Posted by: Ryan | August 14, 2010

Game 14: Home of the Brave

Date: August 1, 2010
Score: Durham Bulls 9, Pawtucket Red Sox 3 (box score)
Hat worn: Green Fisher Cats with special St. Patrick’s Day logo
If I were coming to bat today, my song would be: Feelin’ Alright, by Joe Cocker
photos from the game

A serious foodie once told me that the second sip of a glass of wine is more informative than the first.

I’m starting to believe this holds for ballparks as well. On my first visit to a park, I’m so busy taking photos and getting used to my surroundings that it’s hard for me to settle in and find the quiet core of the game. At Reading, and at Portland, and on this day at Pawtucket, the second game brought me more insight, more pleasure. It is at the second games that I taste the terrior, the soul of the place.

As I drove from my hotel to McCoy Stadium, I passed an old mill being rehabbed into town houses, the brick smokestack still painted with the name of the company, the green/brown river rocketing by. A mile up the road, traffic slowed as old-lady sedans pulled out of the parking lot of a Catholic church, headed to brunch. A boy walked past, half a step ahead of his mother. She was in a Sunday pantsuit; he wore a Kevin Garnett Celtics jersey over jeans, and I remembered many Sunday-morning arguments over appropriate church-going attire, arguments I never won.

I remembered, too, how my wife and I stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in Maryland for our first anniversary. We were awakened by the sound of children walking to the first day of school, lunch boxes banging against their new jeans and skirts. I felt lucky then to be 23, and out of school, just as I felt lucky this morning to have spent the last two hours writing and reading instead of sitting on a pew in church. Lucky to no longer feel guilty about what I love, and what I do not love.

Photo of PawsI arrived at McCoy at 11:30, an hour and a half before game time, and chuckled to see a wooden statue of Paws outside the stadium, arms outstretched in welcome, not unlike certain saviors I have known.

The day was already hot, and either I arrived too late for BP, or the teams had decided to skip it. So instead I watched the Pawtucket pitchers throwing in the outfield, clad in shorts, their fully-uniformed mentors leaning on bats, watching, watching, then teaching when the moment was right. One of the Dominican pitchers didn’t seem to speak any English, so the instruction was communicated in nods and gestures. When I saw the ball explode out of the pitcher’s hand, I understood the team’s willingness to work through the language barrier. I wished the pitcher wore a uniform top, with a number, so I could remember his name. I’ll see him in a year, in Boston.

I found my seat, in the shade along the first base line, and I thought about how I will deeply miss the routines leading up to a ballgame, once this season is over. The grounds crew spraying the infield with water from hoses draped over their shoulders, then methodically painting the first and third base lines. The visiting dignitaries throwing out the ceremonial first balls, about 20 minutes before game time. Today’s group featured a contingent of nuns, dressed in white, all well past sixty. Mother Superior made the throw from the base of the mound, to great applause, then tottered toward the right-field stands, Red Sox hat shielding her eyes.

Little kids gathering around a microphone to shout, “play ball.” The home team running out onto the field to applause, taking their positions, turning toward the flag in center field, and placing their caps over their hearts.

Photo of nunsThe night before, the national anthem had been sung with characteristic brio and vocal pyrotechnics by your usual Gabriela-from-High-School-Musical wannabe. One of the Durham players, shameless, had shaken her hand as their paths crossed after the anthem, earnestly telling her, “Nice job.”

I expected him to ask if her parents minded if she dated ballplayers. Hey, we’re around for two more games, sweetie.

But today’s anthem was different. A balding Latino, wearing a black guayabera despite the heat, approached the microphone with a nylon-string guitar. I was prepared for a Jose Feliciano approach, the samba anthem, but instead the man sang quietly, thoughtfully, as if he were composing the words on the spot. I’m not patriotic – being raised a pacifist will do that for you – but his performance gave me chills. It was the only time I’ve found our national anthem to be beautiful, and I applauded vigorously as he strode off the field, guitar under his arm.

And then: John Fogerty’s Centerfield, the pitcher slinging in his half-dozen warmup tosses, the peg down to second, the quick flip around the horn. The batter, who had been stretching on-deck during the warm-up throws, walking to the plate, head down, trying to find that elusive place of focus and muscle memory. The batter digs in, the catcher squats, the umpire crouches and places the fingers of his right hand gently on the catcher’s back. A pop into the mitt, a strike, and we’re off.

