They warned me.
A few leap years back, down my overly traveled back roads, I had decided to venture far out into the vast suburban Prozac territory. I was seeking to witness a couple of former school chums umpire their last Little League baseball game.
After a mere 11 years they said they couldn’t stomach the acid reflux anymore. It wasn’t the 8-to-12-year-old future Mickey Mantles. It was the barnyard anxiety of driven parents that had finally driven them to hang up their blue caps… and pull up a bar stool, until driving home was no longer in fair territory.
But how bad could it be, I wondered?
After all, even at games where the hyper-kinetic tykes resemble bouncing beach balls more than Willie Mays it’s still baseball. I mean, it’s played in a manicured park where the grass is green, the lines are white and performed upon a stage beautiful enough to be called a diamond.
And then there are the hotdogs which often taste better than a steak at the Ritz – even if at such youthful venues you can’t wash them down with an ice-cold beer. Alas…alack…for at games such as these my idea of a relief pitcher is one that is filled with gin and tonic.
So I parked myself and my pork wiener smothered in onion glory on one of the recently painted marine blue bleachers. The 6 p.m. sun had lost its angry glare, but the air was thick with much-much more than the discomfiting steam of summer.
The teeming crowd of restless parents with fretful smiles filled the seats by the team dugouts. They were aligned to either side of the plate from where the awkward batters were eager to drive the ball in order to arrive home safely.
This was the season’s final game to determine who could hold up a stubby digit and hoot like cavemen around a freshly slaughtered tyrannosaurus. As if it mattered even more than the Battle of the Bulge which, obviously, more than a smattering of these mothers and fathers had lost dipping their kids’ Oreos into everything but milk.
The game began according to script and protocol. The ‘Yankees’ first basemen had booted a swinging bunt by the ‘Braves’ second baseman. And I happened to mutter aside to the Coke guzzling mother next to me: Well, if at first you don’t succeed, try playing second base.
My sports nit-wit seemed to run afoul in one of her mental cul-de-sacs. Obviously suburbia had driven her degenerating cerebellum to 1000-and-one too many ballet lessons, soccer practices and morning coffee klatches with duh neighborhood mothers overdosing on kvetches.
Hmm… For the parents of a Little Leaguer a baseball game is simply another in the archipelago of nervous breakdowns – inning by inning. Like they say: It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.
In the bottom of the fifth the third baseman clumsily tagged out a charging runner by gracelessly backslapping his mitt that gripped the hard ball.
And that, as they say, is when the plot got gripping. The glove smacked the runner’s dirty cheek and knocked off a truly American creation – his baseball cap.
The indignant runner bounced up and angrily pushed his assailant. The hard shove ignited something more or less of a masterpiece of chaos.
The surprised, but now piqued, third-basemen tripped backwards over the bag, thereby crossing the line into the almost ethereal no-man’s land. That is where good and evil is separated merely by the flimsy chalk of the thin foul line. It’s the territory where life gets blurred – fair becomes foul and foul becomes fair.
Before my youngish middle-aged friends — the umps — could intervene the parents demonstrated why g-d is no doubt cursing his own name in vain for commanding us to go forth and propagate.
One sallow mother in a designer grey t-shirt and perfectly holey jeans squeaked something about ‘that shouldn’t be allowed!’ As if there are not only rules for every damn thing, but they should be damn well enforced immediately.
At the same time a couple of applauding fathers in the other bleachers — who definitely weren’t no liberal Volvo drivers — stood up and clapped heartily. They encouraged the hard-tag by the third baseman with ‘atta-boy! That’s the way to play ball!’
And the next thing I knew a political convention broke out. Everybody got to barking and snarling. It was a symphony, of sorts, with a few operatic arias.
I love this stuff! Even the young players on the field started smiling – including the pugnacious duo who struck the match on this powder keg. They got to poking a couple of kidding elbows as they watched their parents act like…well, just like a bunch of assholes.
And then the drama got more than a little Greek. A tad more tragic, but nonetheless entertaining.
There were these two somewhat unfashionable mothers standing close to the shiny cyclone fences erected to protect the spectators from foul balls – but not the foul barbs.
I don’t know what one was squawking to the another, but they had their cheerleaders in the cheap seats. The next thing I knew the shoulder-length black-haired Mom, overburdening her pair of untied black sneakers, got to wagging her number-one digit. It wagged directly in the face of the short, brunette, pony-tailed Mom who filled her jeans extremely to the seams.
At that the pony-tail mother grew a second row of shark’s teeth and snapped those pearly whites down so hard on the other Mom that she actually bit the entire tip of her finger off.
Hoooo—leeee—sheeet! It was outta here!
This made my trip to the mad burbs absolutely superb. As delicious as a frosty mug of cold ale on a hot August afternoon.
Naturally some folks got to shrieking. Others got to finding it simply astonishing. And a few just wanted to get the game back onto the verdant field of play – something that may never recur again as yet another season blooms like perennials across the bonded, mortgaged and taxpayer secured money-ball parks of America.
Baseball was never really what we made it seem – except that it was supposed to be a simple game for kids. But, as always, we grown-ups simply screwed it up.
It’s a game where a screwball used to be a simple pitch. But now it is more often a person or corporation simply screwing us with their pitch. The grand old ball game is now nuttin but a business where it is simply legal to steal – on AND off the field.
This tom-thievery has become quite apparent to most of us in our monopolized world where cable TV is now requiring us to purchase seats in our own living rooms.
They’re having a ball virtually screwing us on our own barcaloungers! And if we try to bite the hand that is transmitting us this sexless disease no one ends up laughing. Not the players, the owners, nor we spectators and especially not our kids.
Indeed baseball was never just a game, just as the Taj Mahal was never just another building. Nor Mt. Rushmore never just another face in the crowd.
Baseball was once a religion steeped in our hearts and minds, as well as the culture. It was our life. It still is just about the only endeavor where a man can fail 7 out of 10 times and still be considered an American success story.
But then along came money. Love got lost. And the thrill got up and went AWOL. And I don’t know if it will ever come back – just like the tip of that lady’s finger.
I seem to recall that someone once explained baseball as a spirited race of man against man, reflex against reflex. A game of inches. Every skill is measured. Every heroic, every failing is seen and cheered, or booed. And then becomes a statistic.
Certainly there’s a man in Mobile who remembers Reggie Jackson hitting three World Series home runs on first pitches.
Now that’s what I call baseball.
So is the husky voice of a doomed Lou Gehrig saying, ‘I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.’
But of course!
I guess we just got lost in our love. Baseball is a game we gripped until its money-gods realized that we are in its grip. And then it really became a game of hardball.
Oh, it’s still the only pastime that forms the perfect circle. There’s still the next day. And the next call to ‘play ball!’ But we’ve screwed it up. And if we keep fouling the once grand air, we simply won’t be able to afford our once simple game no more.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…