Posted by: Ryan | July 29, 2010

Game 12: Splash Day

Date: July 12, 2010
Score: New Hampshire Fisher Cats 6, Binghamton Mets 5 (box score)
Hat worn: blue faux-distressed Barnstormers cap
If I were coming to bat today, my song would be: Shadrach, by the Beastie Boys
photos from the game

I was surprised to have to wait in line to get into the parking lot outside NYSEG Field in Binghamton, New York. A Monday afternoon in a rust-belt town, the last game before the All-Star break, the team in third place. I had thought that I would be the only one in the stands.

But I had to wait in line for a ticket as well. All four windows were open, and each line was about 10 people deep. Was today’s game going to feature a rehabbing major-leaguer? Were they giving out free spiedies?

What finally tipped me off was the kids in their swimsuits, hopping around excitedly outside the gates. It was Splash Day. I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but it sounded soggy.

“Any preference?” the guy at the window asked when it was finally my turn. “Third base line? First base line?”

“Somewhere I won’t get wet.”

The ballfield wasn’t pretty. There were large dry patches in the outfield grass. The stadium itself was made out of concrete blocks, and the awning above the infield seats was trimmed in that pukey Mets blue, two branding iterations old.

But I still liked it.

It wasn’t magical like Reading or Portland, but the place had the same hometown charm as those two ideals. There was no merchandising or hype. The gift shop was literally a stand in a hallway, manned by a bored teenager.

And the utilitarian ballpark had its own shambling grace, an authentic sense of a meeting spot lived in and loved. As if this experience was possible only in this particular place, with that smell of grilling pork and garlic wafting in from the outfield. With the bullpen pitchers sitting on picnic tables under white awnings, like cousins visiting at a family reunion. With the flat upstate accents of the people around me, reminding me of my friend, Todd, and his extended Polish/Italian Catholic family. Of they way they’d say, “I sweah to Gad, Tadd,” and swig wine with their priest at dinner, and drive golf carts like maniacs between their various holiday houses by the lake.

It felt comfortable and foreign at the same time, and I was pleased to be part of it, the way we were always pleased to be invited to Todd’s family’s house for a summer weekend.

Photo of third baseI had a great seat for the game, just to the right of the Fisher Cats’ dugout, but behind the protective foul-ball screen. Freed from the worry of getting beaned in the grape by a cue-shot screamer, I focused my attention on the interplay between the third baseman and the shortstop, who were joined by a B-Mets runner at third in the bottom of the inning. I noticed again how baseball is comprised of moments of extreme, poised concentration, followed by three times as many moments of waiting. The players fill those idle moments with routine adjustments to their uniforms and gloves, with rocking their bodies from side-to-side, with spacey, half-focused glances around them. Their bodies need a break from the tension of waiting for the next pitch, of crouching with the tip of the glove brushing the infield dirt, but they can’t let their minds wander too much, for in the next two seconds, they will have to snap again to attention, and be ready to perform.

It’s like what Ted Williams said about hitting: “Wait, wait, wait…now quick!”

I’ve tried to avoid pulling baseball metaphors off the field and propping them up to apply to life in general. But I will say this: life has a lot of waiting, and precious few chances to perform at what you have practiced to perfection. You better be ready when that double-play grounder comes skipping toward you at third.

This was the fourth time I had seen the Fisher Cats play this summer, and by now, I knew them by their first names and uniform numbers: Darren, Adam, Eric, Brian. They’re a good team, in first place most of the year, and you can feel a nice vibe coming from the club, especially when you’re sitting ten feet away. The players seems to *like* each other, or at least have found ways to share space without getting on each others’ nerves. I enjoyed watching how the players not in the starting lineup hunched over the dugout railing and spit sunflower seeds on the red dirt warning track when the rest of the team was in the field, not talking much, but at home in each others’ company, the way a couple at the beginning of a good relationship feels on their first long road trip together.

