April 4, 2020

Game Over

October 5, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

The 2010 season ended for the Red Sox this past Sunday with an 8-4 win over the New York Yankees.

“For the first time since 2006, Game No. 162 of the regular season meant closure for the Red Sox. Before the game, players were signing bats for each other and packing up other keepsakes.  It was a day to say goodbye for a while, and the Red Sox did so by pulling out an 8-4 victory over the Yankees that prevented their rivals from winning the American League East title.”

Boston took the series, having lost the home opener in extra innings after four hours and eighteen minutes of play.   The Sox won game two of the day/night doubleheader, another four-hour contest that also went into extra innings.   In spite of two very satisfying October wins, Sox fans have known for a pretty long time that the Yankees would enjoy a post-season berth, while the banged-up Red Sox players would be heading home.    I often wonder why ballplayers don’t sound especially happy when it’s time to go home.

They’re all packed up in Chicago and Cleveland, Detroit and  Kansas City, St. Louis, San Diego, Denver, Queens, Anaheim, Seattle, Washington, Milwaukee, Miami, and so on.  Most players are already gone.  The seats at Fenway are empty.    And Mikey Lowell’s playing career is done.

The oft-occurring, much-hyped Yankee-Red Sox match-ups are behind us now, for 2010 at least.  It’s time to enjoy the respite from those prolonged contests, which many commentators and fans have begun to measure in terms of hours and minutes, even though baseball supposedly has no clock.

The game continues to play itself out in replays and ongoing speculation; in winter meetings, winter workouts, winter ball, and nonstop television coverage.  The activity continues not just among players for whom the game has become a year-round commitment, but in our minds too – in all those endeavors that keep it going in the imagination, which is where so much of baseball happens anyway.

The problem isn’t really with the regular season ending; the problem is with us.  We’re looking out the kitchen window again with a blank expression, facing a gray landscape and tremulous leaves, and time is passing after all, though baseball often had a way of making us forget about that part.  You can sit around feeling depressed about it, or you can be creative and productive long after the seats empty out.   In  conversations, hobbies, essays, daydreams, and works of art we sustain the joy and find the meaning.

Two years ago, toward the end of baseball’s quiet off season, my daughter spontaneously up and left her comfortable off-campus apartment and headed to Home Depot on a mission.  The men in orange aprons guided her toward the lumber section where basic materials are stacked well out of  reach by forklifts, and there she purchased an eight-foot section of three-quarter-inch plywood.  She then located a few jars of sample paint, a small can of polyurethane, and with her older brother’s help, she twined the floppy piece of board to the roof rack of her small car.  Over the course of the next two weeks, my daughter created a field of her own: drawing mostly free hand with only masking tape and a couple large cups as guides, she penciled and then painted the diamonds, base paths, bags, team logos, pitching mound and rubber, two infields, and a big sweep of color in the middle favoring Boston.

Her goal was to finish the project in time for her birthday party on the first day of spring.  The game table has since seen heavy use, usually by young men and women holding blue and red plastic cups full of beer.

My daughter has followed baseball for a long time.   She was three years old when I first took her to  Dodgertown.   We sat among all the happy retirees just a few rows behind those unmercifully hot, unshaded aluminum benches that served as “dugouts” for many seasons of spring training.  In a charming setting that is no longer home to the team from California, we spent a couple hours within hearing distance of a gregarious Tommy Lasorda and a rookie named Piazza who was taking his practice springs and earning a spot on the big league roster.   My daughter paid close attention to baseball at a very young age, though she finally fell asleep in the bottom of the seventh under the blazing Florida sun, cradled in my lap, with a Dodger bear in her arms and ketchup on her fingers.

A few years later at baseball camp up north, she would have her own spot in a Cape Cod dugout and on the infield too.  Her coaches were Chatham A’s players who playfully dubbed her “Mrs. Nomar.”   Some days she was the only girl who showed up among forty or fifty boys.

