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THE STATE OF THE GAME

The Golden Oldies
By Cathy Brown

It's the last game of the season and a crowd is here to see it out. In the cool, bright morning I sip my coffee and sit with my grandfather, my "Pa," in the back bleacher at the community field. The players in the dugout drink their coffee too, but hurriedly, as they rummage for their gloves and adjust their knee braces. I can hear them talking in shortened, congenial exchanges—the kind that elderly men reserve for one another. From the bleacher just below me, two thick-set, middle-aged men with gloves and bat bags watch as a few of the players take the field to warm up. The one on the left points to an infielder and says, "Look! There goes Chico—I guess they've got him playing third base. I bet he's still pretty quick on his feet." He glances at his friend, with a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. "Remember the time he crushed that ball over the center field fence?" The one on the right leans back and looks up at the sky. "Yeah, you guys won that game because of Chico." He sighs and continues softly, "And we . . . lost that game because of Chico."

Left: "That was a tournament game, wasn't it?"

Right: "Nah, just a little get-together in Arizona."

The players' wives and grown children are familiar to me from other games I've watched this season. They sit in clumps along the bleachers, and their talk typically centers on the health of family members. But the two men below me are sitting by themselves, and they are talking ball. What are they doing here? After listening in again on their conversation—as they discuss Emmett's sidearm throw—it occurs to me. Just as the best Little League kids eventually move into Pony League, some of the players from the middle-aged men's senior teams have moved into the Over 70s League. The two men in the stands are the former teammates of the men out on the field, the baby brothers who got left behind in Little League when their older siblings advanced to the next level. They've come to watch players they respect and catch a glimpse of a game that could still exist for them ten or fifteen years from now.

I turn from the men in the bleachers to the stiff-smooth practice throws of the first and second basemen. I think about them being kids back in the 1930s. Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio? I know them as legends. I never listened in with my ear to the radio, building the physical presence of the players and the games in motion with my mind. I never tried to imitate the descriptions I heard all season long: the foot-tapping swing of Mel Ott, the stinging throw of Dizzy Dean, the character of Lou Gehrig. But the old men I'm watching did do those things. Because they did, the charismatic figures of baseball are imbedded in them like diamonds, made brilliantly strong and clear by the pressures of imagination. The skills the men developed over a lifetime of sports playing also have hardened within them. Now that they're in their seventies and eighties, their particularities are what they can rely on; the grip of a pair of hands on a bat is as essential to each individual as the quickness of a smile. Each man knows what he's doing when he plays, and just under every brittle exterior is a confidence and fluidity of movement that belies age.

My Pa sits on my left, shelling sunflower seeds with his teeth. He's as ready to play as any of them, but he's had trouble with dizziness. Two weeks ago he caught a ball in right field and then dropped it, fell down as he reached for it on the ground, struggled to his feet, and fell down again. After the game, and a visit to the doctor, he moved off the active roster and onto the ER—that's Early Retirement—for the rest of the season. He seems content to watch his teammates from the stands and take batting practice in the cage at the park. He thinks about next year. For all of the players, I've noticed, the measurement of skill—a double-play turn by the second baseman, a scrambling run by the catcher to snag a pop foul—takes backseat to the measurement of toughness. At eighty, sparkling athletic plays are unattainable. This is a practical truth; there is no false sense of youth among the players. But toughness is an attainable and fitting achievement, and it has become the cornerstone of their game. Last week, the shortstop snagged a soft grounder and threw hard to first. The first baseman caught the ball, shuffled backward toward the base, and stumbled over the bag onto his back. His left heel stayed glued to the base and he got the runner out. The entire infield came over to brush off dirt, slap the baseman's back, and beam with pride. At another time in life, if he'd reached for a short throw, stretched his legs into splits, and dipped his glove to lift the ball out of the dirt, he would have shown his skill. This time, he'd excelled because of an awkward shuffle and fall. The first baseman has heart trouble, arthritis, and a hospitalized wife: the men on the field understand that in playing the game he is courageous, pushing the problems of age, like a tough old tug pushing cargo up the river, where he wants them to go.

