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Play Ball!
(Reflections of a Stranger to the Game, Memphis, 2003)
By Billy O'Callaghan

You pay your ticket and you step into the river of bodies flooding through the turnstile. A teenaged girl in a red cap is handing out miniature American flags, tiny starred-and-striped swathes of something synthetic on six-inch plastic flagpoles. You take one but feel a little stupid with it, and you tell yourself that it'll make a nice souvenir.

Even this early, maybe an hour before the first ball is tossed, you can feel the atmosphere trembling the hot Delta evening air. It is electric, like the still threat of an approaching thunderstorm. Men in shirt sleeves and women with babies in their arms or children by their sides; little boys with sandy-haired buzz cuts and wide blue eyes moving in restless excitement around slow-moving old men in khaki-colored shorts; couples in love, young paintings of the future, he lean and tall and granite-jawed, she blond and slim, with a dazzling smile that turns adoring when he takes her hand and loosely entwines their fingers: they are America's population, and all of this is as much a part of them as the blood that traces through their veins. Beneath the stands it is dark and cool. Food and beverage stalls line one wall, here at the very back, canopied with vinyl striped red and white, selling ice cream, chili dogs and tacos, and cherry Coke, cold draft beer, or stronger stuff if that happens to be your taste. Vendors stand by shining steel carts, building hot dogs with fried onion and sweet pickle. A buck fifty, and help yourself to ketchup and mustard, they say, heavy-set men with cropped moustaches and dark shorn hair just beginning to turn grey, their faces streaked with the sweat of the day and of the job, their mouths pinched in friendly smiles, and they wink gratitude for the half-dollar tip and hope you enjoy the game.

Juggling your pint-sized plastic cup of frothy Budweiser and your hot dog as it seeps scalding mustard over your wrist, you fumble for your ticket and wonder how you'll get to wherever it is that you are supposed to be. The Bluff.

Excuse me, you say, and a slightly paunchy middle-aged man turns and offers a friendly welcome. He wears a white and red shirt, the same kind that you have seen on many people. The team shirt, you guess, and you would be right. He is a steward. You show him your ticket, never feeling more Irish, and he takes it from you, ponders it a second, and smiles again. You boys ain't from around here, he says, his drawl the same one you have been hearing these last few days, and you explain that he's right, you're not. Well, he says, the Bluff's this way, and he turns and cuts a path through the swelling crowd. You follow, and in the distance you see it. A high bank speckled with people. There you go fellas, he says, handing you back your tickets. Just up there. Enjoy the game.

On the Bluff you find a spot near the waist-high fence and eat your hot dog trying not to think about what passes for meat at a sporting event. The beer is cold, and welcome in the hundred-degree Fourth of July heat. It is getting on for five o'clock, and though it has cooled somewhat since noon, it is still sweltering. From here, you are at a height, and you can look out across the half-filled stands and empty field of shining green. The sun bakes the world and the day has a crystalline texture to it. You peel your Elvis shirt from the small of your back and it holds off for a moment before clinging again.

This is it, this is America in all its pomp and glory; the other side of all the heavy-handed George Bush imperialism that fills the headlines back home. The mythical world of Mark Twain and Robert Johnson and Johnny Cash and Creedence Clearwater Revival made momentarily good. A Fourth of July game of baseball, the congealing hot dog and the beer, the piped organ music that distortedly splices "Centerfield" or "Born in the U.S.A." with carnival echo. This is not the majors, not the fabled Yankees; no, this is the South, a true down-on-the-farm Triple A League battle, and what could be better?

Independence Day: with the emotional knot of a Graceland morning still as heavy in your chest as the cheeseburger lunch or the fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches; with the ghostly echoes of "Blue Suede Shoes" or "I Walk the Line" from the cultural history lesson of an afternoon at Sun Studios still ringing rhythmically through your thoughts; and with the eccentric vibe of Beale Street's pass-the-hat pavement blues still to come. Spending America's best day in Memphis, Tennessee, you drink your beer and stare out across the green baize diamond, and you listen to Paul Simon sing deliriously out-of-tune about the Mississippi Delta shining like a national guitar over the sound-deformed loudspeaker.

The crowd builds as game time approaches, smiling faces enjoying the God-given splendor of the day. And with just minutes to go, "Proud Mary" fades, and a voice over the loudspeaker rumbles and whines a greeting: Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Autozone Park for the crunch league game between our own Memphis Redbirds (a pause while the inevitable cheer goes up from the bulk of the three-quarter-full stadium) and the New Orleans Zephyrs (a smattering of good-mannered, they-did-come-all-the-way-here-to-give-us-a-game applause).

From the tunnel they run out onto the green, broad-shouldered, straight-backed young men (thirty is still young), precious in their red pressed shirts and crisp white pants. They warm up before the appreciative crowd, tugging the bills of their caps, swinging hickory bats in search of the rhythm and feel familiar to their shoulders and arms, tossing balls with an easy overarm snap that sends them buzzing forty yards through the hot air to smack with comfortable audibility into a casually waiting mitt. They are professional athletes, not (yet) stars but capable in their measurable talent, and they are proud of this, even as they dream of more. What they have is the American Dream: to make a life out of the national pastime. Further up the field the same activity plays itself out; only the uniforms are different, white shirts and blue pants all the way from N'awlins, y'all.

Over the loudspeaker comes the volley of names and on the distant scoreboard flash the digital displays of the publicity still: the name, number, and position; the season stats for hits or pitches. From the bluff you have to move a little to the right to read this information, and even then one half of the board's blackness wears the bleach of sun's gold.

At last they take their places, outfield and around the bases, and all the crowd rises for the singing of the national anthem. The sun hangs yellow above the western stand, its day done but slow to go. There is the smell of hot buttered popcorn and salted peanuts, of cut grass and beer. A brass band in one corner of the field launches those first familiar strains and every mouth knows the way. Those little flags make sense now and the anthem rolls on and on toward its climax. For the laaaand of the freeeeeee (a gulp of air, the hackles on the back of your neck brought trembling to attention by a ten- or twenty-thousand-strong high harmony onslaught, the heart-pounding pause, and then the searing staccato finish), AndS TheS HomeS OfS ThehuhS BRAAAYYYVE!!!

A roar goes up, driven by a bedrock of hungry applause, up and up, while the players flick off a couple of quick knee lifts or stretches, and the umpire, a small, hard-looking old man, roars Play ball! loud enough for all the world to hear.


BILLY O'CALLAGHAN is a native of Cork, Ireland, and over the past five years his short stories, poems, and articles have appeared in Irish Examiner, Ireland's Own, The Holly Bough, Southword, Megaera, Eclectica Magazine, and others. He has written two short story collections, Tales Of Old Douglas (2001) and View From The Gods (2003), published by Chapel Steps Press.

© 2005 Billy O'Callaghan


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