Posted by: Ryan | July 13, 2010

Game Nine: Dead Heat

Date: July 9, 2010
Location: Reading, PA
Score: Reading Phillies 2, Harrisburg Senators 0 (box score)
Hat worn: 1979 maroon Phillies, with old-school logo
If I were coming to bat today, my theme song would be: Salad Days, by Minor Threat
photos from the game

After eight games, I’ve found two clear favorites, two places where I wouldn’t hesitate to take a road trip to see a game: Reading and Portland. (Manchester is a distant third).

Reading and Portland have many similarities: you enter both parks under the stands and ascend a ramp to your seat. Both go easy on the between-innings entertainment, and maintain a respectful level of PA intrusion. Both are small parks, crammed with knowledgeable fans, and at both, you get the delicious sense that the fans know the players, and come to care about them deeply during their Double-A sojourn.

Both feed major-league teams that I follow (Portland the Red Sox, and Reading the Phillies). And, finally, both have that ineffable sense of history and community that just can’t be simulated, no matter how hard Manchester tries. The Reading stadium is 40 years older than Portland, but both are an essential part of their home cities, a major piece of the community’s happiness that is not to be taken lightly.

So as I drove down from Vermont to Reading, I wondered how I was going to rank the two places against each other. Surely I needed to have a winner, a Bloops and Bleepers Top Experience award that I could bestow on the lucky ballpark. Maybe I’d create some kind of foil seal, and mail it to the winning team’s central office.

It was a long drive, eight hours, and I missed the top half of the first inning due to construction delays in Allentown. But having been to Reading less than two months earlier, I knew where to park (on the street, free), and I knew where to get my welcoming cup of Yuengling, and my soft pretzel.

Photo of First Energy StadiumI knew where my seat was, too, in the blue section, about a dozen rows from the field, between the first-base dugout and home plate. Reading doesn’t have as much screening from foul balls as Portland, so you need to be alert at all times when you sit this close.

As I ate my pretzel – smearing myself with mustard in the process – and drank my beer, I took note of the differences between the Reading crowd and its Maine counterpart. The fans were noticeably rowdier here, shouting at the umpire, and not hesitating to boo good-naturedly. More working-class than patrician Maine, I thought.

I also noticed that the Reading crowd talked more among themselves. The woman behind me – Tina – was at the center of an innings-long discussion about grandkids and new cars and the outlet malls and what really constitutes a balk. She debated how soon Domonic Brown would be up at the major league club (he’d already departed for Triple-A a couple of weeks earlier). She chatted across the aisle, behind her, in front of her, and while I found this endearing and reassuring – community is not dead! – I began to get annoyed despite myself.

Photo of baseballSo I left to buy a pulled-pork sandwich, identical in composition and flavor to the sandwiches I used to buy at Amish auctions with my father. I lucked into a foul ball that skipped between the stands and rebounded off a wall directly into my path. Feeling tickled – I was hoping I’d get a foul ball *sometime* this summer – I found another seat, also in the blue section, but on the third-base side, where I could put my camera gear on the seat beside me, admire my new souvenir, and continue to puzzle over how I’d choose a winner between the two contestants.

When Sue and I moved from Lancaster to Vermont nearly twenty years ago we left a lot of things behind: we both had jobs we liked, we were part of a progressive and welcoming church community, and many of our college friends lived in Lancaster, enough to make going to the Dispensing Company on 35-cent Taco Night feel like entering the set of Cheers.

But we also had clear reasons for going. It was important to both of us to set out into The World, to at least take a shot at finding out who we were, unbounded by expectations and tradition. We sensed that we weren’t really city people. We wanted big gardens, and animals, and quiet, and time to write and paint and think.

Vermont agreed with us. The night we moved, I looked out the window from our new bedroom, from our house deep in the woods, and saw three birch trees, standing in the moonlight at the bend in the dirt driveway. The sight of those trees made me incredibly happy. We had made our choice, and we had arrived.