But there can be serpents in paradise. Midway through the first inning, a man led three young boys into the row ahead of me. The father had two sons, and the older son had brought a friend. The younger son, probably 6 to his brother’s 10, obviously used to competing for attention, acted up from the moment his little butt met his seat. He’ll be one of those leather-lunged hecklers in 20 years, after he’s learned about Budweiser. He already had that raspy voice.

I felt bad for the older son’s friend, who seemed to be a temple-of-baseball guy like me. He had brought a glove, of course, and tried to ignore his friend’s little brother as the younger boy chattered on about Sponge Bob and fired imaginary pistols at the playing field. You could see the boy weighing the trade he had made in his mind: a free ballgame, and transportation, and four at-bats by Jacoby Ellsbury, versus being around Jason’s annoying younger brother for nine innings.

Again glad that I’m no longer a kid, I moved, two sections over and a little closer, only four rows from the field, out of earshot of the future heckler.

Photo of ballgameThen I was able to watch the batters, especially Ellsbury, and able to notice the way he opens his hips when he swings. I saw how he and the other batters practiced that essential part of their mechanics in the on-deck circle, priming the machine, and I realized that in the 15 years I spent playing baseball – Little League, high school, wood-bat adult league – I didn’t understand hitting at all.

I delighted in the posture and demeanor of the PawSox starter, Ramon Ramirez, who had started the year with the parent club, and who, confusingly, had the same name as another member of the Red Sox’ bullpen. Short, stocky, slouchy, he nevertheless had duende, an untranslatable Spanish word that means something like presence, like verve. Pedro Martinez had duende, as did the singer of the national anthem. Ramirez worked quickly and kept his composure with men on base, and I thought of the enormously gifted Phillipe Aumont, who I saw pitch at my first game in Reading. Aumont is built like a pitcher – he would tower over Ramirez – but he has none of the shorter man’s presence, and has an ERA over 7.00, and since I stand only 5’ 5”, I felt on this afternoon like the world is a just and fair place.

I enjoyed myself, thinking that there was no better way to spend a summer afternoon than in the shaded stands of a ballfield, watching grown men hit and throw and run and practice and learn.

Then came the foul ball, off the bat of a member of the Bulls, spinning up toward the clouds. I watched its trajectory and quickly calculated that it would land near me, and I knew in that instant that I was chickenshit, that I wanted no part of this pop-up.

The ball disappeared briefly from view as it eclipsed the wooden awning, 40 feet over the field. Then it reappeared, humming like a missile, homing in on my seat.

The only question was whether I would *need* to try to catch the ball, to protect myself, to demonstrate even a semblance of manly competence. But it drifted at the last moment, and the cup was passed from me, and came to the father sitting one row in front of me, and three seats over, who reached out his meaty paw to protect his oblivious four-year-old. The ball hit his palm with a loud slap, then rose ten feet in the air, before pitching back down onto the field.

The crowd groaned: that’s gotta hurt. I felt a coward’s relief: it wasn’t me! It wasn’t me! My palm feels fine!

Photo of dugoutA Durham player tossed the ball back up into the stands (the seats are about 12 feet above the playing field, which means that autograph seekers before each game dangle buckets with balls in them for signatures). The man who caught the ball on the second chance passed it down the row to the father, who, eyes wide, told to his extended family, “I wasn’t thinking about my hand. I was thinking about the kid.”

The boy scrambled over the seats to show his grandfather, delighted with his new toy.

Despite Durham’s continued display of their mastery of baseball fundamentals (their top prospect, Desmond Jennings, laid down two perfect sacrifice bunts in the space of three innings), the game remained tied into the eighth inning. A new pitcher came on for Pawtucket, and gave up two walks, then an infield single, then two more singles in quick succession. The crowd stirred, restless, and I heard scattered boos. I wondered if this was mandated by the parent club: we want to see how the kid reacts to adversity. And then I wondered if this was a teachable moment: we told you to trust your changeup, and here’s what happens when you don’t. Finally, once the pitcher had given up seven runs without recording an out, I wondered if this was penance of some sort. Had he been out late drinking? Did he chat up the last teenaged singer of the national anthem?

I guess I’ll never know. Facing a long drive, I left before the final out, headed for I-95, then I-91, then a pasta dinner in Northampton, then I-89 and, finally, home.

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