As a newcomer to Asheville, I soon learned that this was where the movie Bull Durham was filmed, with many scenes at your ballpark, McCormick Field, and doubtless other domestic scenes elsewhere around town. I remember resisting that movie at the time, but finally I saw it because Susan Sarandon was in it, and I’ve loved that woman ever since I saw her in her underwear at the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
I guess I didn’t like the idea of someone else digging in her garden, especially that Tim Robbins guy. But eventually I caved in and saw the damned movie, and it was pretty good. It wasn’t all about baseball. Maybe even most of it was about the Sarandon character, who rented space in her house to baseball players, in season, and bedded quite a few of them at the rate of one lucky athlete per year.
That seems to be quite an industry here in Asheville, the space renting part, I mean. The baseball part seems quite subdued, to me, anyway. No one has informed me of the name of your club, nor have I seen a game even advertised. I have no idea what league you are in, or what affiliation with the majors. Nobody seems to talk baseball here, and for god’s sake it is summertime. Baseball season! Get on it, people.
I confess, I’m not much of a baseball fan myself. I go for football, NFL style. I grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., before we had major-league teams there, or even televised games. By mid-summer it was too hot in Phoenix to play afternoon baseball. Try 122 degrees in June. One year it got so hot that the planes couldn’t take off at Sky Harbor because the wheels stuck to the tarmac.
Eventually Phoenix got a domed stadium, and even won the World Series one year, an excitement beyond charming. You may even remember the winning hit: Gonzo’s blooper to short left field that dropped in uncaught and devastated the Yankees. Arizona, world champions? That was beyond belief!
Fifty years ago we kids tried to play ball anyway. Sure, why not? We were kids. Our mothers wanted to get us out from underfoot. “Go out and play,” they ordered. We had a neighborhood team that played on an empty corner lot. No name, no uniforms, just Levi jeans and T-shirts, and shoes, of course. I always got put out in left field, where the bullheads grew, because I was pudgy and slow, and couldn’t hit or catch. I couldn’t see the ball, either.
You didn’t want to fall down in the bullheads; they were tough little buggers with spikes on all sides — almost as bad as cactus. After playing an hour out there I could practically skate on my shoes, there were so many bullheads stuck in the soles. Later, in high school, I found I need glasses, but by then my interest had shifted to science fiction and that’s a different story.
This morning I am put in mind to ruminate on what makes baseball so attractive in the first place. I do recall one stirring moment, when my brother took me to my first big-league game in San Francisco, where the Giants were playing a double-header against the Cincinnati Reds at Candlestick Park. I remember climbing interminable concrete stairs and ramps, almost to the point of despair, and then suddenly emerging into the stadium, dominated by a greensward and diamond so nicely manicured they almost put your eyes out.
Candlestick was originally a baseball stadium, but became better known as a football stadium during the Walsh/Montana days, and boy, those were the days. Baseball and football shared the stadium at the beginning of the football season, and I remember one end zone was played on infield dirt. Not a good situation for either team, and that scenario was ended when the Giants moved back to The City, as San Franciscans call their incorporated environs. PacBell Park is a nice ballpark, with a weird right-field wall, which, when cleared by a batted ball, deposits it in the drink of San Francisco Bay. A flotilla of little crafts lingers out there during games, waiting for homers to sail over the wall to them.
No question, a well-maintained ball field before a game is a sight to behold. Every ball field worth its salt tries to look that good, and many succeed. Maybe you even have a ticket for a numbered seat, and you search it out and sit in it to see what you can see, hoping your view is not blocked to home plate.
Why is home plate so important? It is where most of the real action happens. It’s where the batter stands to hit the ball, where the catcher squats to direct every pitch. It’s what the pitcher aims at (theoretically), and the place every runner returns to, to score after making the circuit of the bases. Sometimes it is the point of most violent contact in the game, as one team tries to prevent the successful completion of the bases by their opponent.
In baseball, time is irrelevant. It goes until it’s done. If you go to the game, you’re gone for the day. You are not coming back, that day at least. Not to the store; not to the office; not to the hospital; not to the Capitol; not to your taxi or truck; not to the world of Earthly cares — until the gee-dee game is over. And sometimes it takes a good long time more than expected. TV made us time our games, give ‘em two, three, four hours. Whatever, but in 30-seconds we go to commercial, and that will be the end of it. Baseball was born before time was so precious.