That happiness continued, even though we didn’t find work right away, and the work that we did find didn’t pay much, and didn’t last long. I sometimes wished for my old job in Pennsylvania, sometimes wished things would be easier, the way they were in Mennonite Lancaster. But we still held fast to the truth I’d intuited on our first night in our new place. We wanted to stay.

We returned to Lancaster for family gatherings, for a friend’s funeral, for my parents’ three-month furlough during their five-year missionary term in Africa. It was always stressful to come back, and we always felt a tremendous surge of relief as we headed north up Route 222, returning to what we now thought of as home.

“Are you glad we moved away?” one of us would always ask the other, in a routine as ritualized as Kabuki theater.

“Oh my God, yes,” the other would reply, on script. “We never could have stayed.”

Now I understand that this need to continually rehash our choice, to pit one place against the other, represented a deep uncertainty that we had done the right thing. Three years into our move to Vermont, our choice wasn’t as easy to defend. Unemployed and decidedly unhappy, I spent my days cutting firewood in a neighbor’s woodlot across the road from our house, wearing my old steel-toed combat boots to keep from shearing off my toes with a chainsaw. I ate lunch on the floor of our living room, snugged up against the wood stove, trying to chase the chill from my bones, trying to shake the persistent thought: is this what I’m going to do with the rest of my life?

And then things got worse. My mother caught pneumonia on the way home from Africa. She spent six weeks in intensive care in Lancaster General Hospital before dying. Our family raged the way Mennonites rage: quietly, inside our own minds and hearts. Throughout the hours-long viewing, the funeral, the burial, I fought the urge to flee, to burst through the doors of the church and run north, keep running, until I found a place that again felt like home.

Instead, I gritted my teeth through the fellowship meal after the funeral, listening as a friend’s mother told me, “You kids always leave Lancaster to go out and do something, but you find out that life is hard out there. You belong here. You’ll always belong here.”

F*ck you, I told her in my mind, in my heart. I’m never coming back to this place.

That was 15 years ago. Last summer, my father’s second wife, Betty, died of breast cancer. It was her second bout with the disease, and she’d fought hard for three long years. In many ways, it was exactly the same as my mother’s illness and death: the family watching the slow slide to the inevitable, the hope against hope, the consultations with the physicians, the beeping machines, the death rattle.

But in many, more important ways, it was completely different. Mom’s death had spurred my father and me to start talking with each other, to express our feelings for the first time, and by the time Betty got sick, Dad and I had found a new place of understanding. Many things were different in my own life as well: I had a child, a job I liked, a house, a sense of myself and my beliefs. All things I didn’t have 15 years ago.

And so, last summer, I did all of the Mennonite things around Betty’s death without gritting my teeth. My brother and I worked with our father and his friends from church to build her coffin. I sat in the living room with Dad’s pastor and members of his church small group, sipping tea, talking about Betty, and I did not feel like fleeing, did not escape to anywhere different, even in my own mind.

I was *present,* and I’m glad that I was, even through the funeral sermon and the burial and the fellowship meal.

I’ve been back to Lancaster several times since Betty’s death, including these recent ballgame roadtrips. And I’ve noticed a pleasant side effect of finally being present, of finally being at peace with my decisions and myself: I really like Lancaster. I like going downtown to Central Market. I like visiting our friend, Alicia, at Mommalicious, and shopping for second-hand clothes at Building Character. I even like going to conservative Mennonite hardware stores with my father, and tooling around buggy-scarred back roads with him, talking about the Amish, his favorite pastime.

Since I no longer feel threatened, I can enjoy the place for what it is.

All of this is a long way of explaining the realization I found in the stands at Reading’s First Energy Stadium the other night: why do I have to pick one place over the other? Why do I have to pick the quiet, thoughtful appreciation of the Red Sox fans in Portland over the garrulous enjoyment of the Phillies fans in Reading? Doesn’t it make life richer just to appreciate the ballparks as they are, and revel in their differences?

So that’s what I’m going to do. Reading, Portland: you’re in a dead heat. I love you both. And I hope to see you soon.

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