Posted by: Ryan | June 30, 2010

Game Seven: Keeping Score

Date: June 19, 2010
Location
: Portland, ME
Score
: Portland Sea Dogs 11, Akron Aeros 5 (Box score)
Hat worn
: Orange Red Sox hat with blue logo
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be: Higher Ground, by Stevie Wonder
photos from the game

“I love Maine,” Sue said. We were on I-95, a few miles north of the New Hampshire border, having left Kittery and its outlet malls and turnpike tollbooths behind. I was nursing a coffee and a headache, fighting serious sleep deprivation, but I knew what she meant. Even the light looked different. “The sea’s over there,” I said to our daughter. “Right behind those trees.” She pressed her face against the window glass, willing the ocean closer.

As we drove the remaining hour to Portland, the site of the evening’s game between the Sea Dogs and the Akron Aeros, I thought about how we had considered moving to Maine right after we got married, nearly 20 years ago.

We had $250 to spend on our September honeymoon. Neither of us had a job. Our first night on the road, we camped on a glorious, frigid Vermont hillside outside Bennington. The next night we suffered in a rainy, rednecky campground in New Hampshire before heading for the coast the next drizzly morning. We agreed not to stop driving until we found a place we liked, and the place we liked was Bar Harbor, Maine, a solid three hours north of Portland.

And there we stayed, abandoning our plan to keep moving around New England for two weeks. We saw The Freshman in the decrepit, charming downtown movie theater, chuckling as the row of kids in front of us recited along with an anti-littering public service announcement in a deadpan drone. I had my first lobster. We looked at posters about whale watches, and wished we had enough money to ride out on one of the boats that left in the morning and came back in late afternoon.

We rented mountain bikes one day, and when we returned them to the shop, I noticed a sign on the door. “Bike mechanic wanted,” the sign read. “Year round work.”

I had worked in bike shops throughout high school and college. It was the one job that I was truly qualified to take on at age 22. As we walked around Mt. Desert Island the rest of our honeymoon, we tempted and terrified ourselves with the thought that we could just stay here, not return to Pennsylvania, not go back to church and Mennonites and the way we were expected to live. We could instantly become the people we had long talked about becoming: daring and unafraid and ready for adventure.

I didn’t become a bike mechanic on Mt. Desert Island. We went back to Pennsylvania, and my life followed its path: Mennonite Central Committee, Reading Phillies, Vermont, Jeep CJ5, cabin in the woods. Underemployment, family tragedy, agnosticism. A job at a food co-op, a house on a hill, a daughter, an attempted memoir, a better job. A plan to see as many minor league baseball games as possible the summer I turned 42.

But Maine is still close to my heart, and I instantly felt an affection for Hadlock Field, the home of the Portland Sea Dogs, from the moment I stepped inside. It’s a lot like Reading – a delightful little bandbox, with the entrance to the park underneath the stands, so you need to walk past the concessions on your way to the ramp and The Reveal.

Photo of umps and managers at home plateAgain: emerald grass and white uniforms and red dirt, but this time with seagulls, and with a replica of the famous 37-foot-high Fenway Park wall in left field, here dubbed, “The Maine Monster.” The forest-green wall somehow looked further away from home plate than it does in Boston, even though the distance is the same, 315 feet.

Rudy the head usher noticed me taking pictures, and once I told him that I was touring minor league ballparks, he showed me around, explaining that The Maine Monster is relatively new, only installed after the Sea Dogs became a Red Sox affiliate in 2003. I told him that a friend who once lived in Portland used to see the Sea Dogs all the time when they were part of the Florida Marlins system, and it was a special thrill for him when the Marlins won the World Series in 1997, with former Sea Dog Edgar Renteria getting the Series-winning hit.

“I remember Edgar,” Rudy said.

He undid a chain that blocked access to a hidden stairway, and led me down onto the field, so I could get a better shot of the stands behind home plate. Akron players were walking across the grass toward me, beginning their stretching, so although I wanted to lay down on the grass and luxuriate in its lushness, its history, I took only a few shots, hustled off the field, and thanked Rudy for his help.

Photo of college guy throwingBehind the third-base stands, some college guys were noisily competing in a pitching contest, seeing who could fire the ball the fastest into a tarp suspended within a metal cage. The digital numbers of the radar gun flipped to 68, then 70, then, finally, 77, the fastest speed of the day, and I wished I was 22 again, and could throw a ball as hard as I could without a warmup, without fear of a shoulder tear or a forearm strain. Heck, I wished I had *ever* thrown 77, and I remembered how the Phillies’ radio announcers – when I was down in PA, and the Sox were playing the Phils – had joked about the glacial slowness of Tim Wakefield’s knuckle ball, tumbling toward the plate at the unheard-of pace of 68 miles per hour.

