Baseball was in the air today. I could feel it. Even in a clime like Tucson, where it’s warm all year ’round, there was something different, something summer-like, something like baseball hovering in the atmosphere. A certain bright crispness of the air, a certain clarity, a vibrancy of sound – the perfect acoustic and visual conditions for the ball slapping the worn palm of a leather glove, the smack of its seams on the bat, a splat of spit in the dirt. Ahhhh, baseball, when the world is all sky blue and grass green, everything luminous and bright, the whites and reds and blues of uniforms looking so vivid and well-placed against the ballpark grounds.
I think about getting cable TV for the summer just so I can watch the games but then recall those weekend afternoons of finding friends to watch with, maybe barbecuing some burgers and dogs, paper plates of mayo and egg-filled potato salad, cold beverage straight from the can or poured over mountains of ice in an oversized plastic picnic glass; the couple hours of leisurely chat, the scrutiny of the pitcher’s movement to first, the heated arguing through the television screen with an umpire’s questionable call, the conjecture as to how long it will be until so-and-so gets sent back to drug rehab. No, no cable. No sitting in my apartment with the sound down and the music up. Baseball will be a community enterprise this year.
But at least once or twice during the month of March, I’ll have to choose. Poetry, I confess, will win out, perhaps because I’m more than just a fan, I’m a practitioner. That’s a game where I need to keep my skills sharp and study current trends. Baseball, in its languorous innings and season, will wait.
In baseball, there just is no quick way to get from the first pitch of inning one to the last out of inning nine. Thank God. “Why don’t you fly?” folks ask all the time when I talk about my annual road trips. Probably for the same reason I don’t watch much hockey or car racing, the same reason I prefer to ride my bike, walk, or bus around town rather than drive a car, the same reason I choose not to climb America’s corporate ladder. I’m not much interested anymore in speed or achievement. I’m interested more in being here, not getting there. Baseball makes me be here.
March 3 – University of Arizona Wildcats vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
And a joyous mix of folks it is. Here, I lay aside all my bias and judgment about who is the same and who is different than me, where we fall and how we fare in the pecking order of American society. Today, our commonality is stronger than any and every difference we may have and I feel nothing but camaraderie in the air. We’re all here for one thing – our love of the game.
The early innings go 1, 2, 3, until a clean stand-up double by the Wildcats catcher in the 5th. But the excitement was over quick when the next pitch became a shallow outfield pop fly. Baseball is like that – a quick rally, a couple of beautiful, isolated pitches, hits, or plays – a moment for the individual player in the sun. But without continuous effort and effect by more individuals – a collection of moments that make up team play – those individual shining moments quickly lose luster.
The fifth continues with a couple of hits and a fat error by the Wildcats’ left fielder – a dropped fly that allowed a double and brought Batista to the plate. He singled to the second baseman who couldn’t pick himself out of the dirt in time to make a play. First and third, two outs. A hard hit fast ball back to the left fielder, and the crowd held its breath for those few seconds the ball was in the air and the fielder worked to place himself in front of it – he dropped it once, would he do it again? Would it be one of those horrible days, a flub that the guy will carry with him the rest of his life or . . . Redemption! Ball caught, inning over, our heart rates raised just a little, just enough to make us want more.
I finally realized I was among mostly Wildcat fans when they smashed a one-run homer over the right field fence in the 7th, and the mostly subdued crowd was on its feet for an ebullient 15 seconds. The enthusiastic boys in front of me, who were probably ditching classes to spit epithets at the players and practice using the phrase “no fear” in as many contexts and sentences as possible, provided me a contact high that lasted most of the game, no beer needed. In the end, the DBs beat up the Cats bad, final score, 10 – 1.
March 5 – Chicago White Sox vs. AZ Diamondbacks
Today, the true home opener, the crowd is a bit more dense and enthusiastic and definitely for the Diamondbacks – the home team, as it were!
