Posted by: Ryan | May 26, 2010

Game Four: Waiting on a Friend

Date: May 24, 2010
Location
: Harrisburg, PA
Score
: Bowie Bay Sox 7, Harrisburg Senators 3 (Box score)
Hat worn
: Orange Red Sox hat with blue logo
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be: Clampdown, by the Clash
photos from the game

They might as well have hung a banner across the entrance to Metro Bank Park in Harrisburg: “Stephen Strasburg was here.”

Strasburg, heralded as the best pitcher of his generation, recently was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A, from Harrisburg to Syracuse. Next stop, the majors and Washington, probably by the middle of June.

It was a Monday night, and things were slow at the ballpark. I asked the guy at the beer stand – gray hair, round glasses, steady hand with the weissbier – what it was like when Strasburg pitched, just a few weeks ago. He broke into a grin. “It was a freakin’ gold mine,” he said. “This place holds 6100 people, and 7000 came out.”

At best, the crowd tonight measured 1000 fans. Maybe more like 500. It was so quiet that you could hear the birds settling down for the night between pitches.

“But I’m selling a lot of beer tonight, believe it or not,” the vendor said.

One stand over, at Momo’s Barbecue, the owner regaled me with a description of the Senators’ 10:30 am ballgames, held for businessmen and area schoolchildren. “The kids come down here and clean me out of Mountain Dew,” he said. “Last time I went through four cases by the sixth inning. I went and got another case, and they were drinking it warm.”

He smiled. “Get the kids all hopped up, then send them home to Mama.”

photo of pitcher warming upAfter the baseball heaven of Reading, I had low expectations for Harrisburg. Growing up, we only went to Harrisburg for the Farm Show in the fall and the Mennonite Relief Sale in February. Once, in college, I attended an outdoor reggae show with friends somewhere in the city, a good time, never repeated. We always went to Philadelphia for any kind of amusement. Harrisburg was an unknown, forever associated with Three Mile Island.

So I was surprised to find the ballpark located on a wooded island in the Susquehanna River, the loveliest setting I’ve seen thus far in my project. From the beer stand, with your back to the action, you can look across the river at the state government buildings and green-capped cathedrals on the far bank. If you live in the city, you can walk across a lit pedestrian bridge to catch a ballgame.

The crowd seemed made up entirely of folks who would walk across a long bridge to see a ballgame. They were lifers – and yes, Little Leaguers in their team uniforms, and military personnel from the nearby base, who get in free on Monday nights – and they knew these players like family.

Dad and I sat in the second row behind the third-base dugouts ($12.50 a pop), so close to the action we could see the puffs of dirt come out of the catcher’s glove with each pitch. The fans around us had plenty of room to stretch out, resting their feet on the dugout roof (like at Pawtucket, the stands are raised high above the field, so the players walked below us into the dugout). They kept up a quiet, personal banter with the players.

“C’mon, Brad,” pleaded a guy in oily jeans and a sweat-stained tan Senators cap, willing the starting pitcher to calm down after he’d given up a home run to the leadoff batter and walked the next two. “C’mon, man.”

photo of man with foul ballAn inning later, the Bowie center fielder flipped the guy a ball at the end of an inning. He studied and caressed the ball for the next several innings, the tattoo on his forearm flexing as he turned his wrist this way and that.

Another man, three seats over, my age or a little older, sat alone, an American Legion poppy stuck in one of the vent holes of his red Senators cap. “C’mon dude,” he said to the African-American designated hitter. “C’mon Marvin.” He said it so gently that I was aware that not only was he urging Marvin on to greater feats, but that he was building up his self-confidence. We believe in you, Marvin, he was saying. They might boo you up in Syracuse, or up in Washington, but we’re family here. We’ll take care of you as you learn the game, because we know that next year, or, at the very latest, two years from now, you’ll be gone, either on to glory like Stephen Strasburg or back to Georgia to think about community college, about getting married. In either case, you’re here for just a little while, on this green grass beside the sliding gray river, so, c’mon Marvin. C’mon.

photo of man with poppy in his hatIn about the third inning, a couple joined the man sprawled near us. The woman climbed over the  row of seats, kissed the man on the cheek, and plopped down beside him. I ate the excellent beef brisket sandwich I’d bought from the barbecue vendor, watched the game, and listened to their conversation, which touched on the Quebec separatist movement, the ongoing hockey playoffs, Harrisburg area restaurants, and Mel Brooks movies.

“Who was that actress in Young Frankenstein?” the guy said to his companions. “Man, I can’t think of her name.”

“Madeline Kahn,” I said. “She was in Blazing Saddles, too.”

The guy turned to look at me. “Right! And The History of the World, Part One.”

“Never saw it.”

He turned his body fully to take me in. “No way! Ah, you gotta see it dude. It’s hilarious.”

On the field, the score stayed knotted at 1-1, the first close baseball game I’d seen since up in Manchester, nearly a month ago.

He told me that he comes up from Shippensburg, a 45-minute drive, about once a week to take in a game. His friends, who live in Harrisburg, meet him here sometimes. They know where to find him.

I enjoyed thinking about the message he must leave on their voicemail. “Hey. I’m coming up tonight. See you at the park, if you can make it.”

So I finished my weissbier and finished my brisket and said to my father that it was good that the young pitcher – Brad – had gotten himself out of trouble, that he had settled down, because at that age, he needs to make mistakes, and find his way out of them, instead of being pulled from the situation, instead of having his manager come in and make things better. He needs to struggle, and learn, I said.

Later, I realized that I might have been talking about myself, that after my own struggles – far more than a leadoff homer and back-to-back walks – my father and I could watch a ballgame together, feet up on the seats in front of us, and I could get a beer and talk about this game that I love with him, and while he might not share my love of baseball, or of weissbier, or even understand them, he was here with me, on an island in a river, watching 20-year-olds play a game with passion and grace, and that was enough.

We left in the 8th. The next morning, we learned that the game had lasted into the 15th, when Bowie finally scored four runs to win, 7-3.

Maybe the man with the poppy in his cap stayed. I doubt his friends stayed with him; by the sixth inning, the woman was texting on her iPhone. He might have soldiered on alone for a couple of innings, then stretched and left in the 12th, readying himself for the drive down to Shippensburg.

“Take care, guys,” he said when we stood to leave.

Yeah. Take care.

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Responses

  1. Trying to sneak a Stones reference past us in the title of this? Great piece, Ryan. A treat to read. Again you lead the lucky reader up to the height of land overlooking a great vista of sentiment but you somehow manage to do this with a lovely narrative spareness. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, John. I’m going to have to start thinking about titles that *aren’t* rephrased song titles…


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