Date: July 31, 2010
Score: Durham Bulls 5, Pawtucket Red Sox 1 (box score)
Hat worn: orange Red Sox with blue logo
If I were coming to bat today, my song would be: Fortunate Son, by Creedence Clearwater Revival
photos from the game
I was looking forward to going down to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to see the Triple-A PawSox play a weekend set against the Durham Bulls. The road trip was right in my wheelhouse: time by myself to think, a morning to sleep in, a chance to deepen the bronze on my arms before summer pivoted toward fall. The opportunity to watch tomorrow’s Red Sox play in one of my favorite stadiums.
But I felt an ache as I backed out of our driveway on Saturday morning. I found myself wishing that I could spend the day with my daughter, riding bikes up and down our dusty dirt road, taking a dip in the White River, stopping at the creamsicle-colored Sandy’s stand for a cone. Or watching her show off her latest trick – swimming underwater – at the one-of-a-kind public swimming pool in Bethel, which looks as if it had been built by a couple of unemployed masons with a civic bent.
We’ve had a chaotic summer, made worse by the early collapse of our childcare plans, the escape – and eventual return – of two of our freezer lambs, and an especially busy time at work. Between tending the garden, building a chicken house, and going on my ballgame junkets, I feel as if I’ve lost touch with our girl. She’s eight now, and fills her days reading and riding her bike and crafting elaborate American Girl-style catalogs out of notebook paper. She’s independent enough that I’ve gotten a sense of what life will be like in four years: sleep-over camp and pool parties and her own cell phone and the door to her upstairs room shut against our intrusion. And four years after that: the learner’s permit.
McCoy Stadium itself tempered my regret. It’s not stunningly beautiful, or in a particularly nice town, or old enough to serve as a memory of a long-departed past. It’s just, well, comfortable. The PawSox have been owned by the same person for the past 35 years, and I like his entertainment philosophy. The club found their sweet spot a while ago, and see no reason to deviate from what has always worked before.
It’s the only minor league ballpark I’ve been to that doesn’t have between-innings entertainment, with the exception of a fifth-inning appearance by Paws the Mascot, which I assume the owner grudgingly assented to after his third scotch, under the condition that the damn thing could be on the field for no longer than five minutes a game. They don’t play music clips for visiting batters, and broadcast only abbreviated samples for the home team batters, as if they’re embarrassed to have caved to this latest convention. The focus is resolutely, blissfully, correctly on baseball alone.
The PawSox experience so aligns with my preferences that if you told me that from here on out, I could only see games at Pawtucket – no trips to Fenway, no Reading, no Manchester, no Phillies games in Philadelphia – I’d be OK.
Buy me a Narragansett and a hot dog, and you’ve got a deal.
I’m not the only one who values this approach: the place was sold out for the Saturday evening game, partially because Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury was rehabbing with the PawSox after being out of action most of the year. And partially because it costs a family of four $300 and up to attend a game at Fenway, compared with $44 for that same family to sit in the box seats at Pawtucket. You even see some of the same players: seven of the starting Pawtucket nine had been up to the parent club sometime during the season (a reflection of the Red Sox’ own chaotic summer).
So I had the unusual experience of being hemmed in on both sides at my seat in Section 4. I felt self-conscious about taking photos, and about writing in my notebook. The man to my right – a hale-fellow-well-met sort of guy – hogged the arm rest, and the two women to my left chatted through the first couple of innings. I sat with my elbows on my knees, trying and failing to get in the zone, like attempting to open the deadbolt to your house with the lights off and a bag of groceries in one hand.
I gave up, climbed up over my seat and the section railing behind us, and walked around the stadium. It was built as a Works Progress Administration project in 1942, but was substantially renovated in the late ‘90s, bringing the stadium’s capacity to a little over 10,000. There’s no upper deck, but it’s much bigger than Double-A bandboxes like Reading or Portland. A series of long, curving ramps lead to the top of the seats, where I stood and watched half an inning after the lights had come on, enjoying the panoramic view.
Moseying down one of the ramps, I turned a corner and found a feature I’d forgotten about: huge paintings and photographs of players who had spent time with the club. There were paintings of some members of the Red Sox teams I saw at Fenway in the mid-80’s: Marty Barrett, Wade Boggs, Rich Gedman. But I was more taken with the images of the players who hadn’t become New England household names, guys who had spent a summer or two in Rhode Island, loved and lauded, and then moved on. Pawtucket has been a Red Sox affiliate since 1973, so there are a lot of images, and I spent a pleasant half-hour wandering the ramps, chuckling at the glasses and hairdos, feeling touched by the warmth the paintings conveyed.
