Posted by: Ryan | June 23, 2010

Game Six: Family Man

Date: June 18, 2010
Location
: Manchester, NH
Score
: New Hampshire Fisher Cats 7, Erie Sea Wolves 4 (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: Icky Thump, by the White Stripes
photos from the game

My former co-worker who got me into minor league baseball once told me about a friend of his, a true baseball purist. This friend would sit in the stands with Bob and his two young sons, point at the mascot dancing atop the dugout, or at the fans puckering up for the Kiss Cam, and say, “Luke, Ben: nothing to do with baseball.”

I can be like that. When I’m feeling low, I believe my Six-Word Memoir should read, “Raised a Mennonite, he distrusted pleasure.” At those times, I blame my heritage, and blame my grandfather: heavy eyebrows, Bible gripped in his calloused farmworker hand, a lifelong grouchiness birthed by his father’s refusal to let him attend high school. It can be easy for me to fall back on that inherited disappointment with The World, on my grandfather’s sour disbelief that people would want to do something other with their Sundays than sit in straight-backed wooden pews. I fight my own disbelief that people could actually *enjoy* mascots, and Kiss Cams.

Fortunately, not everything gets inherited. My eight-year-old daughter has no hesitation with enjoying life, which is why she and my wife went to the pool at the Garden Inn that sits behind center field at the Fisher Cats’ ballpark, while I headed off to watch warmups. I told her to be sure to come to the park in time for the bottom of the first inning, when Ollie the bat dog does his tricks.

On my own, I took photo after photo of Brian Jeroloman, stood for the national anthem with my dirty green hat held in my smooth, office-worker hand, settled back with my pen and paper and Baseball America book, and enjoyed the mild surprise of the people in my row when an attractive woman and a cute little girl came to join me. My rowmates had pegged me as a lifer, the same as those solitary men scattered around the ballpark, guys who were already hunched over, studying the action, half an inning in.

Photo of Ollie the bat dogOllie carried the bats back to the Fisher Cats’ dugout in the bottom of the first to loud applause. We ate pork barbecue. Sue and I shared a strange, grainy-tasting Guinness, our daughter ate ice cream from a tiny plastic Fisher Cats helmet, and I watched the game like everybody else: intermittently, with frequent trips to the concessions.

I stopped believing in God about 15 years ago, as my mother was dying horribly in an Intensive Care Unit, at the end of her five-year missionary term to Africa. It wasn’t that I was angry at God; I simply realized that I had never really believed in the first place. I understood, finally, that whatever faith I had was based on the worry that something really terrible would happen if you didn’t keep praying, didn’t keep believing. We *had* been praying, we *had* been faithful, and here we were, in the worst situation imaginable. So letting go of that residual faith felt natural and right, one of those small, quiet decisions on which your life can turn.

What was harder for me, and a much bigger change, was when I realized that I no longer had to prove anything to The World. That I didn’t have to, or want to, stand apart as an example. My parents – like most Mennonites of their generation – grew up wearing clothing that instantly set them apart: floral-print “cape” dresses and head coverings for the women, plain black suits for the men. Like most, my parents eventually gave up on plain clothing, and instead focused on setting themselves apart in other ways: in how they talked about their faith, in the way they went on missionary assignments instead of building careers. In how their children behaved. The World was supposed to look at us, and know we were different, and ask us about our faith, so we could lead them to the Lord.

Photo of Ryan watchingI struggle with that legacy more than I struggle with the legacy of my grouchy grandfather. It’s at the heart of my hesitation to let myself just enjoy life. Everybody else likes bat dogs and cookies-and-cream ice cream. Everybody else watches the game in fits and starts. I’m different; I *study* the game. Ask me about why I watch baseball with a brow furrowed in concentration, and I will lead you to The Truth (it’s about pitching, and defense).

So on this night, it was good that my daughter kept asking me questions, kept noticing strange, eight-year-old things.

She enjoyed the names of the Erie Sea Wolves: shortstop Cale Iorg, nephew of former major leaguers Dane and Garth Iorg. And even better, left fielder Deik Scram. Sue and I instantly attempted to add this to our shared lexicon, honed over the past 23 years: “I think it’s time to Deik Scram.”

The game went on, pleasantly in the foreground, as my daughter and I talked.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if the Hood milk bottle in left field was really full of milk, Daddy, and if someone hit it with a home run, milk would shoot out the top?”

