Posted by: Ryan | July 6, 2010

Game Eight: In the Zone

Date: June 20, 2010
Location: Portland, ME
Score: Akron Aeros 3, Portland Sea Dogs 2 (Box score)
Hat worn: Orange Red Sox hat with blue logo
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be: September Gurls, by Big Star
photos from the game

As I’ve mentioned before, the Perfect Moment is a wily creature. Try as you might, you can’t force its arrival, can’t arrange the necessary pieces and wait, like a suitor, for its grand entrance down the long, curving staircase of your expectations.

But conversely – and perversely, and stirringly – a Perfect Moment can emerge when you least expect it.

It’s natural for me to anticipate disillusionment, to think about all of the ways things can go wrong. I learned this from my father, whose stated modus operandi when I was a teenager was, “Expect the worst.” He would go on to explain: “That way, if something good happens, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And if the worst *does* happen, you’ll be prepared.”

Thankfully, he’s moved past that motto. And I’m trying to learn some hopefulness as I, too, get older. Which is why my second game at Hadlock Field in Portland, Maine felt like a minor victory, a subtle affirmation that I’ll keep in my pocket and pull out from time to time as evidence of a different way of thinking.

The day didn’t start out as promising. When I had returned to La Quinta from the previous night’s game, Sue pointed out that “There are a lot of drunk guys in this hotel.” One of those drunk guys pounded on our door at two in the morning, momentarily confused why his buddies weren’t answering his thumps. He banged just long enough to rouse us and set our hearts rocketing. Although I was exhausted from poor sleep in Manchester the night before, I slept fitfully the rest of the night, ruminating on my chances of driving three hours to Pawtucket (with a stopover in Boston to drop Sue and the kid off at the bus station), seeing a ballgame in the hot sun, and then driving three hours home to Vermont without veering off the road.

So, over my Father’s Day breakfast, a new plan: we’d stay in Portland, Sue would take the kid to the nearby children’s museum, and I’d see a couple of innings of a second game. I’ve been to Pawtucket several times before, but I felt disappointed. I wanted again to see the way autograph-seeking kids dangle plastic milk jugs on strings down into the dugout, with a Sharpie and a baseball cradled in the jug’s body.

At mid-morning, I walked to Hadlock Field, bought a ticket in the second row behind home plate for nine dollars, returned to the hotel to help pack the car, and walked back to the stadium well before the 1:05 start. It was hot enough that I wanted to stay out of the sun, so I hunkered down in the shade beneath the stands, watching as the uniformed players left the brick gymnasium behind the right-field stands and clattered across the macadam toward the field, high-school-style. I felt tired and a little annoyed: I’d had such a good time the night before, and I didn’t want to mess with it, the same way I don’t want to go back to Costa Rica, where I lived for three blissful months when I was 19, because there would be no way to improve on the experience.

Once I was in my seat, another disappointment. A guy with a three-day beard grumbled about how I was sitting in *his* seat. Although I often move around the ballpark during a game, this was a legitimate mistake: I was in B-9, and I was supposed to be in B-6. He muttered some more things about me as I moved to the end of the row, beyond the rest of his family, and then he proceeded to complain about how he couldn’t see from where he now sat, because he was right behind the umpire.

Dude, relax, I wanted to say. It’s Father’s Day.

Trying to make nice to the guy’s wife, I offered the three-year-old on her lap my seat, and I slipped down to the first row. I rested my feet on the steel lip between the field and the stands, peered between the squares of the mesh foul-ball screen, and tried to settle into the game.

The night before, Akron had inserted a new pitcher in the 8th inning, a slight Korean guy – one of several Asian players on each team – and watching him warm up, I was convinced that he would be unhittable. In my thirties, I’d played in an adult hardball league for five years, long enough to recalibrate my sense of what constitutes good baseball. The best pitcher in our league threw in the low 80s, and although I’m not a great hitter, I will tell you that a pitch thrown 80 miles an hour is traveling pretty damn fast. Mix in a changeup, a slider, add 10 to 15 miles an hour, change locations, and that Korean kid looked like Sandy Koufax.

Except that the Sea Dogs knocked him around, beginning with the catcher Luis Exposito, who battled the Akron pitcher for 10 pitches – fouling off tough slider after tough slider – before whacking a deep drive, Carlton Fisk-like, into the screen of the left-field foul pole, above the Maine Monster. That at-bat was the game-within-the-game that I love more than almost anything else, and as the ball cleared the wall, I looked around to see who I could share the experience with – 10 pitches and then a home run and he didn’t move from the box until it was gone!

I settled for scribbling ecstatic notes in my Moleskine.

Photo of Akron pitcher warming upAt this second Sea Dogs game, I had an even better view, possibly the best seat in the house. I was so close that I could hear the home-plate ump speaking to the catcher between batters, that I could see the chagrin on the face of an Akron player when a cue-shot foul off his bat nailed a woman in the side of the head. She was sitting above the third-base dugout, and I thought about how my father and I had dodged a similar cue shot at the game in Harrisburg, ducking instinctively as the ball spun over our heads, where it clanged into the metal seats six rows behind us. We had turned around to see two old guys – the only people in their row on that Monday night – wearing what even my religious father would describe as “Holy shit!” expressions.

The woman was escorted from the field to applause, and authentic expressions of remorse, and she waved to let them know she was OK, and I began to come around again, to let the genial nature of the Maine crowd outweigh the grouchy, feted father sitting behind me, still complaining about his obstructed view.

Both pitchers were dealing. The Sea Dogs’ pitcher, Kyle Weiland, got three strikeouts over the first two innings on back-door curve balls, and I loved seeing how he set up the batters, loved thinking about the wordless communication between him and the catcher: Now a slider. Good. Changeup to get him off stride. And then the curveball. Stand and throw the ball down to third, whip it around the horn, point at the pitcher, and do it again.

I had found my Perfect Moment, had fallen into the single, subtle point of this entire project: to lose myself in the game. I delighted in the batters spitting and then scratching at the dirt with their cleats before their at-bats, at the seams of the ball hissing as the pitch approached, at the arc of a long fly to center field, at the intersecting geometry of the outfielder running to meet the ball in his white uniform. At the fielder jogging in and flipping the ball into the crowd, taking off his hat, and busying himself to come to the plate.

Photo of Akron batter on deck

Because this is Double-A, the batters stayed in the box throughout their at-bats. They did not step out to adjust their batting gloves, did not take practice swings, did not grimace and glance into the crowd between pitches. They took their cuts, and the game moved along, a beautiful game, so quiet at its core, and I felt again the love that has been part of me since I was six years old, when my sports-ignorant parents gave me a baseball glove for my birthday, a gift from a father who might have hoped his son would excel where he had been stymied.

And then, it was two o’clock, time to walk to meet Sue and drive back to Vermont. That had been our arrangement: I would watch an hour of the game, and we would try to avoid the Maine traffic, as everyone left Vacationland to return to the city.

We returned to our home, high on a hillside, and I puzzled over the math of the trip, over the essential irony of our era: I spent about six hours on the road, close to $400 between two hotel rooms, a hundred bucks or so on meals and ballgame tickets, all so I could lose myself  in a game for a precious half-hour, for 45 blissful minutes. All of that energy, all of that time, in pursuit of something so simple. Wouldn’t it have been better to just stay at home?

Nah. It was worth it, every penny.

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Responses

  1. Of course it was… 🙂


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