I was invited to a Giants Nationals Baseball game the other night and it was close to revelatory. To back up a little, baseball was always the game du jour when I was in grammar school and I grew up hating it (at least until I got to highschool). And hating might not be the right word, maybe being terrified of baseball is better. It’s not because I don’t see the grace and power of the game, that was pretty much the reason for my fear. I was so bad at it – the catching and throwing part in particular – when I was a child and every other boy seemed so good that my memories have been tainted.
My grammar school playground was asphalt. There is not much a kid could do on asphalt, sure, we had several handball courts – concrete walls with lines in front of them – but that was considered a girls game (it was played with a giant basketball-like ball). Baseball was the boys game – football was out of the question on the pavement and soccer hadn’t yet been invented in our neighborhood – so we played baseball almost every noon. We started by choosing teams and I was always the last one chosen – I had the distinct feeling that, if Nobody had been an option, he would have been chosen before me – and I hated the daily humiliation.
At home, it was even worse. All the boy-kids in my neighborhood used to play baseball in the street right in front of my house. We called it Cat of Ninetails, but it was baseball. Because we didn’t have enough kids for two baseball teams, we fielded one team of the usual positions and everybody else was a batter. A batter stayed a batter until he was put out, then he would be sent to left field and everybody else would rotate over one position with the – now successful – pitcher becoming a new batter and the first baseman now becoming the pitcher (and so on). As the game wore on, everybody played every position.
This was sixty-five years ago, or so, and I still remember how awful it was. It was worst when I became the pitcher – sooner or later, everybody became pitcher; hell, everybody wanted to be pitcher except me – because I couldn’t get anybody out. Standing there in the street, in the summer heat, tossing a baseball at a guy standing a short distance away – holding a stick he would use to drive the ball back at me – with everybody watching me, all I could do was throw ball after ball. For me, there was no strike zone; my only hope was for the batter to hit out. When I finally became a batter, I almost always struck out quickly and went to left field where I could hide for a while, but soon I rotated to third base and the nightmare began again.
I was tall and could run fast, faster than most people, and I discovered track and football as soon as I got to middle school, leaving my baseball playing days behind.
Anyway, on this day, I was very much looking forward to going to the Giants game because we were going to have the best seats in the house. Richard Taylor and I had been invited by Courtney Gonzales who, in turn, had been invited by her friend and our Ticket Goddess, Suzanne. Rather than fighting traffic and parking, I took the train from Menlo Park, feeling very urbane. When I was in highschool, I spent alot of time at the Menlo Park station and it is like visiting an old friend. The station was originally built in 1867 and updated to its Victorian splendor by Southern Pacific about 30 years later.
As I have ridden the train, off and on, over the last 60 years – first when it was Southern Pacific and now as a part of CalTrain – I watched the use level go down and now I am watching it starting to revive. I think the heyday was in the late forties and early fifties when men commuted to work in The City. Their wives would drop them off at the station, often driving them there in the family Station Wagons which was the only car the family had. In those days, the men wore grey flannel or dark blue suits and would read the paper – the paper being The San Francisco Chronicle – on their way to work. On the way home, they would often have a drink in the club car. It was not uncommon to see the same four men in the same four seats around a table playing bridge and having a martini on the way home.
Now, I got on the train with an entirely new kind of commuter. Then they were all men and all white, now there are more women and many more Asians, everybody is wearing jeans and short sleeve shirts. My trip started out with almost all Silicon Valley commuters, however, as we went north, they were replaced by more and more people going to the game. The mood got lighter and more festive. The random colors replaced by orange and black.
We got off the train, at San Francisco, and walked – en mass – the two short blocks to the stadium. I was really taken by the level of joy the crowd carried. It was a warm – for San Francisco, not for Portola Valley, 30 miles south – afternoon, probably in the 70s and everybody was there to have a good time. Not frantic or macho like football crowds can get, just a mellow crowd out to enjoy a warm summer evening watching a good game of baseball. Everybody was walking along, smiling, laughing, enjoying this day, this time, this outing.
We walked along like friends even though we didn’t know each other, all of us in the same moving crowd, going from the train to the stadium. At the stadium, the our crowd joined the stadium crowd in a big mass of happiness. The only downside is that I found it hard to find Courtney at first. Then she spotted me and we made a beeline into the stadium. We went from this
to this, following Suzanne through the players entrance and past the guard – who took one look at Suzanne and didn’t even check our IDs – like three ducklings following their mother. Not exactly hanging on, but definitely not wanting to get left behind.
Then it was through the maze of stadium corridors and passageways all the way down to the first row. Not just any first row but the first row just to the left of the backstop, with an unobstructed view of the field.
The stadium wasn’t sold out, still, there were alot of fans behind us.
The game itself was pretty close until the 7th inning and then the Nationals got five runs and just ran away with it. We left shortly afterwards.
On the train ride home, I was a little surprised at how happy everybody still was, after all our team didn’t win. I am sure that most of the people would have liked the Giants to win but, really, we were all here for a nice summer evening watching a group of very gifted athletes play America’s Pastime. Riding along with my fellow baseball watchers, I basked in our collective goodwill, thinking about how many books have been written about Baseball, how many poems and movies. How much pleasure Baseball has provided its fans over the years. And how much pleasure it provided me on this warm summer evening. I guess that I am ready to let go of my Baseball past.