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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US
Bobby and Me
By Jamie Spencer
I see great things in baseball. It's our gamethe American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.
I remember the chill of the shade. I stood on the covered walk, the brown and gray pebbles embedded in the concrete, all different sizes; I stabbed at them with the toe of my P.F. Flyers, trying to pry a stone loose. I could hear the sarcasm of the boys waiting their turns behind the plate a few yards away, the shouts as they bumped and jostled each other on the asphalt outfield: "It's mine!" "I got it, I got it, I got it!"
I went home and told my mother.
"They won't let me play," I said. "No girls allowed." I waited for her comforting words. I didn't get them.
"What do you mean they ëwon't let you'?" my mother asked. "Did they hold your arms behind your back?" She raised her eyebrows at me. "Did they hit you?" I couldn't tell if she was teasing.
I stared down at the rubber half-moons on the front of my sneakers.
"Okay, then." She got serious. "Next time, just go line up with the others and take your turn at bat. Don't give in."
She made one of her facesnarrowed eyes, lips pressed together, one corner of her mouth turned down. A game face. I stored it away in my mind.
"If they hit you, hit them back."
I never had to throw a punch.
In 1969, Mays and McCovey ruled our schoolyard diamond, our All-Star alter egos. Tom Mayes got first dibs on the Say Hey Kid. Mickey Matthew Meister, whose minor leaguer father had already given him a name fit for a trading card, liked Mantle better. Carl Yastrzemski roamed the scrabbly outfield gravel. Johnny Bench crouched behind the plate, saving wild pitches from crashing through the windows of the administration building.
As for me, no one could beat Bobby Bonds. I loved the way the looping Bs of his signature burned into the wood of my bat, the one my older brother always said belonged to him. Maybe my father had bought it for him. But it had my name on it. Bobby Bonds.
At the time, I don't believe that I knew any more about baseball than this: that I loved the drone of the crowd, buzzing on a drowsy summer day; that my father and baseball shared a history that could include me if I listened; and that nothing brought me so much joy as hitting the ball hard and sprinting down the line and reaching base, safe. I also knew that Bobby Bonds, though he lived in the shadow of Willie Mays, belonged to me.
I chanted the name to myself as I stood at the plate, waiting for the right pitch, my signature bat held high. Bobby Bonds, Bobby Bonds, Bobby Bonds. A mantra for a seven-year-old tomboy.
I met Dan the Year of the Pinch Runner. I played in my friend Alec's annual Fourth of July game despite floppy ligaments in my left ankle. When Dan and I started dating two years later, he still teased me about my choice of stand-in.
"I didn't pick him. He volunteered," I said. "How was I supposed to know the guy held the course record in the Dipsea 10K?"
I just shrugged my shoulders and made another one of my mother's repertoire of ironic faces: eyes turned skyward, a placid smile. The picture of innocence.
We spent summer Sundays that first year fielding groundballs on the unkempt grass of Julius Kahn Playground. The practices were lessons in coping with the unpredictable. Balls that began rolling smoothly toward my outstretched glove would find divets and skew wildly away from me or, worse, jump up and knock me on the chin.
Dan fired rockets at me, but I knew he was on my side.
"Get your body in front of the ball." "Don't be afraid of it." "Get your glove all the way down to the ground." "That's it!"
I worked on my arm. Since schoolyard days, I had wanted one thingnot to throw like a girl. The taunt hurt worse for boys, but it really had nothing to do with gender. It had to do with belonging. Even though I was a girl, I knew I couldn't play with the boys if I threw like one.
My mother had helped. She had volunteered to teach eighth-grade P.E. softball, tossing batting practice on breezy spring afternoons and showing us how to throw from the shoulder, not the elbow. At Giants games with my father, I had studied the outfielders to see how they got the ball to the cutoff man with such grace.
I learned the motion, but it never came easily to me. I batted over .300, had good speed, and could get the ball back into the infield. But I still wanted an arm.
That's what ballplayers said about the great fielders: "Man, has he got an arm!" I wanted Dan to say it about me.
For my twenty-fifth birthday, Dan took me to Lombardi's to pick out a gift. A display covered most of one wall. I could have any glove I wanted, he said. I chose the Rawlings XPG-RF, with the "Deep Well" Pocket and the Edge-U-Cated Heel. "The Finest in the Field!" it boasted. It hardly even needed to be broken in, but we oiled it anyway, wrapped a ball in it, and put it under my mattress the way I had with my first glove, the one I'd had all my baseball life.
The women in Dan's office thought he should have taken me to Tiffany's. But to me, that glove was better than diamonds any day. The only thing missing was Bobby Bonds's signature.
There are many ways to measure a relationship. I measured ours in baseball milestones: the first time the Giants won the division; the year the Kansas City Royals, Dan's childhood team, played the St. Louis Cardinals in the Interstate-70 World Series and it seemed like no one in California cared but us; the first time he took me to Royals Stadium, where I sat in awe of the nighthawks swooping through the lights overhead; the road trip to L.A. to see the Giants play their arch rivals, the Dodgers, when we bravely wore our black-and-orange caps in a sea of blue and white; the year the Giants went all the way to the World Series.
Like a ballplayer who believes in the power of a streak, I believed that baseball's fortunes brought me blessings. The daily standings held more than statistical meaning. I took them as omens.
The year the Giants made it to the Series, Dan proposed. We joked about getting married on the mound at Candlestick Park but in the end decided on something more traditionalwith a softball game following the ceremony. We set a date for the following summer.
That fall before the wedding, blessings showered upon us. One friend called with tickets for Game 5 of the Giants-Cubs League Championship Series. Another offered tickets for the Oakland-Toronto LCS matchup across the bay. The day of the first game of the World Series between the Giants and the Oakland A's, the phone rang just as I was about to walk out the door for work.
