September 2, 2014

A Weekend in the Colonies

July 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

My wife’s Uncle Leo never left the comforts of Brooklyn except on rare occasions. His world began in Bensonhurst and extended no further than an occasional trip to Atlantic City. When my wife and I got married in Atlanta in 1982, Uncle Leo flew into Hartsfield International where I met him as he left the plane—as you once could do. He had only a small valise and I took it to be polite and we headed down the crowded concourse.

Leo had never been anywhere in the South. He was noticeably nervous and was casting his eyes about somewhat furtively, so I asked him if his flight had been okay, if everything was alright.  He said nothing, but slowly calmed down as we passed through the airport throng. Finally he put his arm around my shoulders and whispered to me, “You know, Ted, I think these people are pretty much like everyone else.” He smiled.

Leo was a Mets fan, but he could slide over and fit into the Red Sox and Yankee rivalry when it mattered. He knew as did the rest of his brethren that baseball begins and ends on the banks of the Charles and Hudson Rivers. The rest of the country is a vast wasteland of conquered territory to which they can occasionally travel for recreational purposes and when they visit the ballparks of the colonial areas, they taste the wears and look the natives over carefully. Then they do what any colonial power does in the occupied territories, they take charge and begin to order people about.

Fans rarely traveled to other ballparks during the golden era of baseball. It was too expensive for most folks. The locals could abuse the visiting nine verbally from the stands with only the fear that one of the opposing players might come into the stands or wait for them after the game. That kind of baseball has been long buried, but with it went many good things.

The game of baseball once was watched for its quiet intensity, but that died somewhere during the last century. Its passing has gone largely un-reported. The final nail was gently slammed into the coffin when teams slyly began to introduce cheerleaders into a game for which such foofrah had always been anathema. Where once there was studied attentiveness to the game at hand, now rock music pours fourth from every speaker at levels that rattle expensive dental work. The young cheerleaders jump on the dugout, wave a giant flag about for the fans to cheer and the local team takes the field to fireworks or loud music.

Somewhere John McGraw is spinning in his grave, spitting bits of cigar tobacco out as he tries to form the curse that he cannot get across the great divide between his world and ours. But some of us can hear him. It is only when you are caught up in your score keeping, pencil in hand as you wait for the official scorer to make the fatal call. At times of internal rapture like those he sometimes whispers to fans, “Atta boy.”

You could blame Bill Veeck I suppose for what has been perpetrated upon the modern game in the name of “entertainment.” Exploding scoreboards were just the beginning. Now every player has his own “walk-up music” that plays until he adjusts himself in the batters box. The game is almost an intrusion into the musical play list that entices dancing and preening for the Jumbotron cameras—the real action at most ball parks.

Once there was nothing more than the scowls that were cast back and forth between pitcher and batter to command the attention of the faithful who knew every trick in the book almost as well as the players.  If they did not keep score literally, they did in their minds eye. They bought concessions from vendors walking the aisles, but their attention was devoted to the game, to the contest between the two teams. They barked out their displeasure at the men in blue who were just as likely to bark back.

The only sounds were of men spitting and cursing. The stands rumbled with un-amplified noise from fans yelling at the field and occasionally at each other. There were no cheerleaders, no giant speakers blaring music, just the raw edge of the game itself.

Baseball is entertainment now and if you spit or curse you are likely to be removed from the ball park. And that is a good thing as are the dancing musical numbers–for the most part at least. But I must admit I enjoy a bit of time travel when the fans from up north visit our colonial outpost in Washington. I admit I may occasionally inquire into the health of their dear mothers. Brewer fans began to chant and cheer around me several weeks ago–yes cheering like they were at a college football game.  I shouted to a group below me, “Your mother is from Milwaukee!!” A sneering Brewer fan turned and growled at me, “So’s yours.”

I think John McGraw would approve of the atavistic joy I occasionally derive from a descent into barbarism. After all, we are only a baseball colony. We cannot appreciate the real game as it is played in Boston and New York. So pardon our barbarity, we haven’t a clue. We cannot possibly know the joys of the game as it is played up on the next level. We can only try.

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