The last time I was at Pawtucket was the summer after our daughter was born, eight years ago. Sue was on the road a lot back then, traveling to print shops to check the quality of the posters that were being printed for her company. When she came to Rhode Island, the company put her up in a nice suite in Jamestown, a half-hour south of Providence, opposite the bay from Newport. She suggested that the kid and I come along for a week-long press check she had in August of that year. As a lonely stay-at-home dad, I thought it sounded like a great plan, partially because the printing company had season tickets to the PawSox, and liked to hand out ducats.
So I spent a week pushing our daughter in her stroller around Jamestown, trying to get her to nap, sweating, waiting for Sue to return from the print shop so I could scoot up I-95 to see the PawSox at night. It was another summer that seemed to last forever, but not because we were trying to do too many things, as has been the case this summer. It was because we were horrifically sleep-deprived, and because our lives had just become refocused in a way that left us disoriented, that left me convinced that I would always be pushing a baby through upscale streets in a seaside town, hoping to see one of those precious soft eyelids flutter closed.
I never would have believed then that eight years later, I would feel our daughter moving away from us, heading to a life where we play less and less of a role. I never would have believed that I would miss that time of sleeplessness, that time when life was pared down to the one essential task of keeping a baby alive. That one day I would hesitate to have a weekend to myself because I wanted to spend more time with that same kid, now well on her way toward becoming a teenager.
I returned to my seat, and found the armrest-hogging hale fellow had departed. So I stretched out a bit, got out my notebook, and wrote about the way the Durham players – future Tampa Bay Rays – all looked stronger, and faster, and more ethnically-diverse than the future Red Sox, and what this might mean for my next five years of radio baseball. I scribbled away until the woman next to me – one of the 60-ish women who had been talking in the early innings – asked if I was a reporter, or if this was my diary.
The word “diary” gave me pause, as if she understood that one might come to a baseball game, and get inspired, and write about your life in a notebook, while surrounded by strangers.
So I talked about the blog, and the various stadiums that I’ve been to, and she introduced me to her boyfriend, who said he played on this same field as a high schooler in the 50’s, back when it was just a town park, and that the field then was “a piece of crap.” He spoke admiringly of the owner of the club, and pointed out that all of the Durham players had their socks hiked up, old-school-style, and we agreed that Tampa is going to be eating our lunch for a while now, which is only fair.
We talked about Fenway, and the expense, and the difficulty of getting tickets, and one of the other women in the group said that her kids had grown up coming to McCoy, and that Fenway was actually a letdown for her son. “Dad, this place is creepy!” her son said when he first went under the Boston bleachers to get a hot dog.
The same woman talked about how they would come early to Pawtucket games when her kids were young, and claim a spot on the grassy berm in centerfield, spread a blanket out, two hours before game time, and eat a picnic while waiting for the game to start.
Your kids would only let you do that for a while, I thought, until they realized that not all families came to a dozen ballgames a year, that not all families sit quietly munching Cheetos and bologna sandwiches, waiting for young men in white uniforms to come running out across the outfield toward them. You’d watch five innings, maybe six, and then it would start to get late, and you’d fold up the blanket, screw the top back on the thermos, head to the car, and listen to the announcers on the AM station until you arrived home, fifteen minutes later, the youngest having fallen asleep in the back seat in that short time.
And what you’d remember forever would be carrying that child into the house, and putting her into bed with her PawSox T-shirt on, teeth unbrushed, and whispering goodnight to her as she burrowed under the covers.
We talked until the eighth inning. I didn’t take as many notes, or nearly as many pictures, as I usually do, but I didn’t feel lonely, as I had earlier in the evening. I thanked them for talking, and headed out of the stadium, wanting to beat the traffic, as the park is not easy to find, and I was still unsure of my directions back to the hotel.
In the parking lot I saw an old van, a model from the 70′s, with one of those plastic campers built onto the roof. The van was running, its A/C humming in the warm night, and from the lights of the field I could see kids sleeping inside the camper, and an older kid sitting in the passenger’s seat, listening to the game, I liked to think. Dad might have still been at the game, and maybe Mom, too, and I thought about how Sue has been pestering me to take a look at a camper that’s for sale at the bottom of our hill, an old pull-behind that would sleep three people. I’ve resisted: we don’t have a garage for it; I’d like us to spend a month in Spain next spring.
But what if we bought it for trips to Pawtucket?
Now there’s an idea.