America’s Game: It is the place where memory gathers.
– Walt Whitman
My mother, Brooklyn-born and raised, used to tell me that if the Dodgers had been in the World Series in 1943, I might have been born at Ebbets Field. They struggled to a third-place 81-72 season, not even close to the playoffs that year, but here’s the scenario as I imagine it: Game three of a subway series against the Yankees. Each team has one win, and the drama will move from Flatbush to enemy territory — the Bronx — tomorrow. “Dem Bums” need this win to keep their chances alive. My folks are in the tenth row of the right field bleachers, it’s the bottom of the sixth inning, no score with two outs and two men on base. All-star second baseman and super slugger Billy Herman comes to the plate. He swings and misses. The tension is electric, and as the pitcher releases his curve ball, Lena’s water breaks and she doubles over with a searing contraction. Ushers shuffle her down the steps, down the ramps, down to the bowels of the locker room, and a call comes over the PA system: “Is there a doctor in the house?” I make my entrance to the refrain of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” My mother’s first question isn’t, “Is it a girl or a boy,” but “Did they score?”
Is baseball still America’s game, a symbol of our national grit and gumption? Football and basketball dominate televised sports and jock banter; baseball is often dismissed with one damning word: “slow.” Yet for six months of the year, from early spring to the pinnacle of the playoffs, known just as “October,” people of every persuasion pass through the turnstiles of the country’s 30 major league ballparks. An average of 34,000-plus attend each of the 81 games that make up each team’s home season; overall attendance continues to mount, barring the occasional slump, with more than 73 million attending games in 2009, a year of economic hardship. Baseball has its staunch and eloquent defenders, including Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell, who in his 1987 “Why is Baseball So Much Better Than Football,” succinctly sets forth the simple math: 162 games a year are 10.125 times better than 16; if you miss your NFL team's game you have to wait a week for the next one, whereas in baseball you wait a day. Baseball jargon has permeated our language — its idioms are commonplace to people who have little or no knowledge or interest in the game. Right off the bat one might hit a home run, bat a thousand, strike out, or be safe by a mile. An estimate is a ballpark figure, in the ballpark unless it’s out in left field. You want to cover all the bases if you’re going to score, be big league, play hardball. He’s pitching woo, but she’s playing the field, and he can’t get to first base. I didn’t make this up — I just call ‘em as I see ‘em.
My home team is the San Diego Padres, and I’m a loyal-enough fan, but I have to confess that I’m unfaithful in my heart of hearts. My passion is for the New York Yankees — they exude irresistible charisma on the field and bring the game to life for me. They are perennial top dogs, the rottweilers of baseball, while I consider myself a champion of underdogs everywhere — the poor, the exiled, the disenfranchised. People disparage the Yanks for their vulgar riches and try to talk me around, as if I were dating someone who’d made his fortune from Ponzi schemes. I recall my father saying, tongue only partly in cheek I think, that it’s just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man; someone else said that love isn’t rational. I defend my ardor against all assaults. I have a couple of Yankee caps — a very smart-looking white one with navy letters, the other a mesh workout style in kind of a washed-out navy — and in my naiveté I used to tip my hat and say “go Yankees!” when I saw others sporting the nested “NY” (not to be confused with the staggered letters of the Mets). I found it curious that these were typically young guys wearing baggy low-slung pants until I learned that the rapper Jay-Z had made Yankee caps into a pop culture fashion statement. In the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” the father explains his business sleight of hand to his son. The reason the Yankees win so much is the pinstripes, he says — their opponents can’t take their eyes off the pinstripes. The Padres were mesmerized by the pinstripes in the 1998 World Series, outclassed, outplayed and ousted in four games, quick and painless as laser surgery. The two teams have met on the field only a few times over the years, so my loyalty is rarely challenged.
