Take Me Out
“It’s about the ball, the bat, and the mitt.”
—May Swenson, Analysis of Baseball
Mine is a mixed marriage. My husband, who is in most ways a very reasonable person, is in matters concerning sports in general and baseball in particular what I will politely call an enthusiast. I, on the other hand, am not. Have never been. To me, baseball is something that occurs on the outer edges of spring and summer, like screen doors or moths, there for the noticing but, with rare exception, almost never noticed.
Sure, I had played Little League when I was a kid, stuck in the outfield with the other two girls on the team, doing handstands or cartwheels while we waited for the one fly ball that almost always seemed to come when we were upside down. Over the years I’d even been to a game or two, perched so high in the stands that the players seemed like insects, the plays apparent only when repeated in slow motion on the Jumbotron.
I’d read Updike on baseball. I’d read Giamatti. I had even read Stephen King. But I still couldn’t, for the life of me, understand the draw. The passion it inspired. The devotion. People loved this game. I just wasn’t one of them.
It therefore came as something of a shock when my husband, having waited an appropriate amount of time (more time, to be honest, than the eight weeks he had allowed to elapse between our meeting and his proposing), declared himself ready to resume a quest temporarily suspended while he courted and then married me: namely an attempt to visit every minor league stadium in the country. With me.
It is a common—and egregious—mistake when marrying to assume that one’s partner, in the presumed interest of the partnership, will ignore, dismiss, or otherwise abandon certain activities which may not have been, let us say, equally appreciated by both parties prior to the marriage. It is, as I have said, a mistake, and in the instance of this minor league odyssey, I was guilty of it. Happily, there was an easy—if not entirely agreeable—remedy: to go along. Which is how I have come to find myself in Harrisburg or Lancaster or Rancho Cucamonga or any of a number of small towns steeped in some version of Americana, sitting in the bleachers eating hot dogs.
1. Keep score.
Although technically this involves actually watching the game, it seems like an obvious proposition. And also an easy one. But scorekeeping is an acquired skill involving a set of abstruse and, to me, incomprehensible symbols that require some degree of study, the effort for which I have, as yet, been unable to muster. Does the batter strike out swinging or does he go down looking? What’s the count? There is a way—an established way, as it turns out—of recording these essential items. Bent over his scorecard, my husband carefully marks down the notations from which he will, one future day, be able to reconstruct the game in its most minute detail, though why he would want to do so is beyond me. But why do you need to color in the diamond? I will ask him, as he patiently explains his variations on the system. But the question, I quickly realize, is not so much about the scorekeeping as it is about him. Or to be more precise, about the differences between us. What we each have patience for, and what we don’t.
2. Get food. Then beverages. Then dessert.
Then, if the weather calls for it, hot chocolate. Unwilling to miss even a single play, my husband doesn’t like to leave his seat. It therefore falls to me to get us fed. Which is just fine; any excuse to walk around will do. Sadly, these culinary expeditions rarely fulfill their promised potential. For the concession stands have largely been co-opted by big business and brand names and any local flavor, like the anchors’ hometown accents on the evening news, expunged. It’s all hot dogs and un-frozen pizza, Pepsi, Swiss Miss, Cold Stone Creamery and this unfortunate confection that resembles nothing so much as the paper found in hole punchers, but made of ice cream.
3. Talk to the people in the nearest seats.
Minor league games, for reasons that should be obvious, tend to attract a certain type of person; namely one interested in baseball. Fellow baseball tourists, season ticket holders, local die-hards, major league scouts; we have met them all. My husband, who is chattier and obviously more knowledgeable, makes friends in the bleachers fairly easily, though I’ve discovered that the best ice-breaker—better, even, than a friendly hello or a catty comment on a key play—is a baseball hat. Wearing a Mets cap given to me by my husband’s friends in honor of my marriage, I’ve been greeted by a wide array of interesting characters who assume from the misleading insignia that I’m a fan. I never tell them I’m a fan only by marriage, that my knowledge of the sport—and team—is limited at best. I once conducted an entire conversation on the merits of the Mets’ new stadium, though at the time I didn’t know—had no idea, in fact—there was a new one in the works.
