Posted by: Ryan | April 11, 2011

Game One: Opening Day

Date: April 7, 2011
Score: Trenton Thunder 5, NH Fisher Cats 1 (box score)
photos from the game

Garrison Keillor once told a tale of a hockey playoff game in rural Saskatchewan, a close-fought contest that the home team lost on a last-minute goal. He told of how the crowd stood in the stands, disbelieving, as the visiting team celebrated on the ice. The metal-sided arena slowly filled with the unspoken realization that the hockey season was now over, and all that was left was winter, stretching unbroken and unmitigated ahead.

What is the opposite of that emptiness, that wintry despair?

Perhaps it’s the feeling of walking into a ballfield in a northern town, on the first warmish day of the new year, to see a hastily-assembled group of 21- and 22-year-olds play baseball on barely green grass, under a tepid sky.

All week I had been checking the weather forecast, the memory of an early season game in New Hampshire from two seasons ago – which I had left, absolutely frozen, after three miserable innings – preventing me from giving in to hope. I wasn’t going to be a die-hard. But if the temperature was over 55, I told myself, I would go.

The digital mercury hit 57 at 4:00, and off I went.

Photo of couple in the standsWaiting at a traffic light in downtown Manchester, the 90-minute drive behind me, I recognized my hesitation, my hedging of joy, in the lines of fans crossing the street. They carried parkas, blankets, hats, and mittens, along with their baseball gloves. And while I knew that it would get chilly once the sun went down, I also understood that the winter clothes were an appeasement to Old Man Winter. We hadn’t yet had that banishing, cleansing day, that 70-degree purgative that sent the wiry bastard on his way. No sense pissing him off with shirtsleeves; he could make it snow again if he wanted to, could easily send ice down on our baseball parade. Better to slide under the radar, pretend that we were going to a hockey game, or to a bonfire, when in reality, we were here to dream about summer.

And yes, on this evening, everything was new: new uniforms (blue and red replacing the former green and yellow color scheme), new manager, new Guinness stand, new healthy-eating options that the team owner conceded in his pre-game address were his wife’s idea, and, most notably, new players. I only recognized five names on the Fisher Cats’ 25-man roster.

Photo of pitcher and coachI felt like the Matthew McConaughey character in Dazed and Confused: I get older, the players stay the same age.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about my minor league junkets last summer was seeing the Fisher Cats multiple times, and recognizing as the summer progressed the almost imperceptible tenderness with which the players treated each other. Yes, there was the usual jockish swagger, the usual goofing around, but these guys were with each other for almost six months, with only a few off days thrown in, and by the end of the summer you could sense their closeness. The way a player brought a glove out to his teammate for warm-ups. The way they stood in groups of three or four in the outfield, shagging flies in BP, or hung on the fence that separated the dugout from the field, spitting peanut shells and tobacco juice, talking softly.

Over the winter, I read several books about the minor leagues, including Matt McCarthy’s entertaining memoir, Odd Man Out, which recounts a year he spent in Single-A. McCarthy talked freely about the crudity of the players (including the new Red Sox setup man, Bobby Jenks), and described the way the “American” ballplayers kept their distance from the Dominicans.

So I know I shouldn’t read too much into the perceived togetherness of the players, should limit myself to one Band of Brothers reference a season.

Photo of NH players runningBut as the game started, and played out in front of me, I thought about how this iteration of the Fisher Cats had only been together for two weeks, at most. I pictured them sitting in a circle around their new manager, Sal Fasano, on the warm green grass of Florida, the morning after getting their assignment. For some, Double-A was a major achievement; for others, it was a disappointment. They looked around the circle, sizing up each other, knowing that these guys, this team, would be their reality for the next six months.

How often does that happen in life, I wondered: you get thrown together with people from all over the country, with whom you have very little in common. The military, I thought. Or college. Maybe your job.

But in very few of those situations are you so young, or so pinioned on hope, or so in danger of failing at the one thing you have found to be good at, as you are as a 21-year-old baseball player.

At any rate, these new Fisher Cats played like a bunch of guys just getting to know each other: they dropped throws and got picked off first and were never really in the game. Trenton, for their part, executed a flawless safety squeeze, slapped the ball in the shortstop hole, dove to make plays in the outfield. Already playing like it was June.

And we old, sedentary New Englanders froze, despite our hats and mittens and checkered LL Bean hunting jackets. But it didn’t matter.

I saw the first hit of the Fisher Cats’ season, ripped by Mike McDade, a heavyset first baseman from Las Vegas, who wore a face-covering balaclava under his cap. Dude, I wanted to say. It’s not *that* cold. It will probably be colder than this before April is out.

But then it will get better. Much better.


  1. Next stop Reading!


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