A Day For Baseball, Chapter One

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Updated: July 23, 2019

A DAY FOR BASEBALL

CHAPTER ONE: 2029

 

“Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

—Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

 

Year One: May 11th, 2029
Doyle Buhl Stadium
Section 339 Row 12 
Duluth Warriors vs. Aurora Borealis

In May of 2029, there was absolutely nothing exceptional or extraordinary about the Duluth Warriors.  Look it up.  They were not on a single leaderboard for any recorded statistic–not a single player bound for the All-Stars.  They had none of the best players in the game–though arguably some of the worst.  All of their expensive “star” players had collectively shut down, and their worst players were putting up decent numbers.  It was a springtime of utter, deafening mediocrity for the Warriors, and it was the spring I look back on more fondly than any other.

I remember the calm of the ballpark in the hour before the opening ceremony.  It hovered like evening liturgy over the lakeside air, of a natural anticipation of some holy event–and as close to any Eucharistic wonder I’ve ever felt.  It’s a rare gift to a child, these first sacred moments at the edge of a professional ballpark; as exotic as a Persian market to the awkward, oddly proportioned, pimpled eleven-year-old, self-aware of his lack of knowledge of America’s past-time and yet unable to avoid intoxication from its splendor.  I knew at once I had become part of something sacred–something unattainable.

I remember the banner hovering near the streetlight where dad parked his slowly eroding Ford Escape–an ancient artifact by 2029.  An emerald flag boasted a swaggering, confident Andy Sharp, arms crossed, garbed in the royal regalia of the “Emerald Pinstripes.”  An army of Andy Sharps and Garry Charrons and Orlando Trujillos beamed down at us like titans from the lightpole banners; like hallowed statues showing the way to paradise.  It was lost on my dad, of course–who sighed as he locked the doors, looking at his phone and sniffing the air.  To him, it was a chore–a duty, loosely recalled from a lost era of pensions and mortgages and unbroken families.

Why Doyle Buhl Stadium was built so close to Lake Superior, I’ll never know.  The joke has always been that the original owner, Arne Bong, owned a landfill in the oldest warehouse district.  I remember a couple particular bad years where the stadium was referred to bitterly as the “trashyard” by its patrons. I prefer the romantic version: old Arne Bong built the stadium there because that was the place he loved.  They say he rarely attended a game–the ninety-year-old billionaire would pace the docks beneath the stadium at sunset with his handheld radio, hurling rocks into Lake Superior and cursing–both in joy and anguish–as the Duluth Warriors played into the night.  His mansion, after all, was only a few miles down the docks on the “gentrified” side of the riverbank.

In any case, there it was, red bricks and green steel, the music from batting practice reporting powerfully from within.  I was amazed.  It was nearly a three hour drive from the unincorporated township of Pomroy, Minnesota, where mom and I had moved in with her new arrowhead-collecting boyfriend who “survived Iraq” and spent his days scavenging the Big Fork State Forest “looking for spirits” and new knapping materials.  In under two years, he’d ditch my mom for a traveling horticulturist and we’d move to Grand Rapids.  But it was still 2029, and in May of 2029, I was a new, chubby kid in a small school somewhere in the swamps of central Minnesota.  To me, looking upon the home of the Duluth Warriors for the first time might as well have been a captive Visigoth peering out from his cage to gaze at the Coliseum.

In my hand was a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls.  I thought, when I was young, that reading books you’d been told to believe were “great” would somehow share their greatness with you.  This took far too many years to overcome–and in 2029 I read Hemingway and Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, not understanding a word, hoping that somehow these dusty old ghosts would fill me with a purpose that had , at eleven years to the day, eluded me.  I would realize, many years later, that Ernest Hemingway once said “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master.”  Perhaps no one personified that reality better than my father.

He led me to the ticket line, beyond the gray-hooded scalpers who waved their hands high, looking for out-of-towners, seeing my father as a local and ignoring him as he passed. He took me to a nearby lemonade stand, handing over a $20 bill for a lemonade and two beers.  “Happy birthday, Pat,” he said, handing me the tall lemonade with a half-smile.  It had two real lemons in it and a fat, candy-cane straw.  All my life, I’ve searched for the place he bought that perfect lemonade.

“There are four bases,” dad explained as we emerged into the evening air, through the din of the crowd, making our way toward Section 339.  I was awestruck.  The grass was some celestial shade of green–deeper than the numbers on the home uniforms.  “Ninety feet apart.  That man in black there–that’s the umpire.  There are four of them–they’re like referees.”

“I know what umpires are,” I replied, quietly–I had no idea.  I had vague memories of my dad tossing me a ball, or hitting one off a tee with a plastic bat–but dad left when I was five.  Mom said baseball was part of the patriarchy, so I spent my afternoons wandering the woods.

“The Warriors are fucking terrible this year,” dad explained, nearly spilling his beers as we scooted into the relatively unoccupied section.  It was on the second deck, above the third base line, which I assumed was the best view in the entire stadium.  “Worse than last year, probably.  And see those guys in purple?  Those assholes are the Aroura Borealis, one of the greatest franchises SL history.”

“SL?”

“Sovereign League.”

“Sovereign League?”  I puzzled.  “Why’s it called that?”

“Hell if I know,” dad answered, taking a deep pull from his plastic cup and smacking his lips.  He assumed an expression he would often find in his short life–somewhere between speechlessness and frustration–a disappointed movement of the nose and eyebrows–the inability to say what you want, and deep, lingering dissatisfaction with yourself.  I called it ‘furrowing,’ as Hemingway might have.