I took her back to Dodgertown one winter when the Vero Beach temperatures didn’t climb much higher than forty degrees.   We were the lone fans – one boy, one girl, one mom.   Not a single soul  walked the quiet grounds except us – not any souls that I could see anyway, unless you count the happy eyes and smiles painted on big round light bulbs shaped like baseballs that line the park’s entrance.   Everything was locked and zipped up tight, but my son spied a small opening in the chain link along the third base line, so in we went.   My children were happy to walk the empty field with me, even with no promise of baseball.  It was Super Bowl Sunday.

A few years later my daughter and I sat together in Loge Box 125 at Fenway Park.   As the late April afternoon grew cool and shadows lengthened over the infield, we were subtly touched by that strange sensation that comes over you when you begin to realize that it’s the top of the sixth and the pitcher hasn’t yet given up a hit.   From that moment on, we were locked in, pitch after pitch, until the joyful outburst that came with the final out – a quick grounder to Rey Sanchez at second.  How fitting that it should be a ground ball out.

When we went back to Fenway later that spring for another game, Caitlin stood quietly at the railing watching batting practice, hoping for a signed ball from anyone.   When Derek Lowe emerged  nonchalantly from the dugout, my daughter exchanged smiles with the tall player while sharing her pen, ever so happy to announce that she’d been at the ballpark for his no-hitter a few weeks before.  “You were awesome!” she had a chance to say, beaming for many minutes thereafter with ball in hand.

Derek Lowe 32.  No-Hitter. 4-27-02.

On October 16, 2003, we sat very close together on the sofa in the darkness of our family room, the only glow of light coming from Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the twelfth as Aaron Boone made contact and sent Tim Wakefield’s first pitch high over the left field wall, three hours and fifty-six minutes after the game had begun.  We watched the knuckleballer’s somber yet dignified exit from the mound, and went to bed feeling stunned and incredibly sad.

She knows that baseball offers second chances, because a year later we gathered for World Series, Game 4.  We were a larger group this time around, since I’d coincidentally offered to host a field hockey team dinner that same evening.  The whole j.v. squad, plus the coach (a Classics teacher), the school chaplain (a longtime Tigers fan), and the assistant Head of School (who had vowed to drive round and round the campus later that night honking the horn of his old Subaru wagon  – no matter how late the hour – if the Red Sox were to win the Championship).  A bottle of Moet was already in his refrigerator at home, chilled and ready to go.   Eighteen of us gathered by the fire for a festive pre-game dinner on that historic October night.   I roasted a huge turkey for the team, complete with all the harvest trimmings, a lavish spread on our dining room table.  We called it Thanksgiving.

When my daughter went away to college, one of the first pictures she sent home featured three  happy young women standing against the backdrop of a ball field.   (The University’s baseball team  would advance to the College World Series the following June.)

She lives so far away from home – more than twelve hours door to door – and sometimes I ache when thinking of that distance and all the happy years that have passed too quickly.  But I always feel better upon remembering that baseball has a hold on her.   Long after the final out of the regular season, the game is still being played for both of us – poetically in the mind as Giamatti used to say, and much less poetically in the form of a game board out on a screened porch, next to a big empty keg of beer.

The game gets in the blood, as many players and coaches will tell you.   It gets in your head, and if the circumstances are just right when it takes hold, it remains there and never completely leaves, then finds curious ways of asserting and manifesting itself.

When my daughter caught her first glimpse of Dodgertown one warm afternoon in spring, foot-long hot dog in her tiny hand, something was happening:   an image took shape even as her young mind was developing at a very rapid clip, absorbing all kinds of patterns and ideas.  The baseball field, its colors and dimensions, the essential shape and beauty of the thing, the everlasting fun of it took hold, and there it stayed, mysteriously embedded in her psyche.  It would find expression in a variety of ways over time, even as she ventured far from home.

Baseball isn’t just fathers playing catch with sons.   It’s so much more.

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