Photo of Adam Loewen on deckI was surprised by how little chatter came from the dugout, how little bullshitting and ragging seemed to go on. The players were *focused,* perhaps as a result of good management, or because they know that their professional futures hang on every at-bat, on every double sent down the line. I saw the looks on their faces as they stood in the on-deck circle, and recognized their search for the mindless concentration needed to hit a ball 400 feet, needed to write good essays, needed to whip a garden into shape with the tip of a sharp, Amish-made hoe in the last half-hour before the sun goes down.

And there were a lot of distractions to block out at this game. Not from the PA, thankfully – as at Portland, the B-Mets don’t play song intros for the visiting team, and the interruptions they do employ rely on the old-school charm of the ballpark organ. And not from the usual hokey minor league stuff, like the hot dog vendor who scampers around the apron of grass behind home plate, flinging wieners wrapped in tin foil over the screen (I caught one, and, full of spiede, flung it back another six rows to some grateful kids).

The ballgame was competing with Splash Day, and losing. The fun had started with the college-aged ushers spraying people in the stands with a garden hose between innings. Then came the guys rampaging up and down the aisles with super-soakers, and, in a major escalation of tactics, dudes who looked like they worked on the grounds crew dangling sprinklers on hoses from the awnings over the crowd. Squeals from the kids; satisfied grins from the dudes.

I was reminded of how our family worked at a summer camp for kids from New York City for much of my childhood, and how the camp staff – and especially my brother and myself – looked forward to scaring the living shit out of the kids during what we called a “Spook Hike” every week. The counselors would lead the campers into the dark woods after campfire, under the pretense of a peaceful night hike, and we’d swing down from trees on ropes, faces painted in fake blood, or run toward them on the path with skeletons sketched in phosphorescent tape on our black sweatsuits. We would delight at their terror.

It was mean, and certainly against the principles of Christian camping – if not state laws – and the practice further reinforced the city kids’ perception that the woods were full of bears and lions and were not to be trusted.

But I will say that I looked forward to the Spook Hikes all during the school year, dreaming up new costumes and techniques for driving the campers into new paroxysms of fear, the way I believe the B-Mets employees think up new ways to soak the fans during every Splash Day.

Photo of guy dumping water on the crowdBy the time I had to leave to drive home in the sixth inning, the rooftop guys were dumping five-gallon buckets of water from the awning, and the kids were giddy with the realization that once you are totally soaked, you are untouchable, and the place was teetering on the edge of anarchy. It wasn’t Disco Demolition Night, but one got that Custer-ish feeling that there were a *lot* more kids at the ballpark this afternoon than grownups.

In the flooded bathroom, as I was taking a leak before hitting the road, I heard a counselor lecturing some boys under his ostensible command. “I don’t want the Boys and Girls Club caught up in any of this, you hear?” The boys looked exactly like the kids from Camp, 30 years ago, but here they were in their element, not in the woods, and they clearly had water balloon mayhem on their minds.

DiRienzo’s Bakery stands opposite the ballpark’s side gate. A couple of generations ago, someone mounted a delivery van to a twenty-foot pole as an advertisement, the bakery’s name painted on the van’s side. It’s the sort of thing that businesses used to do, but don’t do anymore, now that they know that a van on a pole marks a place as cheesy and provincial. Now that they care more about what people from outside their block, from outside their city, will think.

That bakery, that van, those seats by the dugout, that low-rent charm of the B-Mets’ ballpark, will call me back to Binghamton.

And maybe next Splash Day I’ll bring my swimsuit, bring my goggles, leave my camera and pen at home, stop studying the game for a moment, and take my punishment, as penance for the Spook Hikes.

Boys and Girl’s Club kids: this one’s on me. Load up your super soakers. Let’s get it on.

Postscript: Binghamton is hosting a Big Lebowski Tribute Night on August 3. No lie. Take that, I.M. Fun.

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