The Orioles vs. Rays game begins at 1:05 pm on a cloudy day in Sarasota. We are seated behind first base, which turns out to be a pretty good place to see some action. The O’s turn a nifty double-play: a grounder to the first baseman, who throws to the shortstop covering second, quickly retreats to the bag, and is there to take the throw to put out the runner at first. This is not easy to do, but as with many things professional ball players do, they make it look effortless. So does the center fielder as he grabs a hit on one hop and throws a perfect strike to third base to get the runner there. And this is just the first inning!
In the second, an Oriole batter draws a walk and the speakers burst forth with Fats Domino singing “I’m Walkin’,” another example of the good-natured humor to be found at a baseball game. Can you imagine such light-heartedness at, say, an NFL game? No, football is serious business! The Oriole player reaches third base, then the pitcher throws a ball in the dirt, which bounces out of the catcher’s glove, the guy on third breaks for home, the pitcher covers the plate, the catcher backhands a flip of the ball to the pitcher, who swipes it across the runner as he slides…. “safe!” signals the umpire, throwing his arms wide. I love the sudden drama of a baseball game. You’re just casually watching, nothing much going on, then—bam!—everything goes into high gear, 5-10 seconds of intense action. Unlike football or basketball, where the dramatic action is pretty continuous, baseball, for me, is more enjoyable because there are stretches of time when you can relax, look around, soak in the scene, anticipate the next pitch.
You also have a very good chance of leaving with a baseball when you go to a spring training game. Fans are always begging to be thrown a ball and players often oblige. If the right fielder catches a final out, he will practically always throw it to a fan lining the small stadium wall as he trots back to the dugout. When the first baseman throws the ball back to the dugout after he finishes tossing ground balls to warm up the infielders at the top of each inning, the player collecting it will probably throw it back into the stands, over the netting that protects the fans. Boys are especially blessed with baseballs, it seems. When a man catches a foul ball near me, he immediately signals to a nearby boy and gives it to him when he comes over, eliciting applause from nearby fans. And another fan shouts every time someone captures a foul ball: “Give it to a boy, give it to a boy!” He succeeds in shaming quite a few fans into giving up their hard-earned baseballs.
I have my moment of glory with a foul ball, too. It’s hit nearby and bounds off the cement right at me. I reach up with two hands, no one is trying to grab it from me, it’s spinning easily, piece of cake catch, I see it descend into my hands… and I flinch and it bounces off my hands and someone else scoops it up. I had it, it was right there, how could I blow it? For a moment I feel bad—I wanted that baseball! But I soon realize that I wouldn’t have kept it, I don’t need a baseball, and a kid gets it anyway, so what? I also realize that the fact that I had 3 x 5 notecards in one hand and pen in the other—I am taking notes for this column—probably has something to do with my fumbling the ball. But I also think with a smile about my days at second base in Little League, where I had made untold miscues on batted balls. Yep, still making errors, decades later! Some things never change.
The game ambles on and the time drifts by. The O’s turn a classic double-play, Tinkers to Evers to Chance-like. A batter breaks his bat and the pitcher ducks as half of it flies over his head. Chris Davis, the Orioles’ highly-paid first-baseman —something like $100 million for three years—earns some of his pay by blasting a homerun over the center field fence. How can a ball player be worth $100 million dollars? Then, again, how can CEO’s be worth the millions they are paid, even when their companies are losing money? But this is not the time to be unsettled by thoughts of income inequality. The O’s are winning, 4-1, it’s the top of the eighth inning, and we are getting closer to the real reason I have chosen to come to this particular game. Today is “Seniors Run The Bases” Day. Anyone over 60 gets to run the bases at the end of the game. I can’t wait. I have never been on a professional baseball diamond. This is going to be fun.
Then it happens, as it so often happens in a baseball game. The karma completely changes. Suddenly the Orioles can’t get anyone out. The Rays score a run, then another, and the score is soon tied. The manager brings in a relief pitcher and he gives up back-to-back homeruns. It’s 7-4, then 8-4. Another pitcher in, and they still can’t get the final out. How can it be that, batter after batter, you can’t get one more out? Especially since you’ve been leading all afternoon? This is one of the great unanswerable questions of baseball, one that, I muse, makes it a lot like life. Sometimes you just can’t find the answer, you just can’t get un-stuck.
What’s worse, the sky is getting very dark. The rain that was predicted seems to be on its way. Jim, Barb, and I decide to leave, the heck with running the bases, it’s not worth getting soaked. On the way out of the stadium, I watch the Rays score even more runs, until it’s 9-4 as we leave and the Orioles still haven’t gotten the final out. Barb and I reach the bushes and retrieve our umbrellas. Then the heavens open up. I mean, it rains not just cats and dogs, more like elephants and hippos. I am trying to protect Jim, who did not bring an umbrella, but mine is really only suited for one person. After a while, Jim gives up and simply plows ahead through the rain. Barb decides her socks and shoes are so wet she begins walking through puddles instead of around them. I think about the cost of trying to save that $10 parking fee by parking at the far-away CVS.
Finally, we reach the car. Fortunately, we have towels to place on the seats. A homeless person knocks on our window in the pouring rain and launches into some story about needing money to get somewhere—“What’s your cell phone number, I’ll call you when I get there and you can tell me where to send the money back?” Barb is too miserable to listen and gives her $10. So that’s where the parking fee ends up! At last they drop me off at aunt Anna’s house and I peel off my drenched clothes and jump in a deliciously warm shower. Once I’m in warm clothing with a drink in hand, I think back on the day. The home-team got clobbered, I got soaked, I didn’t get to run the bases and imagine I’m Jackie Robinson, I blew my chance at grabbing a foul ball. On the other hand, I saw double-plays, several homeruns, plays at the plate, met The Elephant Man, had a beer, and enjoyed several hours of stress-free fun. All in all, it was a great day. Of course it was, it was baseball!
CODA: As I left the stadium at the Orioles/Rays baseball game, I heard the announcer say that Seniors Run The Bases Day would be held at the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. I made sure to be there. It was a sunny day, a bit brisk, but no rain. Jim and I joined at least 100 seniors as the Orioles mascot led us onto the baseball diamond. I took off running, not fast but slow enough to enjoy touching each base, making sure to step on it purposefully, especially home plate. Truth to tell, it was over much too fast. But, as with so much of my life loving baseball, I had the memories.
Granville Wyche Burgess is an Emmy-nominated playwright and novelist. He is the author of The Last At-Bat of Shoeless Joe, a novel about Shoeless Joe Jackson, to be published by Chickadee Prince in May, and which is available for pre-order on Kindle, and in paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your local bookstore.