"Do you think you could use two tickets to tonight's game?" a voice asked. I thanked the baseball gods that I always ran a few minutes late in the mornings and accepted the offer.
I called Dan at his office.
"I can't go," he said. "Too much work. Call Andy back and tell him to try someone else." But I knew those tickets were meant for me. The first Bay Area World Series. How could I miss it? I called a friend and arranged to meet her at the ballpark.
We were in our seats at 5:04 P.M. when the earthquake hit. I gripped my souvenir cup in one hand and ballpark peanuts in the other and imagined the headlines: "Thousands Killed in World Series Disaster!" The stadium lights swayed but didn't fall, and when the shaking finally stopped after fifteen sickening seconds, the crowd of fifty-eight thousand let out a spontaneous cheer. Safe.
Three hours later, when I pulled up to our apartment, the streetlights darkened by the jolt, I found Dan waiting out front with a flashlight. Just a few cracks in the plaster, he said. Nothing broken.
But the aftershocks kept me feeling unsettled for a long time beyond that night. I sold my ticket for the rematch.
The Giants lost the Series, four games to none.
All my fielding practice did nothing to prepare me for the blow that came next, a little more than a year after our wedding.
The slam of a door got me out of bed at 5 A.M., but it wasn't just the hour that muddled my thoughts. He didn't want to be married anymore, he said. The words made no sense.
"What do you mean? You mean you want to be single?"
"No. I just don't want to be married."
The words skewed wildly, catching me off guard.
The week after he moved out, a section of ceiling that had cracked in the earthquake crashed to the floor, scattering plaster across the linoleum, completing the damage.
I found our wedding certificate while packing. I had to look at it twice to be sure. But there was no mistake. On the line above the word groom, the space stared back, blank. I imagined the particles of ink vanishing dot by dot as he slipped silently away. Shades of Dorian Gray.
I plotted my recovery on a Rand McNally road atlas. Denver, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Cooperstown. Mile High, Royals Stadium, the Metrodome, Milwaukee County Stadium, new Comiskey, Wrigley, Cleveland Stadium, the Baseball Hall of Fame.
My father dropped hints.
"I've always wanted to make a trip like that," he said.
"I know, Dad." I pretended not to notice the longing in his voice. I dangled a consolation prize: "How about a Giants game before I leave?"
"I wish I could meet you in Chicago," my brother said. "I've always wanted to see Wrigley."
"Maybe another time." I knew I had to go it alone.
I scheduled the trip around two games: Giants-Rockies in Denver and Giants-Cubs at Wrigley. I had it all worked out. I'd sit in the bleachers, where I could watch Bonds in action. Barry BondsBobby's son. Man, does he have an arm.
I set out for Denver on a scorching July day, windows down, Tom Petty's "Runnin' Down a Dream" on the tape player. Two hours from home, I walked out of a Wendy's in the Sierra foothills with a cold drink to find a slick of eerie green liquid spreading from my car across the parking lot.
I filled the tank with coolant and got back on the road, but the car kept running hot. I remembered something Dan had taught me and turned the heater on to cool the engine. I drove like that for two days in hundred-degree heatthrough the flat basins of Nevada, the slickrock deserts of Utah, over the imposing Rockies. I kept the windows down, wore as little as possible, cranked up the radio, and tried to remember what shade felt like.
When I arrived in Denver, my friend Chris told me she had not been able to get tickets for the game at Mile High. But, she said, we could go in the morning and stand in line for the "Rockpile"the Rockies' version of the bleachers. We arrived three hours before game time and lined up behind about a thousand earlier arrivals. At a buck a ticket and the first season of Major League Baseball in the state, all of Colorado seemed to have come out for the occasion.
The Giants won before seventy-two thousand under white-hot summer skies, the bleacher crowd buzzing contentedly in the sun. Mile High reverberated throughout the game with football-season cheershalf the stadium shouting "Go" and the other half responding "Rockies!" I sat in center field, where I could still see Barry Bonds's graceful throws and stunning catches in left. I couldn't see Bobby, but I knew he was in the dugout, coaching. My world began to right itself.
Across Kansas and Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, I listened as ball games played out across the midwestern summer. Unfamiliar announcers' voices blended with the unforgettable murmur of the crowds, the timeless crack of the bat. Some things I could count on.
When I got to Chicago, a friend announced that he had found me a ticket to the Giants-Cubs game and thirty people to keep me company. In South Bend, Indiana, another friend surprised me with tickets to a minor league game and a chance to see Bobby Bonds Jr.Bobby's son and Barry's younger brotherat Stanley Coveleski field, home of the Double A South Bend White Sox. My friend didn't know about Bobby and me. He just knew that I loved the game. But it seemed a good omen.
When I got to Cooperstown, I mailed my brother a postcard of Willie Mays. It was the closest I could get. Bobby's not in the Hall. He's still on the field, where he belongs.
A friend recently tried hypnosis to calm a fear of driving. Now, every time she feels nervous, she returns in her mind to the most peaceful scene she could imaginea curve of beach, waves rushing ashore, the sand radiating warmth as she lies soaking up the sun.
Every now and then, when my gradually stabilizing world hits a divet, I try to picture myself on her beach, but the image transforms in my mind: Eyes closed, I lie in the dappled shade of a grassy slope, wind rustling the willow leaves drooping overhead, listening to the stop-start rhythm of the radio announcers, the soothing murmur of the crowd falling between sentences.
JAMIE SPENCER is a medical writer and editor for HealthNews. She now lives in eastern Massachusetts where she avidly follows the Red Sox with husband Mark, son Tom, and new baby daughter Sophie, who joined the roster in late May.
© 2002 Jamie Spencer
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