4. Harass the visiting team. Or, if one is so inclined, the umpires.
My husband is an advocate, much like the melody, of rooting for the home team. In this he is not alone; most ticket holders seem to be extremely partisan and local. I have witnessed eighty-year- old men, their fingers wrapped around the wire backstop, hurling insults at the opposition’s pitcher or its batters with glee and impunity. Ditto for the umpires. Alas, I lack the passion to join in, though perhaps this is an activity best appreciated as a spectator.
5. Win free stuff.
It was in Lancaster, a town on the edge of the Mojave Desert—where, a man in front of us (see #3) explained, dry winds could sweep in at startling speeds whose velocity, divided by ten, determined ticket price—where I won at Bingo. This was only the second time I’d ever won the game. (The first, in a Mexican restaurant, paid out the winnings in tequila shots.) Between the innings, numbers which I dutifully punched out on my card flashed up on the Jumbotron, and I walked out the proud new owner of a splintered bat. With any luck, the man who splintered it—one Yahmed Yema, or Y2, according to the knob—will go pro or even better make it to the Hall of Fame, allowing me to tidily dispose of it on eBay. In any case, I felt quite pleased with my Bingo skills, though as my husband pointed out, I was probably the only person playing.
Before I acquiesced to be his wingman on these adventures in the heartland, I put forward one condition to which my husband, after some minor grumbling, agreed. The condition was I be allowed to bring a book, a small proposition that may yet turn out to be the smartest bargain of my marriage. For some of us, there is nothing so pleasurable as being able, on a warm evening, to sit outside under the 1000-watt glare of stadium lighting, reading. As the innings add up, I have been happy—even relieved—to park my wandering attention in the pages of a novel from which I can, from time to time and when appropriate, look up. Choosing the right book is, not surprisingly, essential. I once tried reading V., by Thomas Pynchon, which was a disaster. On the other hand, my favorite game read was a Dorothy Sayers mystery, a book that proved able to competently weather the constant interruptions of a hit, an out, or a home run.
7. Enjoy the inter-inning entertainment.
In my opinion, the success of a game depends almost entirely on what goes on between the innings. The worst game we ever saw had no tire roll, no dizzy bats, no tug of war, no used cars up for grabs, no mascot racing a kid around the bases to home plate. It was therefore with some relief when, at the bottom of the ninth, with the score tied, we watched a batter hit a walk-off home run, happily preventing extra innings of the same, unentertained sort. Conversely, the best game we ever saw (whose score, incidentally, was 19-6) was the one at which I won a bat (see #5). This game, perhaps not coincidentally, had something going on between each inning, not the least of which was the announcer belting out “Sweet Caroline” and subsequently being heckled by a man who asked if he knew any Mel Torme (see #4, modified).
8. Journey to the rest room.
In towns blessed with a minor league stadium, Friday nights at the ball park are the warm weather equivalent of what Friday nights at the ice rink used to be in my day, circa 1982. Happily, I have moved beyond this stage, but I remain fascinated by these adolescent rituals: the hairspray, eyeliner and lip gloss applied in such quantities as could fill a small drugstore; the excited chatter; the cat calls, the skimpy clothing tugged to reveal as much skin as possible. It is worth noting that though every generation has its own peculiar style, there are some things—teenage lust among them—that change very little. What does change, I’ve found, is how you view it.
9. Pray for rain.
This must be done wholeheartedly or not at all. Anything less than a direct connection to the gods of weather may result in a rain delay which is, in my experience, the worst of all possible outcomes. Once, in the flatlands of Pennsylvania, my husband and I watched as a storm rolled in and the bleachers emptied into the by-then overcrowded bowels of the stadium where, from the comfort of his box, the announcer informed us that management would wait to see if it blew over. After some time it did, indeed, blow over, leaving us with wet seats and a game that ran past midnight.
10. When all else fails, watch the game.
Marriage is a compromise. And if you choose the right person to marry, a worthwhile one.