I notice I’ve gotten pretty lazy about watching baseball – too used to having the plays, the names of the players, and the instant replays spoon-fed to me from the TV. Watching live takes a different kind of attention, a kicking-in of the memory, especially as I am only now getting to know the Diamondbacks. The name and position of each player are only announced once – second baseman, #33, Jay Bell. If you want to know his last year’s stats, you have to look them up in the program, an action that takes away from concentrating on the field. No Tim McCarver spewing stats and facts to enhance or interpret the player or the play.
A quartet of Chi Sox fans, who obviously know a lot more about that club than I do, make me a little self-conscious about cheering for the boys in purple, but I get over it. I think they’ve got something to do with the club as they discuss their disappointment with Tucson versus Sarasota. Me? I’m just glad Tucson is also spring training land. I love seeing the game this close, in this leisurely, little league atmosphere, and in March!
The Majors really know how to stretch out a game – make the pitcher throw a lot of pitches, look every ball over carefully and draw the count to full almost every time. Today, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the 5th in two hours; on Wednesday, the college players were already into the 7th inning stretch by now. The dude next to me keeps calling for a big hit. Me, I like the slow chipping away of singles and walks, punctuated by an exciting bases-loaded double or homer here and there. I like the accumulation of steady team playing. It’s what made the Yankees world champs last year – no superstars, just solid ball players giving each other a leg up when they can.
By the mid-6th, a scattered five runs for each team and a total of 14 hits (10 and four for the Sox and ‘Backs respectively). No one big inning or one big player. Then, Batista, Dellucci, Benitez pile up a few well-hit balls in the 7th to break out, 8 -2. Hanel hits an RBI single. Final score, DBs 10, White Sox 6, a total of 26 hits and one error scored.
March 7 – White Sox vs. Diamondbacks, again.
I’m not talking just a little breeze, I’m talking 30-mile-an-hour winds kicking up all that sand and dust that gets pelted against your skin and lodged in your eyes. You’ve got to wear protective clothing and eyewear to guard against abrasions just to go out of the house. And easily a 15-degree drop in temperature – actual briskness to the air that might have even felt refreshing had the refreshment not come accompanied by that slap in the face of the wind.
The stadium was relatively crowded, nonetheless. I had already missed a big 2nd inning with 6 hits and 4 runs scored by the Diamondbacks. Top of the fourth and the wind carried what would have normally been an easily caught center field fly out of the park, and then fooled the left fielder, switching the direction of another easily caught fly in mid-air.
I was getting the paranoid feeling that the seat I had chosen – shading just to the right of home plate and leaning toward the Sox dugout – was Chi Sox country. I wasn’t used to seeing games where there was such a decisive split in the crowd as to which was the home team, Tucson being home to many folks voluntarily displaced from the mid-west and east coast. Could I be brave enough to cheer and cheer loudly in the face of any of this real or perceived animosity. Dammit, yes! What I was there for was not love of any one team, but love of the game. And I wanted to assume the same of my fellow fans. Over and above any team loyalties, the true allegiance and unity of the crowd proved itself when we all cheered for the boy in the left field baseline stands after he perfectly fielded a foul ball, or cheered again for another who took a header in the right field bleachers trying to do the same. He stood up after our collective gasp and a tense moment or two and extended his arm in victory, ball in hand. The crowd went wild.
The DBs really beat up on the Sox. Neither team looking great, but the Sox looked decisively bad. By the middle of the 5th, the score was 10-0, the DBs out-hitting their opponents 6 to 1. Perhaps I will have a worthy team to cheer for, after all, even with their National League affiliation. I realize now, though, that getting behind a home team is only a matter of convenience, a reason to call myself a fan. When it’s all said and done, I’m not really a Yankees fan or an American League fan or an East Coast fan. I’m a baseball fan. Rooting for one team over another just makes it a bit easier to rationalize my fervor for the game and give me some focus for the season. But I’ve ignored a good portion of the league just watching the play of one city’s team. Thank God I’ve got the Whitman-esque advantage of these next eight long months to learn to include everything else.