“Yeah, that would be funny. But it would be a foul ball.”

She paused for a moment.

“Why don’t they play good music, like the Beatles?”

“Attagirl.”

“Three more outs, and then we get a funny thing?”

Photo of kiddoShe told me she liked Build a Burger best of all of the half-inning entertainments. Two volunteers/conscriptees from the crowd were strapped into inflatable latex bun suits. One of the buns stacked faux lettuce, tomato, cheese, bacon, and a beef patty on his or her compatriot before leaping onto the friend to complete the sandwich.

I must admit; it is pretty funny.

Eventually, it was bedtime, time to Deik Scram. I walked Sue and the kid to the edge of the ballpark, peeked inside the Sam Adams Grill to learn that the Sox were beating the Dodgers, and feeling like I had done my duty as a regular member of The World, settled down into my adopted faith, into my solitary study.

I watched how the Erie catcher and pitcher congratulated each other after getting out of a bases-loaded jam. At first, the catcher held out a closed fist, and the pitcher bumped the fist with his glove. But then the catcher touched his bare fingers to the pitcher’s arm, gently, as if to make a greater point, and I felt that this is the sort of thing that the pitcher will carry with him, that this is what he will miss once his career is over: this camaraderie, this brotherhood.

I saw dads with their Cub Scout troops – the kids glassy-eyed from sugar consumption – watching intently like me, chin supported by their hands, yellow Cubmaster bandannas pointing down to the peanut-shell-littered concrete between their feet.

I felt Mayflies fall on me like soft rain, and realized it was because I was underneath a massive bank of floodlights, and that this is why these seats had been empty. I moved a couple of rows over, pleased that several insects had been smashed into my Moleskine, and would go home with me as souvenirs.

And then, after the seventh inning, something again pulled me into The World. A group of six 20-something guys sprinted onto the field wearing cheerleader skirts and handmade T-shirts with womens’ names written on the back: Olga. Carmelita. The announcer introduced them as the Fisher Kittens, and the guys did a deliberately clunky routine to a medley of Madonna and other Top Forty songs, ending with the fattest guy – legs stuffed into panty hose like angry sausages – posed coquettishly at the center of the group’s semicircle, along the third base line.

At the next half-inning – three outs and then another funny thing – the same guys zoomed out to leap atop the dugouts and dance in awful, hilarious choreography to “The Chicken Dance,” a polka that everybody clapped along to, and I laughed out loud, and wished I hadn’t given the camera to Sue to take back to the hotel, and hoped she would still be awake when the game was over, so I could tell her about this. I wanted to tell her how these six employees clearly love doing this, how they are like counselors at a summer camp, coming up with skits for the Talent Show, putting way more effort into it than necessary, just for the funny.

The game ended with a whoosh and a thrill: Tim Collins, 5 foot 7, 155 pounds, came on to nail down the win for the Fisher Cats, hitting 97 on the radar gun. He leaned back on the third-base side of the rubber, kicked high like an old-school hurler, and blew all three batters that he faced away, 12 pitches or so to strike out the side. No chance.

And then the lights were shut off with a loud click, the announcer signed off for the night, and Collins stood by the home team dugout signing autographs for five minutes, ten minutes. Baseball America said that “Because he stands just 5-foot-7, [Collins] went undrafted…Toronto signed him as a free agent and has watched him scrap his way up the ladder to Double-A.”

I felt warm inside for Collins, warm, even, for the guys who probably fine-tune their dugout-dancing act every week to keep it fresh and hilarious. I felt warm for my wife and child waiting for me in the posh hotel, five minutes away.

I did not sleep well that night. I was too jazzed up about the game, about the upcoming drive to Portland to see the Sea Dogs the next day, about the fact that a road trip I had planned six months earlier was actually happening. The next day I would be so tired that I would drink coffee – something I gave up about the time I gave up religion – and it would hurt my stomach, and I would grow weary with answering an eight-year-old’s questions about when we were going to be in Maine.

But like the pitcher remembering his old friend and battery mate, like my father remembering the things about his dad that he enjoyed – picking peaches in New Jersey with the entire family, Father reaching deep into the green branches to pull out the golden fruit – I would remember that I laughed, and let go of my worry for at least one night. That on this night, I realized that there was a lot to look forward to, and baseball was just one of those things.

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Responses

  1. Wow. This is pure poetry. Way more than a quick recap of a game. Brilliant stuff. Thanks for sharing!


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