Posted by: Ryan | June 16, 2010

Game Five: Entranced

Date: June 15, 2010
: Manchester, NH
: New Hampshire Fisher Cats 6, Akron Aeros 3 (Box score)
Hat worn
: Green Fisher Cats with special St. Patrick’s Day logo
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be: December 4th, by Jay-Z and DJ Danger Mouse

One of the perks of my job is that I occasionally have a non-baseball reason to travel to Manchester, New Hampshire, where our regional health care system has a clinic, and the Toronto Blue Jays have a Double-A affiliate. I admit that I do check the Fisher Cats’ schedule before I book meetings in Manchester.

The ‘Cats were at home last night. I was done with my meetings by 4:30, and by 4:45 I had changed into my jeans, orange Vespa shirt, and sweat-stinky Fisher Cats hat, and was driving my Impreza through the sunlit streets of the recuperating mill town, listening to two guys on NPR debate the merits of the World Cup.

One of the commentators claimed that baseball is boring, way more boring than soccer.

Tienes razon, I thought. But it’s a good bored.

By 5:00 I was watching batting practice from a stool in the Sam Adams Grill in left field, checking the rosters on the double-sided photocopy inserted into the scorecard, and trying to ignore the hype about the upcoming Celtics-Lakers game on the high-definition TV above my head. Because I was coming from work, I didn’t have my full Bloops and Bleeders kit with me: no backpack of camera equipment, no Baseball America Top Prospects book. I felt a bit unmanned, like Michael Corleone before he goes into the bathroom to get the gun hidden behind the toilet. What was I going to *do* before my flatiron steak arrived?

Watch BP, of course, and slip into a relaxation so thorough that by the time I was done with my dinner and a beer, I was worried about my ability to find my seat, let alone drive the 90 minutes home later in the evening.

Moving through the gathering crowd in a trance-like state, I plopped into a row of empty seats to the right of the home-team dugout. An hour before game time, the home team was coming out of the dugout to stretch and throw. Normally I would have had my Canon to my eye, trying to get close-up shots of the players, but this time I sat, and watched, and listened.

Photo of Brian Jeroloman catchingCatcher Brian Jeroloman, who has been with the Fisher Cats so long that he’s dropped off the Top Prospects charts, walked out with his shinguards on. He greeted a gawky-looking guy in the front row, the sort of twenty-year-old who brings an Eastern League baseball in a box to the game, ready for autographs. The guy was wearing a limited-edition Fisher Cats jersey, scrawled with player signatures in Sharpie ink.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Jeroloman said. “I heard I broke your watch.”

The guy held up his thin right wrist, and pointed at his *new* watch – appropriately geek-clunky – and said, “Yeah, it hit me right here.”

“Sorry about that,” Jeroloman said.

“That’s OK, Brian,” the guy said, looking not at all upset about his ruined watch. He grinned as if Jeroloman had given him a Rolex.

Moments later, another player stopped at the rail to sign a glove for a boy about ten years old. The player listened as the kid’s mom said that Dylan or Darren or Damon has hit three home runs this year in Little League. The guy looked up from the glove, and meeting the kid’s gaze, said, “Wow, you should be playing for us.” He handed back the glove, then crouched down obligingly for Mom and her disposable camera, turning at her suggestion so she didn’t need to look into the sun to frame the shot of her son and this six-foot-four outfielder, with his arm on the kid’s shoulder like he was an older brother or grown-up cousin.

By now most of the squad was on the field. I delighted in watching two Hispanic guys – one from the Dominican, the other from Venezuela – loosen up together, their throws growing longer and more precise, zipping so quickly that I imagined I could hear the seams hissing from where I sat, 30 feet away. Then, to my pleasure, they began to fool around, noticeable only to geeks like me and the guy with the big watch, mixing curves and sliders and a few goofy knuckleballs into their throws. They made little hops when they caught the ball, their white doubleknit knees and their black cleats lifting and falling back to the sod as the ball slammed into their gloves. They mimed double-play pivots and scooped short-hops like kids in a back yard, and it did my heart good to see that they were still enjoying themselves, despite their years of honing and learning, their difficult adjustments to Denny’s and snow and English, and the very real possibility that this may be as far as it might go for both of them, or possibly worse, for one of them: one on to Las Vegas and then to Toronto while the other hangs on, Jeroloman-style, for an extra year in New Hampshire before a return to empanadas and humidity and humility and the cane fields.

A skinny guy with Robert Kennedy side-parted hair was signing autographs along the first-base line, 15 feet away. Beside him stood a tan woman with a pasted-on smile, a clipboard clutched to her chest. His minder, it seemed. But who was he? Too thin and too short to be a former ballplayer. Is he the owner of the team, I wondered? But why then were people coming down the steps to have pictures taken of their kids with him?

Only when he made an announcement before the game, congratulating all of the kids who got in free tonight for reading five extra books during the school year, did I learn his identity.

He was the governor of New Hampshire.

Oh. Guess I lost my chance to have him sign my shirt.

The game started, and I relocated myself into my favorite type of seat at Merchants Auto Dot Com Stadium: at the edge of the concessions concourse, with unbroken sight lines and plenty of room to stretch out. The game was a good one, and I stayed until the fifth, witnessing a nice hit-and-run before I left at about 8:30. I wanted to get on the road before complete darkness. I wanted to make sure that the Red Sox broadcast would last until I made it home.

As had happened the last time I left a Fisher Cats game early, I heard a cheer from the stands as I walked to my car. I found the game on the AM radio before I left the Manchester city limits, and learned that Jeroloman had singled in two runs to put the ‘Cats ahead, 4-2.

Good for you, Brian, I thought.

During commercial breaks in the Sox broadcast, I wondered if Jeroloman would be sad to leave Manchester if and when he gets promoted. He’s been hitting over .300, and has been the Fisher Cats’ most-consistent run-producer this season. Life seems to have been good for him in New Hampshire, but if the time comes, he’ll move on, happily, I decided.

Photo of catcher and pitcher walking to the fieldI thought about the ritual way his teammates had hugged him before the game, all of the pitchers coming from where they had stood during warmups to embrace Brian before he and the starting pitcher made their way down to the mound and the batter’s boxes, down to the field, to the bright lights. He’d stood then, helmet over his heart, as the National Anthem was played on band instruments by a group of seventh graders. Then he cocked his helmet back on his head, snugged down his mask, pounded his fist into his mitt, and got to work.


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