I staked out three seats high in the grandstand behind home plate. (Sue and the kid were going to join me after the first pitch.) A few Portland players lounged in their dugout, and I watched as a dark-skinned guy spoke with one of the Dominican players, then passed a baseball over the chain-link fence for the player to sign. Clutching the ball, the fan ascended the stands, two rows at a time, as his girlfriend – gold hoop earrings, fire-engine-red short shorts, flip-flops – followed behind. They sat near me on the bench seats, and spoke excitedly in Spanish. I caught bits and pieces, my alternate, non-Bar Harbor path having taken me to Latin America several times. I know enough Spanish to ask them if they are up from Boston, or if they live in the neighborhood. I’d seen a Latina grocery store on the way to the park, with a sign in Spanish advertising calling cards taped to the plate-glass window. Do they get signatures from all of the Dominican players, I wanted to ask?

But if I now have more cojones than I did when I was 22, I didn’t show it. I kept mum, just another white guy sitting in the sun and the sea breeze waiting for the game to begin.

Photo of Hadlock FieldMy wife and daughter joined me. The food they brought up from the concessions below was surprisingly good. I didn’t feel up to a beer, so I ate some local ice cream (old-style local, not slow-food-movement local), and enjoyed the baseball, which was made even more pleasant by the fact that I may be hearing the names of these players on my radio two years from now, the way my friend saw Edgar Renteria make good in 1997. The Dominican shortstop, Yamaico Navarro, hit two long home runs, both no-doubters, the first clearing the Monster with room to spare, passing to the left of the circular clock mounted atop the wall.

Now batting for the Red Sox, shortstop Yamaico Navarro.

My daughter settled into the rhythm of the game. Unlike the night before, she did not ask every half-inning if she could get ice cream, or a Sprite, or more chicken tenders. She passed her hour before bedtime humming to herself, the game playing out on the green expanse before her, her eyes half-focused, a smile on her face. She’s done it, I thought. She’s found that place.

But what made the evening for me was the crowd. They were attentive and informed and fully engaged in the game. They applauded when a batter moved the runner over with a ground ball to the right side. They applauded good plays by the opposing team, even stomping on the metal risers to congratulate the Akron centerfielder on an outstanding catch. At Manchester the night before, three drunk guys had heckled the umpire, and I felt embarrassed, like they were blood relations acting poorly at a family reunion. That wouldn’t happen here, I was sure, and that general buzz of inattention that I heard yesterday, as Cub Scout troop leaders made sure that everyone got a crack at the bag of peanuts, was replaced by a watchful, focused appreciation.

Photo of crowd at Portland gameThe Mainers were taking in the game with something approaching reverence, and I loved them for it.

After my wife and daughter left to walk the ten minutes to the La Quinta Inn and bedtime, I wandered the grandstand, moving from seat to seat, taking in a half-inning at each stop.

Four young Latina women sat with cups of hot chocolate in their hands, speaking in Spanish about how cold they were. I wondered if they were the girlfriends of some of the players, or if they were from the neighborhood, and if this is what the neighborhood girls do on summer evenings, come and watch the games.

I saw an old guy with a graying, Amish-style beard keeping score in a spiral-bound notebook. It wasn’t an official scorecard; he’d drawn out boxes for each of the innings on standard-issue lined paper. His frugality and his patience broke my heart. I thought about his daughter, after her father is gone, finding a box full of these notebooks in the attic, and how she’d flip through the pages that limned a retirement’s worth of ballgames, seeing a few familiar names and many forgotten ones, and I imagined that she would kneel beside that box and shake her head again at her father, before taking one of the notebooks downstairs with her.

I sat behind a lesbian couple in the fourth row behind home plate, one wearing a blue Red Sox John Lackey T-shirt, the other in a red Red Sox Jacoby Ellsbury T-shirt. One of the women – the one with a row of stud earrings around the rim of her ear – had a glove with her, as if she were an eight-year-old kid on her first trip to Fenway. She opened and closed the glove, gently, as her partner rubbed the painted number on her back.

I stayed until the end of the game, when a foghorn rose from above the centerfield wall, and sounded a mild blast to herald the win (they do the same thing after home runs). I lined up with the rest of the crowd to exit the ballyard, turned right toward the hotel, and thought: I will never know the kind of life we could have lived had we made different choices, taken different paths.

But no matter what would have happened, I hope that I would have become a person who loved a night like this.

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Responses

  1. Please tell me you caught Drabek’s no-no this past weekend!

    • Sad to say, I did not make it to that game. I didn’t even know about the no-no, so thanks for the heads-up (weird the Fisher Cats’ Twitter feed didn’t mention it; maybe the guy got too excited to Tweet).

      I will see the Fisher Cats next Monday, in Binghamton, for the last game of the first half of the season. True get-away day…

      Ryan Newswanger


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