In the Strike Zone
I was having strange premonitions at ATT Park three Tuesdays ago. Just a week prior, the SF Giants were having a hot September. Whenever their bats woke up, supporting their great pitching, they would just barely win. Feeling the post-season interest that I have always had for Major League baseball (going back to my days living in Atlanta during their amazing early 1990s post-season hot streak), I went online to take a look at the Giants schedule. Just two more teams to play, the Diamondbacks and the Padres. The Giants and the Padres were both about tied in their division, but I couldn’t make those games. Looking at my schedule, I saw that the September 28th game with the Diamondbacks worked, and so pulled up a great cheap ticket in the left-field bleachers. Even then, I had a feeling that I was going to see a great game.
With the idea of where my bleacher seat was, I told a friend that I would bring him a home run ball back. He laughed and said “I hope you don’t catch it on your head.” I had a hunch I might actually catch a ball. Getting ready to bike down the hill to the ballpark, my friend Eleni biked by. “You’re going to a baseball game?” she asked. I must admit that few people know that I like to go to a game at least once a season, and always follow post-season Giants games. “Are you going to drink a beer and eat a hot dog?” she asked. Again, Eleni had no idea that I would indeed consume both. Not a great fan of hot dogs, if I go to a MLB game, I’ll eat one. “It’s part of the game for me,” I told her and she looked at me slack jawed. She just couldn’t understand how excited it is to see some end-of-season play, especially when the Giants are doing well.
I found easy bike parking right around the corner from the main entrance into the park. I haven’t been to a Giants game in a few season so was once again awed at the beauty of the park. Walking past the expensive seats on the way to my section, I was struck by the views out to the field. If I wanted to, I could’ve stood next to these entrances and seen the show, but I wanted to get my seat and feel the magic from there. I grabbed the beer first thing, finding Miller instead of the Republican-owned Coors and European-owned Bud. And then I found my seat and met my neighbors.
As the innings progressed, I had to ask one fan next to me where I could find the speed-of-pitch screen. It looked more like an ATT ad than a statistical screen. I had a great view of the pitched balls from my bleacher seat far away. I could see the curve of the sinkers, the heat of the fast balls. I saw the strike zone clearly and started calling the pitches with the umpire. At one point, I pointed to the outfield and told the Giant’s batter to put it “right about there” just past second base. The next pitch resulted in a single that landed in the spot. I only did that one more time, pointing further out into the field and saying “right there”. The batter knocked a triple right after that! Woah. That was strange.
Then, on the first Giants at-bat in the 4th inning, Juan Uribe knocked the first pitch out for a home run. Having that great view of the pitches, and the strike zone, I saw his bat perfectly connect, with a tiny “knock” from the wood meeting the ball. I looked up to follow the ball and saw a tiny, white dot floating in the air. This was an illusion, because as I quickly realized, the ball was headed straight for me. My section stood up, because all the other seasoned fans saw it coming at us too. The dot got a bit bigger before it started its arc down into our section. We were already going crazy, using our sheer joy of seeing the Giants play good to help nudge the ball over the left-field wall. Then, after what seemed like minutes, the ball dropped into a cluster of foaming fans three rows in front of me. Then, in what was an agonizing vocal expression of waiting, over 30,000 Giants fans went totally bonkers over Uribe’s home-run shot. I still get tingles recalling this 20 second memoryâ€¦.
As two fans fought over the ball, the celebration stayed loud and lasted for a fantastical hour or two. It was probably more like a few minutes, but I missed Uribe’s base running and celebration at home plate. I missed any fireworks or whatever they shoot off. I did manage to gain enough composure to look behind me on the jumbotron to see an instant replay. Yeah, so I did have a feeling when I bought the ticket. I was watching great baseball, in the middle of a play-off bid showdown. And in those five minutes, all my troubles, worries, and insecurities melted away as I became 100% fan, tapping into that deep resource that makes people rabid about sports.
Though I’m not a big sports fan as an adult, I sure loved football as a kid. And I got to see the Clemson Tigers win a national NCAA championship back in the early 1980s. Speaking with an old friend recently, telling him about my thrilling experience in ATT Park, we both recalled those great games of so long ago. “It’s always fun to see great sportsmanship,” we both agreed. I don’t spend a lot of time with sports anymore, but after Uribe’s home run experience, I felt more complete. I’d shared some kind of City pride with tens of thousands of Giants fans. I got the team more pumped to go against the Padres, and beat them to then go on to beat my old favorite team the Atlanta Braves (Buddy Cox’s last games as a manager, God bless him). And now the Giants meet the Phillies for the pennant. Can’t complain about that.
In years past, I have biked down to the stadium to hang out during post-season games. I’ve stood on sidewalks, outside bars, watching the game with other folks who just happened to be walking by. I’ve visited friends with TVs to catch games too. Another question Eleni asked me was “why do you like baseball?” Most people can’t watch it. Too boring. Not soccer/hockey/football, etc. Too slow. Too many statistics. I’ve been thinking about this question for years, and have even spoken about it with the few friends I know who like baseball.
For me, there is a 19th Century feel to the game. It’s old, cryptic, full of tradition and superstition. I don’t keep up that much, but I know that records get broken when teams play good ball. The current Giants players are breaking records all over the place, some of them extremely old. When I see a live baseball game, I think of the fans in the early 1900s. I think of how amazing it must have been for people to follow games a hundred years ago on a new contraption called the radio. How that must have broken barriers and created community. I think about Japan and the Americas and their fascination with this silly-looking sport. I bike by 16th and Bryant Streets, thinking of the old Seals stadium that used to stand there. I read science fiction, fantasy, and radical political books that fondly weave baseball into the narrative.
And I went out of my way to visit the Field of Dreams in Iowa when I had the activist job there about four years ago. I walked into the corn fields that Shoeless Joe Jackson, my hometown of Greenville’s favorite baseball hero, walked out of to help some men work out their problems. In the early 1990s, for fun, I went to the Greenville library and found Joe Jackson’s obituary on a roll of microfiche. I found his grave and old liquor store that he ran in his later years. Today, a statue of the infamous player stands in the newly developed West End of downtown.
I guess I love baseball because it is a great way to laze away a summer day. You don’t have to really follow the game, just drink a beer and hang out. No one really gets hurt, and the battle is gentlemanly, with bats and balls in polite competitive play. And, like that Tuesday in late September, baseball can catch fire. When a game gets played well, it’s a thrill to watch. So I guess I’ll continue to be a fair-weather, post-season fan. I don’t own any Giants merchandise. Don’t want to. And after getting home from the game, I found the online video of Uribe’s home run. After pausing it just when it landed into the bleachers, I found myself no problem. It was easy because I was wearing a green tee-shirt. Glad the Diamondback’s colors weren’t green. And glad that I saw that white dot in the sky. Just can’t forget a sight like that anytime soon. Possibly never.