And let’s not forget the umpire, crouched slightly behind the catcher, judging every pitch with a signal all his own, eagle-eyed, but humanly fallible. My father was an umpire. In fact, he founded the Arizona Umpires Association, in the 1940s, officiating evening games between cops and firemen, plumbers and roofers, etc. I remember, as a youth, hearing some fan in the stands holler: “Nice eye, ump! Now take it out and wash it off.”
Dad gravitated eventually to Women’s Professional Softball games. Instead of calling them girl softball players, as many did, he called them soft girl ball players — not to their faces of course. They were pretty to look at, but tough as shoe leather beneath. Dotty Wilkinson’s name sneaks out of its memory slot and into my mind. She had national renown once, as catcher for the A1 Queens.
A1 beer once was Arizona’s own favorite pilsner, and the Queens wore satin shirts and shorts the color of that brew. Dad got to know Dotty pretty well from his proximity behind the plate, and told me a naughty story about her, but I can’t remember it any more. Long ago, that was, and they are dead now, too. Both of them.
Baseball could bring you fame and money, as Babe Ruth proved. I had a Babe Ruth-signed baseball before I knew what baseball was, courtesy of my godfather. Somehow that ball disappeared from the top of my dresser at some time during my life.
Kids did not take care of sports memorabilia then, like they do now. I know I gave my nephew a Jim Palmer rookie card for his birthday once, and I hear he keeps it in his safe deposit box. Jim Palmer was a Scottsdale lad, before he made it big as a Baltimore Oriole pitcher, and I think my brother and he played together in high school.
Yep, my brother just confirmed by phone that he and Palmer played on the same team in summer league when they were just 15. Their team won the right to represent the state of Arizona in a tournament in Hawaii. I asked him what he enjoyed the most about baseball, and he said, “Playing it.” True, the players’ experience is going to be different than the spectators.’ I never saw my brother play baseball at the organized level. “What position did you play?” I queried.
“Outfield,” he said.
“Oh, really! We both played outfield, then, except my outfield was in the bullhead patch across from our house on Washington Street.” We both laughed heartily at that.
“So, what did you like best,” I asked my bro, “fielding or hitting?”
“Either one,” he claimed.
“Not the camaraderie, then; the teammates?” I asked.
“No, we were all individuals. Each had his own job to do, his own role,” he said. That surprised me, but I knew he knew what he was talking about. He had lived it.
My brother was/is a lifelong sportsman: player, coach, golf-course director and builder, father of two sports-active sons, now grown themselves. He was a chip off the old block, as I thought I was not, until I discovered my dad got four A’s at college, in Shakespeare, and graduated magna cum laude.
Just a couple of years ago, I worked a stint as a security guard at the new Diamondbacks spring training facility in Scottsdale. One of my tasks was to keep the fans from coming onto the field when the teams were practicing. The young fans were always fudging that line, trying to lure their favorite players over to sign their programs, or hats or shirts.
The Colorado Rockies were in town to play the Diamondbacks later in the day. One young fan wore a Tulowitzki jersey; his idol being Troy of that name, a Rockies star. The kid was aggressive to get Troy’s signature on his back. The rule was: do what you can to get the player to come over to you, but you can’t go onto the field. Okay, okay. Amazingly enough, Troy did come over. Maybe he saw his name on the back of the jersey, and knew what the kid wanted.
Troy Tulawitzki took the Sharpie and was about to sign, when the kid’s parent said, “Hold it, I want to get a picture of this.” And he snapped a digital of it, with me in the middle. “Can you email me a copy?” I asked, and he did. I use it as a screensaver.
And that’s the charm of baseball.
I was so proud of this piece. Surely the Mountain Xpress would want it. I couldn’t wait to spread my joy. “Hey, Robyn,” I called to my daughter, an established Ashevillean, “Come read this. I think it’s really good.” She came over and read it standing up.
“Wadda yuh think?” I asked when she finished.
“It’s okay, but you missed the point.”
“I did?” I replied, taken aback.
“Yeah! It’s a game, a competition, a struggle between two parties. It’s a duel between pitcher and catcher, and fielders and hitters.”
“Well, yes, but I thought I implied that.” I defended.
