Relearning Baseball Sharon Preiss Creative Nonfiction

new_releases Relearning Baseball

by Sharon Preiss

Published in Issue No. 23 ~ April, 1999

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.

February 19

The spring training schedules are spread out on the kitchen table – one each for the Diamondbacks, White Sox, Rockies. I’m more an Eastern Division American League fan. The Yankees – they’re my boys. I would have been disowned from my Bronx born and bred family had I not been a fan. The Cactus League – all these Westerners! But I can swallow my East Coast pride and root for the home team this year. A Diamondbacks fan I’ll become, even though for the life of me I can’t understand the design strategy that’s dressed them in those black or purple jerseys, Phoenix being the closest planet to the sun in the summertime.

February 21

I’ve started talking baseball again, looking to see who’s interested, watching for reactions, scouting for an equally zealous partner or someone who’ll become zealous with me. “They’re crazy if they think I’m working six days a week anymore,” my friend Lou complains to me the other day, “I’ve got better things to do with my time.” “Yeah, like watch baseball,” I assert. “Damn straight,” he affirms with a crooked curl of the lip. Bingo! A possible partner. “There’s nothing on TV,” cousin Isabelle protests a few days later. “Not until baseball season opens,” I offer. “Thank God for that,” she laughs. Score again.

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.

February 23

Opening day of spring training exhibition games is next week – Diamondbacks open Wednesday against the University of Arizona Wildcats. With such a short season and the heated fervor I’m experiencing, I don’t want to miss a single game. Alas, I will. Leafing though my desk calendar today, I realize two literary festivals are happening this month – the Northern Arizona Book Fest held in Flagstaff March 17-21 and the Tucson Poetry Festival the 26th through the 28th. To have to choose between baseball and poetry! Who would have thought I’d ever have to make such a decision! Am I the only one? What might be a clear choice for most puts me into a quandary. Of course, I’ll choose poetry. Poetry’s something that feeds the very fibers of my being, something essential to the breaths I take. But isn’t baseball also? Poetry, an artistic and intellectual pursuit. But if your really a fan (not just a sideline or armchair commando rooting for the hometeam) – attuned to the graceful lift and flex of the pitcher’s forward motion, the airborne pirouettes of the shortstop, imagining the strategies and statistics that filter thought the brains of the coaches and managers on each and every play – is not baseball just the same? So much more than the beat-em-up hoodlum antics of football and hockey, similar in some ways to the dance-like qualities of basketball but without the frantic speed, baseball has all the elegance, say, of Walt Whitman’s “Song Of Myself” – the vast elongated lines which contain everything American – the scuffle of shoes on the ground, the yawp of the everyday human, the clang and bustle of industry, the smile of sun on the face of the earth.

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.

February 26

Maybe I like baseball for the same reason I like roadtrips – you can’t rush either one. In fact, for a long road trip – say a cross country drive – getting from here to there is most enjoyable when you ease into the distance and rhythm of the trip and take your time. I’ve driven coast to coast at least six times – the first in three and half days, a whirlwind flight of interstates, amphetamines, and 18 hour clips behind the wheel. The last time, I mapped out all US and state routes through towns, landmarks, or regions I wanted to see, stopping off to visit friends, driving only during daylight hours, usually for short, four-hour stints before I took a break. I saw lots of beautiful country, met people, really got to drink in the experience, and, when I arrived at my destination some 12 days later, felt refreshed and relaxed. My first 84-hour frenzy required about a week of recovery. Comparatively speaking, the time for the two trips was just about the same, the quality incomparably different.

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

Opening day! An almost breathlessly hot day in Tucson – already! – and on the five mile or so bike ride to the stadium I anticipate – Who will be there for a mid-day, mid-week game? All seniors? Families? Sports junkies? College students? Will it be packed? Sparse? I pull my Walkman headset off as I approach the stadium so I can hear the pre-game announcements about upcoming T-shirt and bat days and gauge the buzz of the crowd. I’m not interested in collecting Diamondbacks’ memorabilia; what interests me is the timbre and echo of the announcer’s voice amid the punctuation of smacks of practice throws and against the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd.

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

Goddamn, that field is green! Just freshly watered before the game, the dirt still showing the dampness. The presence of water in any form is always a phenomenon in the desert.

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.

You have to understand – we don’t get much weather here in Tucson. It was windy, cloudy, threatening rain. I didn’t want to go. Like most Tucsonans, I’m a little wimpy when it comes to weather. But I’d already bought my ticket and had cleared a Sunday afternoon. I was, reluctantly, on my way.

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.

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Sharon Preiss lives in Tucson, AZ where she teaches poetry at the University of Arizona and writes a culture column for The Tucson Poet. Her poems have appeared in Pif Magazine, Massachusetts Review, BOOGLit, South Ash Press, and others. She's an MFA graduate of Bennington College where she teaches her class Rock&Roll and Poetry for their summer July Program.