I watched the players down on the field.  They were tall, agile, and prepared.  Above all, I remember how incredibly confident they all seemed–like they were born on the third base line and lived like their ancestors in the shade of the dugout.  When they hit the ball, it was such a natural and powerful motion that it seemed to be unbelievable–an illusion of some kind.

Soon, the players left the field and the opening ceremony commenced, with the green and purple players assuming opposite chalklines.  This was preceded by a brief charity check given to the YMCA Duluth, along with a barely passable local rendition of the Star Spangled-Banner.  

“Eleven years old,” dad said as they finished the national anthems and we took our seats.  “Got a girlfriend yet, bud?”  The barrel-chested umpire in black shouted “play ball!” with superhuman volume, and the crowd cheered.  My cheeks flashed and I shook my head “no.”

“Good,” dad said with a nod.  “nothing but fucking trouble, Pat.”

The announcer’s voice boomed “NICK HEATH” over the loudspeakers, and I leaned over the rail to see the tall, wiry player approach the plate and knock some dirt from hid cleets.

“Eat shit, Heath!” Someone called from the level below us–to the general amusement of the nearby fans.  I looked up to my dad, who smiled softly.

Henry Carter, whose name appeared on the large electric screen at the end of the outfield, threw three balls in a row, to the lament of the crowd.  The narrow-faced pitcher seemed young, even to me, and he took a deep breath on the mound.  I was amazed at how fast he could hurl the ball–so much faster and further than it seemed on the internet.

I watched, with growing excitement, as Carter threw one strike, then another, and finally leaned back and hurled a pitch that seemed to jolt sideways across the plate–and Nick Heath missed by a mile.  I cried out in excitement, with the crowd.  It was electric–it was intoxicating–I had no idea what was happening.  And it was only the first batter.  I turned my head in a look of joy to my dad, who looked up from his phone and smiled quietly again.  “Nice pitch,” he said.

I watched Derrick Dwyer pop fly to right field and Paul Carlisle ground out to the shortstop on a “tapper,” as the announcer put it, trying to put the flow of the game together.  It seemed like the ball had to hit the ground, and the runner had to run counter-clockwise from the big plate.  Everything else was a mystery.

between the innings, a large mascot garbed like a Trojan soldier marched around the foul line shooting T-Shirts out of a large gun.  I remember thinking baseball was the most strange and wonderful game ever devised.  After, he hopped back in his gold cart and sped away toward the exit tunnel.  What magical place was this?

When David Morrison–a square-jawed, muscular player–took the field, the crowd cheered much louder than before.  When he popped out to the first baseman, the cheering ceased significantly.  The next batter moved from a chalked circle near the home dugout, nodding to a deflated Morrison.

“That’s Andy Sharp!” I called, remembering the banner.  I recalled a couple classmates noting that Andy Sharp sucked, to which I readily agreed–not knowing who Andy Sharp was.  Now I knew–and I doubt my classmates had ever seen him in person.  But I had.

When the seventh pitch from Luis Nieves came in, the crowd gasped as it nearly drilled him in the forehead.  He dove, with unbelievable speed–out of the way, landing on his back, and the crowd turned their worry to rage at the pitcher.  A few choice phrases I would later identify as inexcusably racist were sent his way, courtesy of the section behind homeplate.  I frowned when Andy rose, removed his shinguard, and gave an ironic look toward Nieves as he trotted toward the first base.

“A walk,” my dad said from his phone.  “If the pitcher misses four times, the batter takes first.”  I nodded sheepishly.

Andy Sharp stole second base on the next pitch.  Nieves walked Dmitri Hill, and then I watched Sharp steal third.  I was convinced, at that moment where he beat the tag at third, that he was the best baseball player that ever lived.

Until, of course, Garry Charon came to the plate.

He was a squat, grinning black guy with a large mustache and big brown eyes–He seemed careless and in control in his official photo on the jumbo-screen, his cap thrown carelessly over his short hair.  He seemed like you might share a bench with him waiting for the bus, or find him playing a saxophone in a city park.  He was always smiling–I remember that more than anything about Garry Charon.  always a casual smile.

He hit one foul ball into the bleachers, and stepped one foot out of the batter’s box to dig his other foot deeper.  The next pitch, Garry Charon sent Luis Nieve’s fastball to outer space.

It was the first and best home run I ever saw.  I watched his shoulders drop in-line with the polished, black-tipped bat as if time was barely moving forward.  Seeing a home run in person, in a evening ballgame, is truly incredible.  The electricity of the crowd is tangible–as if it will condense to be saved for gloomier days.  The way the ball sails is beyond majestic–it is poetry–both inhuman and as natural as any projectile has ever charted across the air.  But more than anything, the most memorable and overwhelming experience is the sound of the wooden bat as it contacts the ball.  There is no sound like it in the civilized world.

Even my dad couldn’t hide is excitement as he leaped, almost ritualistically, from his cheap, green seat to remove his hat and wave it as Charon flipped the bat toward the dugout and ran the bases.  Fireworks erupted from center field, a train whistle sounded somewhere, and it seemed as if the United States had won some great victory against an impossible enemy and Garry Charon was the central hero.  I was convinced Duluth had won–that whoever achieved such a mighty feat would obviously claim victory for the day.

I’ve always been a Charron fan, since that moment.  No one can take away your first live home run.  I don’t even remember if Duluth won the game–looking back at the 2029 season, I doubt it.  But I knew I had found some great secret under the rocks–some wisdom that Hemingway and Steinbeck, despite their genius, had not offered.  As I drifted off in the darkness of Highway 2, leaning against the cold window of dad’s Ford Escape, I sighed, lifted my eyes, and dreamed of baseball.