by Michael Ryerson
The air was alive with noise, men calling out with programs for sale, peanuts, soda, beer, a hundred voices, selling, selling, and the din of a thousand excited conversations, as we were swept along a great river of hips and heavy shoes. We found a bathroom, a dark archway, a long dimly lit room, damp, smelling of urine and cigarettes. At the base of one wall, a long trough had been cut into the concrete floor, men stood shoulder to shoulder peeing into it, piss bubbles drifting to the drain carrying cigarette papers and loose tobacco. Outside again the crowd flowed to the left, we felt our way along, through the smell of steamed hotdogs and mustard and sweet pickle relish, amid the logjam of bodies and the shuffling feet, thick-soled wingtips and high heels, dying Chesterfields and crushed Pall Malls, looking for a row number, reading the seat numbers. We sat in the deep shade under the overhang of the upstairs grandstand. My father leaned down smiling, “Pay attention, someday you’ll be able to say you saw these guys.’ The man in the row in front of us was wearing a brown business suit and a white shirt and the collar of his shirt was wet from sweat dripping down the back of his neck. Next to him sat a woman in a white dress with flowers printed all over. Her hair was pulled up in back and she was wearing a little hat. Several strands of hair had escaped her hair pins and were laying matted against her neck. She had very white skin. I could hear my Uncle Bob shouting out to someone named ‘Joey’ and someone else called ‘Big Steve.’ Every once in a while, the man in the brown suit would lean over to talk to the lady in the white dress and, for an instant, I could see men in white and grey playing baseball on green grass. I was seven years old and the smell of cigar smoke and hot roasted peanuts would be forever linked in my mind. I can never smell one without thinking also of the other. I love my father for taking me, for being excited about the game, for wanting me to see it. “Pay attention, someday you’ll be able to say you saw these guys,” he had said, so I’m telling you, I saw them, running and sliding, throwing a ball so hard it made a sizzling noise, and the rally was driven by the crowd pounding the old wooden stadium with their feet in unison and the announcer having to ask them to stop for fear the place would coming tumbling down. Did you play the game as a kid? Most of us did, most boys did, anyway. In my generation, whenever girls played, I think mostly out of boredom, they ended up at the end of the line where they’d always be picked last, unless somebody’s girlfriend was in the line then they’d get picked first but it was like a wasted pick. Except Kathy, who moved into our neighborhood when I was about 12. She never hesitated for a second, she just went in the house and got her glove and lined up. That first time she was picked last or pretty close to last but that was the only time she ever got picked last. She could bring it. She could play the game. Later, some of the guys thought maybe she was gay, that being how little boys minds worked when faced with something they didn’t expect. But a long time later, I heard she married some guy in the Navy and they lived up in Alaska with a couple of kids. Now that I really think about it, I bet she was kind of pretty. But she could swing a bat and wasn’t afraid of the ball like the other girls. I think she was born about ten years too soon. Anyway, I was wondering if you played the game as a kid. You know, not necessarily the real game, we never had enough players to play the real game, to have real teams with pitchers and catchers, we always had to make up games that fit the number of players we had. That’s how it was all over. That’s still how it is. But you can still play ball. There’s a lot to like about the game. Maybe it’s just that everything is sweet when you remember it that long ago, that so much time has passed that the hard edges are gone and all that’s left is the sweetness. But it can’t just be that alone cause I still remember the bitterness when my parents split up, and how tight money was and how some of the kids lorded it over us by having more and better stuff than we did. So it can’t just be the passage of time. There must be an essential sweetness to the game, the exuberance, the arcing fly balls, the smell of old leather, the grass stains, the thrill of the first time you short-hopped a hot grounder and were kind of surprised the ball was in your glove…all of it. One thing I learned about playing the game was renewal, second chances even, the sense that next time things could be different, better, that something special might happen. I’ve found this feeling in other things in life but I found it first playing the game. You know, when you’re waiting for your turn at bat, when you’re in the on-deck circle or even when you’re digging in and the pitcher hasn’t served up his first pitch yet…that’s an unspoiled moment full of possibilities, a fresh start, that he and I are dead-even right in this moment and anything can happen. There’s no other feeling like it. Sometimes I have that feeling early in the morning, when it’s still dark and nobody else is up, the day is stretched out in front of you and you can sense the possibilities. It is a sweet feeling. Sometimes when we’d go into my Dad’s grocery store early to stock shelves and we’d cross the parking lot in the dark and go in through the bakery and Charlie’d be there and we’d get a warm donut to eat, I’d go through to the back of the store, into the backroom and it’d be kinda dark and all, and I’d feel around for an apron to put on and the store was really quiet and the aisles were empty but I knew that in a couple of hours the place would really be buzzin’ and somehow seeing the aisles empty and dark and knowing what was going to happen brought it on. That’s the feeling, the anticipation, of not knowing the specifics but feeling the possibilities. There’s an instant when you play a fly ball, when the ball has left the bat and you’re drifting over under it, an instant when the ball reaches it’s apex and pauses, almost stops, before it starts it’s descent, that feeling comes over you, did you play it right? Are you in the right spot? The ball hangs there and you are looking up waiting for the jury to come in, what kind of fielder are you? Will you have to move again? Is this the right spot, the precise place to which the ball will accelerate. Can you put your glove up and close your eyes? Will the ball find your mitt? All that happens when the ball pauses at the top. It is a game of angles and curves, it is a game of intuition born of long summers days playing barefoot in the clover, of watching an old torn baseball leave the bat and feeling more than knowing where it is headed. It is a game of tagging up on a fly ball and knowing when you beat the throw and when you didn’t. It is a game of honor.