I promised earlier this year that once the game-time temperatures reached 50 degrees, I would stop being melancholic. I’d shelve the whole winter-of-our-discontent stuff until the last game of the season, save it for that first hint of autumn in the air.
For what could be better than this: it was the first week of May, and we were leaving the brown hills and the bare trees to frolic among the green grass and daffodils of Pennsylvania.
And on the way south we were stopping to see a ballgame in Reading, at Baseball Heaven, the site of my Minor League Conversion. The place where I had metaphorically walked up the aisle and knelt at the pitcher’s mound to be welcomed into the Double-A faith.
Out in the parking lot beyond left field, I clapped my hands together and did a little dance, camera bag on my back. Grinning wildly, I led my wife and daughter past the dozens of school buses parked behind the brick outfield wall. Local schools must be taking advantage of the 11:05 AM start to schedule a field trip, I thought. But we had no chaperones, and didn’t have to listen to any teachers today. We were here to have fun.
This was Sue’s first time back to Reading in nearly 20 years, since before we moved to Vermont, and I was thrilled to show her how little had changed. I wanted her to be reminded of the games we had attended together, back when we were first married.
There was the game we cowered along the first base line as batter after batter sent foul missiles below, behind, and to the sides of us. And the game where we sat in the sunshine near home plate, and saw in vivid detail the most thrilling play in baseball, a runner cut down attempting to score on a sacrifice fly. Our friend, Ethan, kept repeating, “That was the best play I ever saw,” and then we went to his neighbor’s house and swam in the stock pond in the manure-spattered cow pasture before canning tomatoes late into the evening.
In coming to Reading, I wanted our daughter to experience one of the things I unequivocally love about Pennsylvania. At the ballpark – as opposed to the wedding we would be attending – I wouldn’t need to worry about a Bible-thumping uncle mumbling weird prophecies. I wouldn’t need to answer my old youth-group leader’s question about whether I had finally found a community of fellowship up in Vermont. We would just watch some ball.
So we squeezed past the rows of kids horsing around on the sidewalk, and rushed toward the entrance behind home plate. There we would find the turnstiles. We’d enter beside the glass cases holding mementos from years past, going all the way back to 1951, when this stadium was built. There we would step into the humid, human crush under the stands, smell the funnel cakes and Yuengling beer and french fries and horsehide and grass. All of the good things in the world.
But when we turned the corner this time, I found myself in a different place. Instead of turnstiles and a scrum of people, there were four spanking-new ticket windows. Instead of something that looked essentially unchanged since 1951, we found an esplanade of smoothed concrete and inlaid bricks, engraved with the names of families and businesses who had funded this expansion and improvement to the ballpark.
Someone had seriously moved my cheese.
For instead of entering under the stands, you now enter along the first-base line, beside the large, glass-fronted souvenir shop that has replaced the homely T-shirt stand that had the air of a PTA fundraising table. You are now escorted into a food court, which has replaced the old state-fair-like grouping of cheeseburger and sausage stands behind the first-base bleachers.
In this food court is a stage where bands play before the game, just like at Lehigh Valley. There are round picnic tables with matching chairs, perfect places to sit and wait for your friends as they use the restroom. Take the time to text your other friends – OMG, baseball is so *boring!* – and enjoy your Dipping Dots. I’ll just stand over here beside the metal bleachers saying, “Shit, shit, shit” under my breath, wondering what it is about America that can’t let a good thing alone.
But enough with the melancholy: this is a Thursday morning, and I’m not at work. The sun is shining. I’m with my wife and kid in the old plastic seats behind home plate, not too far from where we sat with Ethan, and there are the R-Phils in their white pinstriped unis, and there are our hometown New Hampshire Fisher Cats as the loyal opposition. There’s Disco Briscoe, the local man of limited faculties who has adopted the role of pumping up the crowd at each game by dancing like a maniac, standing at the bottom of a row of seats and jerking his arms up and down, so rapidly they blur, and there is an entire section of schoolkids going crazy, mimicking Disco Biscoe, dozens of arms jerking up and down, and yeah, that’s pretty fun, and hey, there is the heavyset first baseman for the Fisher Cats, who got the first hit of the season on Opening Day in Manchester, and here he smacks one to the wall and rumbles into second, and isn’t this a great place to watch a ballgame.
