I have a rough formula to determine whether a ballgame is moving along at an acceptable pace: three innings should take about an hour. At the Red Sox game I attended in early May, I knew we were in trouble when we entered the sixth inning at 9:45 (after a 7:10 start). And sure enough, the game didn’t end until nearly 11:00, which meant I didn’t get home until 2:30, which meant that I got about four hours of sleep before heading in to work.
Rise and shine and give God the glory glory.
It’s strange to want games to move faster, especially when I’ve stated over and over again that it’s the slow things that I enjoy the most about baseball: the pitcher wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve as he stands on the back of the mound; the on-deck hitter taking a few practice swings while idly scanning the crowd; the bullpen pitcher spitting sunflower seeds from under the shade of a tin roof, his work at least three innings – and one hour – away.
But I do like the games to be brisk. My favorite game last year – out of 20, counting both majors and minors – was a 2-0 pitchers’ duel. I believe it’s better to walk out of the park feeling slightly hungry instead of bloated on baseball. You should be left wanting more.
And if I have friends with me – or, say, a wife and a daughter on Mother’s Day – in addition to rooting for one of the clubs, I root for the game to represent itself well.
We had stopped in Scranton on our way back north after visiting Lancaster for my father’s wedding. The Pawtucket Red Sox were playing the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees, but I didn’t bother with arriving early to try to snag autographs. After a weekend of family duties, I simply wanted to drink a beer in the sun. Sue and I agreed that she could take our daughter to the hotel pool if the action started to flag in the middle innings, and I would walk uphill to the Marriott after the game.
I wasn’t expecting beauty or transcendence. I just wanted to sit still for a while.
Although this is Triple-A, one step from the Majors, the entire ballgame experience at Scranton feels completely under the radar. The stadium has the least snack vendors per capita of any park I’ve ever visited, and the most desultory souvenir shop this side of Binghamton: a few dispirited pennants, some mini-bats, a requisite pink hat for the woman in your life.
Scranton was once the home of the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate, but the Scranton Red Barons decamped to Lehigh Valley in 2006 to become the Iron Pigs, where they rock and roll all night in their new Coca-Cola sponsored stadium. The Phillies wanted Showtime, no doubt, instead of the torpor of Scranton’s PNC Park.
And as you walk through the hushed concrete stadium, you realize that the laid-back vibe is not intentional. It’s born of neglect, of lowered expectations, of a grinding acceptance of being a third- or fourth-tier city without a prayer of joining the Bigs.
But after the razzmatazz of Reading’s renovated ballpark, the relaxed feeling at Scranton hit me just right. I got my beer and sausage and sat in the sun a few rows behind the Yanks’ dugout, and knew that all of the amplified antics of the youngsters hired to pump up the crowd were like pissing in an ocean of inertia. Why bother, when the manufacturing jobs are gone and the dominant impression visitors have of your town is a miles-long junkyard along the Interstate?
Why bother, when the ski hill behind the stadium is turning green by the minute in the May sun, and you recognize most of the names of the players in the starting lineups, and you’re out of Lancaster and can drink beer again, and you have survived a family wedding?
And, amazingly, we saw a terrific game. Instead of featuring just one isolated Perfect Moment, this game was an extended series of Perfect Moments: suicide squeezes and hit-and-runs and diving catches in the outfield and a scattering of home runs. It was the sort of game you’d want a foreign visitor to see, to convince them of the superiority of baseball over, say, soccer. It was the sort of game you wanted your wife to see, if it were Mother’s Day and she was being generous to your obsessions. It was the sort of game you wanted your kid to see, if she had never sat through a full game before, and was giving hints that she was falling in love with this beautiful sport herself.
We sat and cheered, fully caught up in the action, and were in the sixth inning well before two hours had elapsed. I took our daughter up to the second deck, so she could enjoy the geometric patterns mown into the grass, and by the time we descended to our seats, another inning had passed.
Wanting to get shots of the PawSox from behind their dugout, I scooted over to the first-base side in the ninth. I snapped away at the batters in the on-deck circle as the PawSox, ahead by a run, attempted to build a single and a sacrifice bunt into another run. A line drive to right field, and here came the catcher lumbering around third, headed for home, and here came the throw to the plate, and, mesmerized, I lifted the camera and fired away as the runner was tagged out by Jesus Montero, the New York catcher of the future, and the Scranton crowd erupted, proving they could make noise when they wanted to, when the situation warranted it. When the moment was Perfect enough.
The game ended the way the last game I saw at Scranton had ended: a strikeout of the home team’s last batter, with the tying run stranded on second. A defeat of the Yankees, always a good thing, and I celebrated quietly at the victory for Red Sox Nation, and celebrated more openly at the announcer’s intonation of the official time of the game:
Two hours and twenty-three minutes.
Our daughter skipped across the parking lot toward our car. “That was the first game I ever sat through the whole way!” she said, ecstatic.
“Yeah, that was a terrific game,” my wife said, beaming.
This was the second time my father had gotten married since my mother died. I know it doesn’t reflect well on me to say that I felt put-upon about the whole thing. But it’s hard to integrate someone new into the family, especially when you have only met her once before the actual wedding.
And, more honestly, I worried that my father marrying Janet would bring to an end a period of unusual closeness between us. There was something about his second wife, Betty’s, death, and its immediate aftermath, that made it possible for us to talk as we had never talked before. That made it possible for us to attend three ballgames together last summer, enjoying each other’s company while we watched a sport that once seemed to define the differences between us.
I knew I was being selfish, that – in my old way of thinking – I didn’t have the *right* to my feelings about my father’s new relationship. But I still expected the wedding to be moderately painful, something I could tune out and survive the way I had tuned out and survived a decade’s worth of Bible Studies and Sunday sermons.
But, like the ballgame in Scranton, the event surprised me. Dad and Janet took turns reading something they had written together, a ten-minute synopsis of the paths their lives had taken to this point. Sitting in their chilly, onion-scented back yard, I felt tears slip down my face as my father talked about the various stations of his journey: chores on the family chicken farm, going to college after being sure that he wasn’t “college material,” raising children in the South Bronx, living for five years in Africa on a missionary term, losing his first wife – my mother – to pneumonia immediately after that term ended. Landing on his feet again with his second wife, and losing her, too.
Listening to him talk, I realized how much I loved him. That simple, bare fact stripped away the resentment and worry that I had been feeling. And I realized that we would adjust, that they would be fine, that this marriage would also be good for my father, and that we would be able to go to baseball games together, or build a playhouse for my daughter, and that nothing would be lost that we had gained.
It was cold at the wedding, and threatened to rain all day. I wasn’t in the mood to meet and greet with dozens of people from my past. But the good feelings came and found me, just as this picture-perfect ballgame appeared in the most unlikely of places.
I’m sure that some who didn’t tune out during their Bible Studies and Sunday sermons would say that this is evidence of God’s grace, proof that He is at work in the world. That’s what my father would say, after all. Dad would be sure of that.
I’m a little different. I’m willing to, as the song says, let the mystery be.
But I do know that any ballgame could be a three-and-a-half-hour trudge, just as any game could snap along like Abner Doubleday’s platonic ideal. Sometimes you’ll be disappointed, and sometimes you’ll be elated.
That elation could happen anywhere. Even in Scranton.