A Day at the Ballpark

Regardless of to whom you are talking, there is a very real societal chasm between those who enjoy professional baseball and those who detest it. On one hand, you hear all the rhetoric about how the games are too long, the action is too sporadic, and the superstars are too bloated with illegal muscle enhancers. On the other, you hear about how "America's Pastime" is a sweet science, a confluence of skill, intellect and strategy, and how nothing beats a day at the "ol' ballpark" with the family.

For what it is worth, I subscribe to the latter of the two theories, but have a loving wife who firmly aligns her arguments with those of the former. As such, I am forced (through respect for the mother of my children) to not discount the facts that make up the opposing view to my own.

This uncharacteristically liberal acceptance of discordant opinions, even if held begrudgingly, does serve as some manner of beacon to me as I strive to reach that sports Nirvana many of our great athletes call "the zone" in my writing. Is there a right or wrong here? If so, how is it defined? More importantly, is my marriage so important that I should hypocritically defy my gut feeling to kick that baseball-hating temptress to the curb? (Sorry, Honey ... forgot that you read these! I love you!)

In search of the answers to all but the last of those questions (which, coincidentally, should send me on a pilgrimage to the sofa this evening), I went on a pilgrimage of sorts recently. No, I didn't go looking for spiritual healing with Tibetan monks and I certainly didn't go tenting in Australia with Ricky Williams. My pilgrimage took me to Norwich, Connecticut and was intended to be little more than a pit stop on my family's recent visit with Ma and Pa Thomas in the chilly Northeast.

It began with an innocuous ride through the countryside, over the hills and valleys that make up the personality of New England and teeming with wildlife, greenery, and rock that has not yet been corrupted by the greedy cities in their unquenchable thirst for growth. Through a small business park to the top of a modest mountain and cradled by evergreens on all sides sits the culmination of my search, a small gem of a ballpark they call Dodd Stadium, the home of the Norwich Navigators.

On this occasion, most of the stadium's 6,200 seats are filled with eager men, women, and children. On this night, as with all other Friday night home games, there will be a post-game firework extravaganza. Additionally, the Portland Sea Dogs are in town and they represent the Boston Red Sox, which just happens to be the pet professional team of the area.

The game turns out to be a rather average 4-1 win for the home team, complete with a torrential rain storm moving in after the sixth inning and ending the festivities early. The fireworks extravaganza scheduled for the evening is, quite understandably, washed out. All in all, this seems like a case study for the masses who collectively vilify the sport as a monumental waste of time. Perhaps my quest is over, with the answer being quite unexpectedly in line with the weekly lament from my wife I endure as I settle onto the couch for a thrilling Cubs/Pirates twin bill. Maybe baseball is, as they say, for the birds.

As three generations of Thomas men rode through the hammering raindrops and flashing lightning, I took a few moments to ignore the indigestion from the snack bar and held a moment of introspection on what my thoughts were coming away from what would topically be classified as a monumental disaster in my first attempt at making my son a diehard sports fan.

I thought back to the line at the will call table. (Yes, it really was a table. Not a kiosk. Not a booth. Four folding legs and an aluminum chair. It definitely was a table.) The line was at least 30 people deep. At this point, the sun was still hanging heavily overhead, and it seemed to be no more than a yard stick or two away as you stood in line on the pavement. Those who manned this table worked inefficiently and seemed to enjoy talking to those in line more than they liked actually handing out tickets. The people came and the people waited and, most importantly, the people smiled.

I thought of the snacks. The slightly off-colored hot dogs smothered with chili. The soggy fries stuffed into a cup that looked exactly like the pseudo-vat that housed our flat sodas. I thought of the several hundred people just like me who stood in line for 10 minutes only to have to bob-and-weave gingerly back through another hundred or so people with arms overloaded with not-so-good goodies, hopeful not to spill a thing. Still, the people smiled.

I thought of the two ladies who sat in front of us and kept score on their makeshift lineup cards and who had a rhyme for every player on the home team and recited them religiously with each at bat.

I thought of the young lady who sat just to our left, wearing the home team's jacket, hat, and hair scrunchie who gave us a fourth inning dissertation on about two dozen of the team's players, complete with visual aids (yes, she brought her photo album to the game).