Yeah, it’s still a great place to watch a ballgame.
Our family spent summers at a church camp in upstate New York, from the time I was six until I was about 14. We used to drive through Reading at the beginning of our four-hour trip. Or, more accurately, we skirted it, using an elaborate shortcut my father had figured out.
You’d head north on Route 222 from Lancaster, then turn left at the pretzel factory. Go up over the hill, past the decrepit K-Mart shopping center on the left, and continue until you came to a five-way intersection with an exceptionally long traffic light. At the intersection stood a brick house, high up a grassy bank. A row of concrete steps led up that hill, and as we waited for the light to change, I imagined a child coming home from school, backpack slung over a shoulder, and ascending those steps, stopping at key points along the way to catch her breath. Then the light would change and we’d make a hairpin turn and head off through a development on another leg of the shortcut.
Once, on the way home from Camp, my mother and I hit a massive rainstorm in Reading. Mom pulled our sky-blue VW Rabbit off the road and the rain dimpled the windshield for fifteen minutes, a half-hour. Water sluiced through the gully to our right, and our breath fogged the windows, and Mom and I were alone, not talking much, just together, the way we were so rarely together in her too-short life.
In the first years after we moved to Vermont, I continued to use Dad’s shortcut around Reading, continued to wait at that traffic light beside the house on the hill. I continued to think of my mother and me in that storm-shaken Rabbit.
But we don’t need to do that any more. The state completed the 222 Bypass about five years ago, and it shaves almost a half-hour off our journey from Vermont, a journey that we often make at night, after work, so our daughter can sleep in the car.
So no more hairpin turns, no winding shortcuts through darkened developments. Now we whip by at 65 miles per hour, on the last leg of our journey, grateful for the conveyance, the convenience, the progress.
Going under the stands at the half-inning, into the human crush I had so mythologized, I realized immediately why Reading had expanded their ballpark. The corridors were completely gridlocked with kids – there must have been 20 different schools at the park – and the noise and heat from the bodies brought back an uncomfortable reminder of junior high. I half expected someone to knock my hat off my head from behind and laugh, Woody Woodpecker-style. Or attempt to give me a wedgie.
Surviving the trip to the beer stand, I exited into the new food court, and admitted to myself that yes, this *was* more open, and yes, perhaps they needed to do this. I’m sure they have a better clubhouse now, and weight rooms. I’m sure that the Fire Marshall is happier.
Near the end of the game, we walked back through the food court to look at the old newspaper clippings that had been blown up and muralized on the walls. Spotting an employee wearing the requisite team jacket, polo shirt, and khaki pants, I asked her if we could take a look behind the right field fence at the swimming pool you can swim in during the game. Something else that wasn’t here in the early 1990s, that wasn’t here in 1951.
She kindly led us to the pool, which our daughter much admired. Sue, who has much fewer bouts with melancholy and will talk to anybody, struck up a conversation with the employee. Entering the conversation five minutes in, I mentioned the Tooth Fairy, and the employee said, laughing, “That’s me.”
How does one say, “I blogged about how hot you are?”
I suppose you don’t. You take pictures, and talk of Lancaster County – the Tooth Fairy is from Ephrata – and promise your daughter that yes, sometime you will take a dip in the pool, and your wife will laugh and say that her husband is a little obsessed with baseball, and drags his family from minor league stadium to minor league stadium.
“And how do we compare?” the Tooth Fairy asked.
“Oh, this place is the best,” Sue said.
Walking to our car, I didn’t feel elated, the way I had the two most recent times I’ve come to Reading. I’ll come back here, I thought. But I’m going to buy my beer and soft pretzels under the stands, in the old part of the stadium. And I’m going to avoid the souvenir shop.
It’s like the way we obstinately take the Taconic State Parkway on our way home through upstate New York, a route that easily adds an hour to our journey. No trucks are allowed on the Parkway, and the speed limit is 55. Driving on that road, you feel like it’s 1951, or 1961, any era before cellphones and malls and bypasses. At the best times, it’s a meditative respite from the busyness that so defines my days.
It’s not like the Bypass at all. It’s a lot like baseball.