Walt Whitman believed that baseball reflected the national atmosphere, as important to Americans as the Constitution; Mark Twain saw it as the epitome of nineteenth-century America, a symbol of drive and ambition. Baseball pops up in both classic and contemporary literature, usually to invoke all things American, along with the flag, motherhood and apple pie. Novelists use a baseball milieu, players’ names, or other references to describe characters, to set scenes, or to add color, to evoke that very Americanness. Yet Jane Austen wrote about it in England forty years before it was ostensibly invented in the U.S. In Northanger Abbey, written in 1798, Austen describes her protagonist, Catherine Morland, as having in her youth preferred “cricket, base ball, riding on horseback, and running about the country.” So it would appear that baseball’s American roots and birth in Cooperstown, New York in 1839 are a spurious claim, a slice of the myth created in part by Mr. Spalding of bat and glove fame. But then we didn’t invent motherhood or apple pie, either. Virginia Woolf said that America has baseball in lieu of society, not as a pejorative as I first interpreted it, but rather an admission of admiration, acknowledging that we had carved through hierarchy and country houses to create our own distinctive traditions. Books written about baseball are as plentiful as fly balls to center field, regaling readers with history and lore, fish stories and anecdotes, scandals from the fixing of the 1919 World Series to current steroid and drug abuse. Sports writing can be mind-numbing and flatfooted, but in the right hands it can soar out of the park. Writers like Ring Lardner and Roger Angell portray the pathos and the poetry of the game and can bring a tear to the eye or roll-on-the-floor hoots of laughter. It was Lardner’s masterpiece, You Know Me Al, that caught Virginia Woolf’s attention and captured what for her was fresh and unique about American writing.
Baseball statistics are a world unto themselves. It’s said that professional baseball is the only sport where every single thing that every single player does is recorded, from heroics to pratfalls. Reciting baseball statistics can help a man postpone orgasm (so I’m told), whether because it invokes anesthetizing boredom or is such a riveting diversion that it takes his mind away from what he’s doing. In addition to citings of each hitter’s AB, AVG, RBI, BB, and OBP (at bats, batting average, runs batted in, bases on balls, on-base percentage), sportscasters and writers spew out numbers like lava from an erupting volcano — plate appearances, sacrifice flies, runners in scoring position, double plays and triple plays, first pitch bunts and bunts with runners on base, stolen bases, slugging average (different from batting average). And that doesn’t even touch on the numbers amassed around pitching, with its quantum-physics precision and form. The records are challenges begging to be broken, memorized by kids collecting and trading baseball cards. Take home runs. There are records for numbers of home runs in a player’s lifetime, in a season, a series, a game (the most is three), consecutive games (eight); by league and team; by age and handedness (right, left or switch); by field position and batting position; by whether it’s inside or outside the park; by runs batted in and hitting for the cycle. It’s not inconceivable to hear that someone just broke the record for the most home runs with runners in scoring position by a clean-up left-handed National League second-baseman over 35 in the month of August.
Only opera outscores baseball for me as both absorbing entertainment and welcome diversion. In spite of or because of their stark differences, they complement each other, and the fact that their seasons barely overlap means that my ecstasy extends almost year-round. Several years ago, one early May, I realized the dream, an unparalleled thrill, of seeing an opera at the Met and a game at Yankee Stadium on consecutive days. My next-door neighbor’s sister-in-law has attended games at every major league ballpark in the country, including new ones in New York and Minneapolis, and Japan too. Her favorite, and mine, is San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Baseball with perks — the bridge, the bay, sherbet-hued sunsets, Gilroy garlic fries and crab Louie, Anchor Steam beer. San Francisco is also the second-rated vegetarian-friendly ballpark according to PETA, boasting veggie dogs and gardenburgers among the meatless treats. You’d expect no less of San Francisco, but Philadelphia ranks first, a faux chicken sandwich competing wattle to jowl with the traditional Philly Cheesesteak at Citizens Bank Park. Most ballparks have corporate sponsorship, and their names pay tribute to the largesse, a concession to economic reality. In San Diego it’s Petco Park, Houston has Minute Maid, Tampa is Tropicana, many are banks. Some seem sacred — Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field — but you never know; on the South Side of Chicago, White Sox fans now go to U.S.Cellular Field instead of Comiskey Park.