I thought of the husband and wife sitting immediately to our right, cuddled up and excitedly taking in everything from the electronic pitch speed indicator in center field to the circa-1988 jumbo-tron under the scoreboard in right.

I thought of these people's disconcertion when the thunderclouds started to roll in and when the downpour let loose, as if Mother Nature herself had it out against each of them.

I thought of how the entire stadium's populous huddled up and quickly slid up the aisles in unison to the covered concourse in a vain attempt to stay as dry as possible. Still, the people smiled.

I thought of those who sat in the last row down the right field line, with a slightly obstructed view and no cup holders. They could hear little more than their neighbors' drunken calls for a better umpire with slightly more exacting vision. For them, the rain came without warning and they were last in line to make it under the concourse's sheltering roof. Still, the people smiled.

I thought of our seats. Two rows back behind the catcher. You could see into both dugouts. You could here the crack of the bat, the pop of the catcher's mitt, the muffled cadence of the umpire's judgments. Even the untrained eye could tell the difference between a homerun and a harmless lineout to center from this vantage point.

I thought of how big a waste it was for us not to be able to enjoy the whole game or the fireworks from this prime location, even after investing in the seats. I thought of the hundreds of others who sat close by, undoubtedly wondering the same. Still, the people smiled.

I looked at my son, all of 6-years-old who had just had his first professional baseball experience rained out after a short six innings. I thought of how he didn't have a rhyme for each player, didn't know what the umpire was talking about, didn't know the name of any of the guys in the pictures we were shown, and didn't even know what jumbo-tron meant. He didn't get to see the fireworks he was promised. The cold he had when we got there was far worse by the end of the night after some chilled Connecticut rain.

I saw that he smiled.

I listened as he told his grandma, his mother, and his aunt all about his t-shirt and the alligator mascot that made eye contact with him and acknowledged that he had been seen. I listened as he rifled off the final score and how he saw three homeruns hit and how this girl had shown him some pictures of players. I listened as he talked about the bat spin race and the ball-blowing contest held between innings and about the kids who sang an off-key version of the Star-Spangled Banner just before the opening pitch. He didn't even mention the fireworks that never happened, the cold rain, the wait in line, the slightly discolored chilidog, the soggy fries, or the flat soda (though he wore a sample of each of those last few items on his jacket).

I saw that he still smiled.

It was at that moment that I had in epiphany. I thought of my wife and I and one of our very first dates. We went to see the Astros play the Cubs at Minute Maid Park. This woman, the same woman who derides me mercilessly whenever the subject of baseball is breached, wore a smile all night long as the 'Stros thumped my beloved Cubbies. She knows the results of this game to this day. She remembers where we sat, what we were wearing, what we ate. I remember that she, too, smiled. Like our son smiles now-big and proud and full of honest joy-she smiled.

You see she, like so many before her, was a victim of the moment. To this day, on the rare occasions she deigns to accompany me to a baseball game, she forgets just for a few hours how slow that game is and she smiles. Bad seats, good seats, great seats — it doesn't matter. The experience is appreciated at a level that transcends affluence, age, and gender.

This, I realized at that moment, is the answer I was looking for. None of it matters — the quality of the game, the length of the contest, the character of the participants, the view from your seats — none of that is what makes baseball what it is. You don't love the game, you love where the game brings you. You love that you can see that same passion in your father's eyes. You love that you can pass that same passion to your children. You love that you can bring your wife to a place that she, by all indications, despises and share with her a great time and watch her cheer loudly for hits and swear just as loudly when the umpire misses a call, even if she doesn't know who exactly she's swearing at.

I realize now that there is no chasm. There are those who regularly go to games and those who do not. There are those who regularly watch games on television and those who do not. On the streets, in the house, at the office, all bets are off. Opinions rule like despotic dictators. But, all things being equal, once you step through those turnstiles, everyone shares the same love, respect, and adoration for "America's Pastime."

Like it or not, we are all fans. Some of us just don't realize it. But we all smile. Big and proud and full of honest joy.

Just ask my 6-year-old son. He'll tell you that's what it's all about.

And he'll do it with a smile.

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