitted.

“It was as good as a big league game for me.  You just never know what’s going to happen.”  He paused and Maggie knew that he wanted to say more.

“Is that why you love it so much?” she decided to ask.

“I think that’s a big part of it.  Every pitch holds the possibility of a lifetime’s achievement.  From Sherry’s first hit to Hank Aaron’s 715th home run. Heck, it can even be a lifetime – Ray Chapman got hit in the head with a fastball and never got up.  That was in 1920 before batter’s wore helmets.”  Maggie looked up at him, surprised that Jackson could prove that on at least one occasion baseball had actually been a matter of life and death.

“I’ve never heard that before.” she said.

“It’s not one of the statistics you hear quoted a lot – one fatality – but it’s part of the history of the game.”  His voice quickened again.  “Look, they’ve been playing hundreds, thousands of games each year for the past 150 years, and still things happen all the time that have never happened before.  How many games have been invented that have that many possibilities?  None.  Baseball is apparently endless.”

“Well, I can agree with you there.”  Maggie joked, but she took his arm as they turned through the opening in the walls forming the gate to their condominium complex.  “It’s okay,” she added as Jackson was trying unsuccessfully to frown, “I had a good time. Whenever I can say that after a trip to the ballpark, any ballpark, you should just declare victory and leave the field.”

She smiled and looked to Jackson as wholesome as ever, as fresh to him as baseball.  He saluted her.

© (JSR – 2006)

“Of course you can!”



“You can’t steal first base.”  old baseball adage

I went to see “42 – the Jackie Robinson Story” recently with my 3 kids.  We all liked it.  In fact, I liked it so much that I went to see it again with my father, brother and step-mother.  They liked it, too, even though they aren’t big baseball fans.  Any movie that deals directly with extreme racial prejudice – probably the ugliest scar in our nation’s history – but yet still appeals to all ages (we ranged in age from 11-80) must be well done. For me, of course, it certainly helped that the context for this particular study of racism was baseball.

There are several memorable lines of dialogue in the movie, some of which were historically accurate quotes (I verified that by consulting the volume of  Dickson’s “Baseball’s Greatest Quotations” in my library).  One particular line that struck me was when Branch Rickey explained to Robinson why he was willing to risk bringing a black man into white baseball:  “There was something rotten at the core of the game I loved,” an apologetic Rickey confessed.  Then he looks admiringly at Robinson and declares: “You let me love baseball again.” It is a beautiful moment, made so by Rickey’s sincerity, wonderfully conveyed by Harrison Ford’s superb acting.

Personally, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love baseball.  Racial integration of baseball was complete by the mid-60’s when the game first grabbed my attention.  The influx of Latin players was just beginning, but that clearly was not the same cultural struggle that integrating blacks had been, again largely due to Robinson’s efforts (or, as the movie depicts in painful detail, his “guts not to fight back”).  The repeated labor strife that caused strikes and lock-outs in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s were certainly aggravating, but I never let my feelings toward management or labor affect my love of the game.  Clearly most other fans didn’t either as the game has always returned stronger than ever after its seemingly fatal self-inflicted wounds.

While waiting to see “42”, I was twice shown the trailer for the latest remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”  The last scene previewed is one where Nick Caraway (Tobey McGuire) tries to convince Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) that he can’t relive the past.  Gatsby smirks and replies emphatically, “Of course you can!”   His tone and look clearly express his glee at such a prospect and his intention to enjoy the experience again and again.

I found myself wondering whether that is the lure of baseball – that you can relive the past every single time you walk into a park or listen to a game on the radio.   I heard clearly in my head the voice of James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann in “Field of Dreams,” telling Ray Kinsella that “America has rolled by like an army of steam rollers… and baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that was once good, and could be again.”  http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+james+earl+jones+field+of+dreams&mid=246BF89D5393D24FF624246BF89D5393D24FF624&view=detail&FORM=VIRE1

I doubt that Gatsby had baseball in mind when he was so anxious to relive the past, but we each have our weaknesses.  Sadly, most people believe that we should avoid reliving history.  (In my opinion, they erroneously apply Santayana’s assertion that “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”)   There are events in history worth repeating, and certainly many of them have taken place on the baseball diamond.  Occasionally one will occur that amazes you in the first place and then shocks you to learn that it is, in fact, a repeat of history.  That happened just last week when the Brewers’ rookie Jean Segura stole first base.  That’s right, he stole first base, and he wasn’t the first MLB player to do so.

I won’t write the 500 words or so necessary to explain how it happened. The short clip linked below shows the entire scene. http://ca.sports.yahoo.com/blogs/mlb-big-league-stew/jean-segura-steals-second-then-steals-first-bizarre-103642855–mlb.html  I will report that I knew such an astounding event was not the first in MLB history.

Also in my library of baseball books is one entitled “The Man Who Stole First Base.”  It is a series of baseball vignettes compiled by Rangers radio announcer Eric Nadel and published in 1989.  It starts with the title story recounting how Herman “Germany” Schaefer went from first base to second, back to first and then back to second again.  Unlike Segura, however, all of Schaefer’s movements were intentional. Re-reading Nadel’s book this week I realized that I am reliving part of my own past.  In 1989 when I bought the book, I was living in Dallas and was a rabid Rangers fan.  I either attended in person or listened on radio to virtually every game of the season.  My wife came to hate the sound of Eric Nadel’s voice, along with that of his then play-by-play partner, Mark Holtz.  I am reminded of this by the inscription on the first page of the book just above Eric Nadel’s signature:  “Jennifer, thanks for putting up with us for 162 nights a year! Your pal, Eric.”

I don’t remember when I got Nadel to sign the book or how he knew to try to ameliorate the tension between my marriage and my love of baseball. (Notice that I didn’t mention her above in the list of family members attending the movie “42.”) Even 24 years later that tension is not gone.   I recently acquired an iphone (and also kept my Blackberry!) and then bought the MLB “At Bat” app.  I can now listen to the radio broadcast of every single MLB game – either the home or away announcers.  I have sampled almost all the teams’ broadcasts and none are better than the Rangers.  Welcome back into my marriage, Eric Nadel.   Of course, I have also found my way back to the Rangers as my favorite team now that the Astros are “reconstructing” and Lance Berkman has moved from HOU to NYY to STL to TEX.  Favorite player + old Favorite Team = Reliving History.  The only question now is whether at age 54 I can resist the temptation to listen to every game any better than I did at age 30?

Of course I can’t.  It’s the game I love.