Date: August 18, 2010
Score: Binghamton Mets 5, NH Fisher Cats 2 (box score)
Hat worn: Pawtucket Red Sox
If I were coming to bat today, my song would be: Know Your Rights, by the Clash
photos from the game
A group of guys at our college in northern Indiana liked to take foreign exchange students to Cubs games at Wrigley Field in Chicago, 2-1/2 hours west. I went along a couple of times. I remember freezing under the stands on an otherwise warm May day. And I remember buying my first legal beer, two days after I turned 21.
But I most recall wanting the game to represent itself well, to seem as beautiful and perfectly conceived to Henriette from Denmark or to Msibi from Botswana as it did to me.
Mostly, they were confused. We’d point at the field, cups of Old Style clutched in our other hands, and explain: No, that run doesn’t count. I know that the runner crossed the plate before the batter reached first base. But it still doesn’t count. See, it was the third out. If it was the *second* out, it would have counted. But only on a ground ball. Not on a fly ball. Then he would have needed to tag up, and wait until the ball was caught, before he tried for home. But he would only score then if he beat the tag.
Last August, my wife and daughter and I stopped by Manchester on our way home from a beach vacation. I’m not much of a sunbather, but we’d discovered the Parker River Refuge on Plum Island in northern Massachusetts, and had spent a glorious three days walking its uncrowded beaches. The week had been so enjoyable that we hadn’t wanted it to end, so I suggested one more night away from home.
And I had just the hotel in mind: the Hilton Garden Inn that stands beyond left field at the Fisher Cats’ ballpark in Manchester.
That afternoon we sat on the deck at the hotel restaurant, watching batting practice before the gates opened. Our daughter had been to a number of Fisher Cats’ games in her short life, but she had always been much more interested in the kids’ play area than in what was happening on the field. But this afternoon she delighted in watching the arc of the fly balls that leapt off the wooden bats, 425 feet away. Together we tried to determine which drives had a chance of landing on the deck among the fabric sun umbrellas and nachos and bottles of beer.
When a shagging pitcher caught a fly ball on the run, directly in front of us in center field, I yelled out, “Nice catch!” He turned and tossed the ball, underhand, to me, and I passed it on to our daughter, who beamed as only a seven-year-old blond girl with freckles can beam.
I later ruined the ball for her by getting it autographed by Ricky Romero, the former Fisher Cat who recently signed a $30 million contract with the Blue Jays. Now I won’t let her play with it.
This August, we again went to Plum Island, armed with the knowledge that you can have the beaches to yourself if you make it to the refuge before 8:00 in the morning. One morning we arrived so early the sea mist hadn’t yet begun to dissipate, and we walked enveloped in fog for hours, clambering on the elaborate driftwood structures that dot a thin stretch of beach. Each structure was unique, and conveyed the temperament and creativity of the beachcombers who had built them. One building was large enough to comfortably seat four people for an afternoon of looking at the waves. It was as if that spit of land was governed by a benevolent socialism that used washed-up railroad ties and nylon rope as its currency. Everyone can create something, everyone can use what has been created, and it doesn’t cost a cent.
I felt blessed by those structures, and slid into the same kind of relaxation that I’ve only found this summer at baseball games, a mellowing out so thorough that I drove back to the hotel at 30 miles per hour. I loved as well how our daughter is now old enough to enjoy many of the same things we enjoy: quiet beach mornings, good thin-crust pizza, the rare pleasure of watching a Dustin Pedroia at-bat on the television in our air-conditioned hotel room. I thought about how far we are from our early vacations, when she was a toddler, when I walked fuming around Montreal, irritated because I couldn’t take a stroller into the used CD stores, because we weren’t able to eat at L’Express or La Loux or any of the high-end restaurants we’d enjoyed, pre-kid.
This game in Manchester was our daughter’s fourth ballgame of the summer. With each game she’s gotten calmer, less interested in the concessions and the mascots, and more interested in the game itself. She said, “Whoa!” at a tall infield pop-up (which I said was about as high as the foul ball that landed near me in Pawtucket). She kept track of the outs with each inning. And she pointed out that a batter held his bat in a “weird” way – straight up and down – before cocking it to swing.
