I am writing this on a sunny and fragrant June morning, sitting in the bleachers off the Little League field on which I played all those summers ago. My Little League coach, Larry Lee, died last week, and it is a Kauffman family habit (not an eccentricity!) to revisit places associated with the recently deceased.
I can see myself out there at shortstop for the Cubs in the National League playoff game. Bottom of the sixth, tie game, bases loaded, grounder hit my way, I field it cleanly, throw home… and into the dirt, skipping it past the catcher. Game over, season over, Little League career over. Shucks.
Pretty much every male relative of mine—father, brother, cousin, uncles—was all-league in baseball or football, but as for me, well, they also serve who only sit and watch from the bench. I’m a quinquagenarian now, rather to my astonishment, and I still bring out the glove to toss the ball with our daughter, who humors the old man with a game of backyard catch in the high grass.
I don’t hold, however, with my Upstate landsman Frederick Exley’s morose conclusion that “it was my destiny—unlike my father, whose fate it was to hear the roar of the crowd—to sit in the stands with most men and acclaim others. It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.” (Exley’s books belie any such shrinking violetism.)
This is the 75th year since professional baseball came to Batavia, and we are among the last of the train-whistle towns in the low minors. I sit in these bleachers, too, with friends and apparitions, conducting decades-long conversations and hearing ghostly echoes.
Even in the bushes, alas, those ghostly echoes can get lost in the din.
Each batter has his own “walk-up music,” which means that every time a home team lad strides to the plate we are treated to a ten-second snatch of his favorite song. Year in and year out, the boys’ collective taste is execrable. I’ve yet to hear, say, X or Neil Young, though what I really long for is the sound of silence.
Conversation is the casualty in the empire of noise. I am vice president of the team but I can’t get the damned decibelage turned down. John Nance Garner was right about the impuissance of VPs.
In minor-league baseball, the place, and not the players, is the thing. This place is: My old friend Donny Rock, the groundskeeper, lining the basepaths. Grande dame Catherine Roth, now 92, refusing to stand for the vapid “God Bless America,” which since 9/11 has afflicted our ears during the seventh-inning stretch. My mom, who has lived her entire life in our Snow Belt county, putting on her jacket when the temperature dips below 80. Yappy Yapperton, countless sheets to the wind, yelling inanities from the beer deck. (Scratch that: Yappy is either dead or in prison today.)
The boys of summer come and go; I prefer life in the bleachers. A fair number of big leaguers have passed this way, and I follow them in the box scores. Especially Phillies’ stars Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, who were, in successive years, very kind to our daughter during the Muckdogs v. Muckpuppies games. (These tilts required the boys to come to the park the Saturday morn after a Friday night game and presumed revelry. The guys who showed—Utley, Howard, and some very good-natured Latin American players—were saints.)
As for the majors: yawn. I can rattle off the starting lineup of the 1975 Kansas City Royals but I couldn’t identify a single player on the 2013 Royals roster. It’s not early-onset dementia, or so I hope; I just don’t care.
Several years ago I had a free afternoon while visiting D.C. and thought I’d take in my first Nationals game. The Metro ride to the stadium, with its passengerial cargo of black and white ball-capped fans, was a rare and heartening sight in our segregated capital city.
As I neared the ticket booth I hesitated. Did I really want to spend three hours fidgeting through interminable TV timeouts, which make between-innings breaks and coaches’ trips to the mound foretastes of eternity? Nah. So attending a Nats game remains on my list of Things to Do in D.C. Before I Die (along with visiting the Frederick Douglass home and the gravesites of Gore Vidal and Clover Adams at Rock Creek Cemetery).
Back in the bleachers I think of William Cullen Bryant’s poetical wish that he die “in flowery June/When brooks sent up a cheerful tune.” Bryant got his wish. It’s the little victories that count.