“You might have caught the charm, but you entirely missed the essence,” she insisted.
“How do you know so much about baseball?” I quizzed.
“I’ve seen a few games,” she answered simply.
“Here? In Asheville?” I asked.
“Yeah, we’ve got a team,” she stated.
“What’s it called?” I pressed.
“The Tourists, I think.”
“The Tourists! Are you kidding? What kind of name is that for a ball team?” I asked.
“I dunno,”she said, checking her e-mail on her I-Phone, “but I’ll tell you what. There’s a game here tonight and I can get tickets. I’ll treat you to the game if you buy the hot dogs.”
“Oh, all right, sounds good,” I agreed.
“Be ready at 6:15. The game starts at 7:05, and we’ve got to park and walk.” she instructed.
Smart girl! I got ready, and we went. I’m glad I did, because I found that I’d missed much of the charm, too, as well as the essence. Let’s start with the crowd; I forgot about the crowd. Such a variety of people: black and white and in-between; tall, short, and skinny. Buff or fat, or pregnant, carrying babies. Men outnumber women. Lots of children go to ball games; I’d forgotten that baseball is all about the kids. In the family dynamic it is an occasion when children can accompany parents to an entertainment both can enjoy, and remember it for the rest of their lives.
I remember those games my father umpired. I fell in love for the first time at one of them. Young women were playing softball in Avondale, then a farming community near Phoenix, now just an extension of the suburbs of the city. There was a girl pitcher there with whom I was enchanted, when I was about age 12. She was at least 16. I loved the way her windup pulled her blouse tight across her breasts. Her name was Nancy and she was Hispanic.
In those days adults would have said she was Mexican and maybe she was. To them any Spanish-speaker was probably Mexican. The fine distinctions of South American nationality were decades away from making a difference to gringos. My dad used to tease me by calling her “Nancy, with the Latin infield.” That was a turn on a Sinatra song, I think, and it made him laugh a little whenever he said it. Not meanly, just observant of my growing appreciation of the differences between the sexes. That sometimes happens with baseball, and is charming, in its way, I think.
Another charmer is the food. Long lines of people waiting for hotdogs and beer. Long lines too at the pissoir, waiting for a vacant urinal. A person with a bladder like mine has to plan ahead for that. Not so charming, perhaps, but I have a funny story to tell about such a contingency in Toledo, but that will have to wait for a different opportunity.
Seating. At McCormick Field most of the seats are sturdy aluminum slats running the width of a section. Comfortable enough for a few innings at a time. You can be seated next to anyone if there is room, and become acquainted with a stranger, perhaps, like on a plane or a bus. Our seating neighbor was a woman named Anita, from Charleston, who was a knitter of beautiful items in the bag on her lap. I told her my “knitted sweater” story, and she laughed. Chuckled, rather than belly-laugh, though. Just amused. Inside the ballpark it seems safe to chat up a stranger, and that is charming too.
More of the essence, I think is the presence of players on the field. Even if they are just throwing the ball around among their teammates, they generate an energy vortex that directs your attention to watch every motion: something may happen at any moment! Finally, like chromosomes dividing in mitosis, all the players of one team head for their dugout, and the other team heads for theirs.
The public address system announces the name of a singer, and the notes of the Star Spangled Banner peal across the ether. Everyone stands, hatless, and joins in the song. Children take note: this is a special moment in your social learning. An American reality is renewed for you. The song claims this as an American game, on American soil, and it is played reverently for all living and future Americans in memory of all the dead Americans, many of whom have sacrificed their lives for you. For me, this is always a profound ritual, and I pay attention to the players’ faces while it plays. I wonder about their individual states of mind. Are they with us, or against us?
The anthem is over. The umpire brushes the dust off home plate, shouts, “Play Ball!” and the contest is on. The essence of baseball is displayed like a kabuki dance of ritual movements. Everyone knows what is happening and why. The only question is which team will prevail in this rule-bound battle of skill, power and knowledge. It generates an anxiety in all concerned that is sustained until the very last man is out.
The statistics of the contest will go into the maw of the archives forever, or as close to forever as the human species remains upon this Earth. Now I hope Robyn will think I have caught the essence of baseball, but I can’t ask her now because she went to get her hair cut.
For more, go to Robbeloth’s blog at up2pee.com.