And after that batter launched a moon shot onto one of the blue sun umbrellas on the hotel’s deck in dead center, she listened as I explained that the pitcher had tried to throw one too many fastballs, and that although this is the number nine batter, he is still a good hitter, and he was sitting dead-red, and you’re going to give up moon shots if you don’t change speeds.
She said she wanted to stay for the whole game, and for a while that seemed possible, even though her bedtime is 9:30. The game sped along, looking crisp and sharp, the way I always wanted it to present itself for the exchange students. By 8:05 we were already in fifth inning. I wondered if this game would break my summertime speed record set at the second game I attended in Reading, which was over and done after two hours and ten minutes, the crowd spilling onto the streets at 9:15.
But then the wheels started coming off the Fisher Cats’ bus. Although they’re headed for the playoffs (in Double-A, the winner of the first half of the season plays the winner of the second half), they’re not the same team they were at the beginning of the year. They’ve lost Tim Collins, the 5′ 7″ closer who throws in the mid-90’s, to Kansas City in a trade. And their veteran catcher, Brian Jeroloman, has moved up to Triple-A Las Vegas.
As the game slowed, and grew sloppy, I counted the Fisher Cats’ mental errors:
- A runner was picked off first with two outs and another runner on third, with the DH at the plate. Bad enough, but the DH was the rehabbing Toronto catcher John Buck, who looked down at his offending temporary teammate and shook his head: bush league, kid. Bush league.
- The left fielder threw to the plate on a two-out single to left instead of hitting the cutoff man, allowing the Binghamton batter to advance to second.
- A runner was doubled up off second on a soft liner to the shortstop, and didn’t even attempt to get back to the bag.
- Two hitters, on subsequent plays, got thrown out trying to stretch singles into doubles, both out by a mile.
- And most egregiously, the catcher and the third baseman let a pop-up fall between them with two outs and the bases loaded, the kind of play that baseball karma insists must be followed with a two-run double. The kind of play, I liked to think, that wouldn’t have happened if Jeroloman was still with the club.
Ahead of us sat two boys, both wearing Red Sox hats, one cradling an ancient Louisville Slugger that was covered in Fisher Cats’ signatures. Their hulking dad – also with a Sox cap, and wearing a Youkilis jersey – said to them after the dropped pop-up: “What happened there?”
“Neither of them called for it, and it dropped.”
“Whose ball was it?”
“The third baseman’s.”
Our daughter might have made it to the end of the game – a personal milestone not unlike getting your first souvenir ball – if the second NH pitcher hadn’t developed a blister, which required a 15-minute injury delay. By 9:00, we were only in the 7th, not much better than being at a major league game, and my wife and kid left for the hotel, and bed, leaving me to listen, and enjoy.
I soaked up the great feeling in the crowd, everyone happy with this stretch of good August weather, with the pleasant evening. I eavesdropped on the gentle banter coming from the row of old guys beside me. Their affection showed in the way they went and got drinks for each other, sodas only, and I wondered if this was an AA meeting, or if it was a men’s group. They hugged and said goodbye at the bottom of the 8th, and I thought how I’d take that kind of men’s group over Iron John any day, over drums or talking sticks or sweat lodges: take me out to the ballgame. Take me out with the crowd. Buy me a soda and kid me about something that happened 20 years ago, and ask me about my grandkids, and I won’t care if I ever get back.
The Fisher Kittens came out and danced, hilariously. The boys in front of me remained locked in on the game, observing, learning. The lights hummed above me, the mayflies swarmed and spun down out of the sky, the little white ball rose and fell into a leather glove and the game was over.
I stopped by the bar in left to check in on the Red Sox game, just in time to hear an older woman plead of Victor Martinez, “Mahtinez, *do* something,” and to see Victor ground the go-ahead single through the right side, and to hear the woman slap her hand on her table and say, “All right!”
The next day we would drive home, and unpack, and cook our own food again, and feed the animals at dusk, and do the laundry. But tonight I walked the 200 yards to the hotel, entered the lobby, and as I waited for the elevator to our third-floor room, saw the lights go out over the park through the plate-glass windows.
I thought about staying here another night. Our daughter could swim in the pool all day. We could swing another $135 for a room, right? Tickets to the game start at six bucks. Heck, we could watch tomorrow night’s game from the hotel’s deck for free.
The summer is short, honey, and winter is long. Just one more?