The seventh-inning stretch is an institution of unknown origins, and who would question it, except perhaps a child. Behind me one balmy summer San Diego evening in section 316 in the upper deck above third base, a young girl asked “Why?” Her father explained that it was tradition, a break, like halftime in football. She chewed on that, in between bites of puffy pink cotton candy, and counted on her sticky fingers before asking why again, why it wasn’t halfway through the game if it was like halftime. “It just is,” he said. The singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is the sacrosanct rite of the seventh-inning stretch, now often preceded, since 9/11, by “God Bless America” or followed by tokens of local color. Houston fans burst into “The Yellow Rose of Texas;” in Milwaukee they roll out the “Beer Barrel Polka.” Less predictable is the Los Angeles/Anaheim Angels’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” and John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” in urban Baltimore. In his tally of baseball’s advantages, Boswell compares the homespun dignity of “Take Me Out” to its flamboyant football halftime counterpart: Up With People singing "The Impossible Dream" during a Blue Angels flyover with marching bands.
I played softball in P.E. classes at school. I wasn’t much of an athlete, but I was whip-thin and could rocket around the bases or catapult in pursuit of a fly ball. My first husband was a hard-throwing left-handed pitcher (though a right-handed batter) on his college team — my mother loved that I married a baseball player. As a young officer in the Marine Corps he was exempted from more militaristic duties to hurl his fastball for the base team; he kept his pitching arm safe by managing the officers’ club during the off-season. My daughter was a Bobbysoxer, an all-star batter and pitcher in minor league, but when she moved up to the majors and junior high school, there was too much competition on and off the field. After a season relegated to counting the daisies in right field and the freckles on her arms, she shifted her focus to boys and clothes. My grandson played Little League, starting at five with T-ball — tiny tykes swinging eagerly, determinedly, sometimes tearfully, in a fierce contest with a stationary ball — to the finely honed and competitively groomed majors. I cheered him from the stands, sporting the caps and colors of his teams — Padres, Cardinals, Rockies. Cory didn’t pursue baseball when he got to high school, but it continued to be a bond between us that included our shared allegiance to the Yankees. He believed that his grandma knew more about baseball than just about anyone, certainly more than any female. We would hash it all out, players and playoff chances, trades and gossip and stats; I had to stay on top of my game to secure my image and that of all womanhood in his eyes.
We lived in New York until I was six. Nowadays parents lug infants in carriers to games, but small children were more likely left at home back then. I was foisted onto neighbors when my parents would take my brother, five years older, to games at Ebbets Field, Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, wearing his Babe Ruth number-three pinstripe uniform. “No fair!” I scowl on behalf of my innocent and ignorant small self as David recalls clear memories from those distant and to me indistinct days. Mom gladly exchanged the northeast’s extremes of winter and summer for California’s placid sameness, but she left something intangible behind — that part of her spirit that was tethered to her roots and everything she’d known. To baseball, which she continued to follow on radio and then television, a scorecard and her knitting on her lap, alternating pencil and needles. When her beloved Bums followed us west some years later, she welcomed them like prodigal sons. We didn’t have the ways or means to make more than a few road trips from San Diego to Los Angeles over the years, but they were sacred occasions for her. She always kept a scorecard to track, with painstaking accuracy, the hieroglyphics that translated into every play of the game. As a teenager I didn’t like the long drives with my parents; I was bored by the game and would occupy myself by picking out cute players with the binoculars. My most vivid recollection of Dodger Stadium is the discovery of Gulden’s tangy ochre-brown mustard — who knew there was an alternative to French’s screaming yellow? Perhaps those trips planted the seeds of an animosity toward the Dodgers that I cultivate to this day. Then it was the need to forge my own distinctive identity; now it’s the Dodgers’ display of Hollywood hubris and the fact that they’re arch-enemies of the Padres (and formerly of the Yankees). Or maybe it’s just my own tradition. I like to think that my mother, always a New Yorker, would have accepted my proclivities with a shrug and said, “waddaya gonna do?”