This is not to say that the Over 70s League is idyllic. When Pa first joined the Golden Oldies he lacked seniority, so the manager started him at catcher. His knees and throwing arm ached for days after each game. The seventh week, toward the end of the game, I could see him start to tire and stiffen up, mentally anticipating several more days of discomfort. His throws back to the pitcher began to fall short, and the pitcher, one of the loudest and youngest on the team, began to cuss. With each limp throw back to the mound, the pitcher derided my Pa: "You lazy son of a bitch!" "What the hell was that, you son of a bitch?" "Goddammit, you son of a bitch!" The pitcher's cussing, like his pitching repertoire, was limited. In fairness, something excruciating was wrong with his back. He walked like a sailor with a peg leg, and his body never voluntarily bent further than forty-five degrees from the hips. It was obvious he was in pain every time he had to reach down or forward to compensate for Pa's throws. Pa didn't return the aggression that time, but it was the beginning of a balloon of tension that inflated between the two men until it finally burst in the last game Pa played.

In that game, Pa started out at catcher, as usual. The incident occurred in the top of the fifth inning, with the bases loaded and one out. An athletic eighty-two-year-old was up to bat, and he swung aggressively at the first pitch. It grounded sharply to the second baseman, who threw it home to Pa. Pa bobbled the ball and the runner scored. The pitcher kicked the dirt and gestured wildly for Pa to throw to third. He tried, but his grip wasn't firm and the ball flailed to the right, where the surprised first baseman ran in and scooped it up off the ground. The runner who had advanced to third had seen the odd throw and didn't slow down. He was headed for home when the first baseman threw the ball back to Pa, who safely caught it the second time around. The runner was called out, but that didn't stop the pitcher from ripping into Pa. At first, Pa just stood there. He looked back at the umpire. He had gotten the second out, hadn't he? The umpire nodded and told him he had. He looked back at the pitcher, pegging around the mound, shouting and gesticulating wildly, his face sharp and red. Pa began to warm. With an edge to his southern drawl, he warned, "Settle down now—you're going to give yourself a heart seizure." The pitcher continued to rain degradations down upon Pa, until Pa finally growled, "You just better shut up, boy, or I'm gonna hit you over the head with a baseball bat!" They played catch one last time, for the duration of the third out, and then the manager moved Pa to right field.

In the last inning of that game, Pa had his dizzy spell in right field—the one that put him on the ER. It could have been a hard way for Pa to end the season, hard for the rest of the Golden Oldies, too, with so many raw emotions tangled between players. But it wasn't. Pa himself was invigorated. He hadn't gotten in a fight with anyone in thirty years or more, and suddenly he was in the thick of it, feeling ashamed at the misplay, outraged at the pitcher's treatment, defensive, proud, spontaneous, hot, cold, passion filled. Alive! The game funneled him into a reality so vital, even dangerous, he hadn't experienced it in decades. He'd almost forgotten it existed. So he didn't hold a grudge; he didn't abandon his teammates or curse the pitcher from the safety of his garage workshop. He came to every one of the remaining games. He brought coffee in thermoses for his teammates, and he shouted "Hey! Thaaaat's a good one!" whenever they knocked in a run. The game had provided a framework for him to touch reality, the other players had stepped back to let it unfold, and he made it his season's work to honor both.

Along with Pa, there are three people involved with the team whom I've learned to love to watch. Two are ball handlers, lifelong ballplayers, positioned at shortstop and third base. They know the game in secret ways. The other is a petite woman, athletic in the way wide-hipped, compact women sometimes are: the umpire. She is in her fifties, bespectacled, with a real umpire's uniform and her own brush and ticker. She has a smooth, straight throw to the pitcher. These three are different from the others, certainly different from my Pa. He is happy playing ball, but playing football fits his nature. He was a Razorback, a strapping southern farm boy who crated peaches in the long, hot summers until the war sent him to Guam as a tail gunner. He came back to play football at the University of Arkansas on the GI Bill. Battle plans and crashing bodies were the essence of his youth, and he loved it somehow.

Not the three. Baseball is their game. They own it in the only way it can be owned. They give the great nature of it away. They do this by doing what needs to be done, by doing what the game calls for, within the silent potential of each unfolding moment. The umpire calls the close play at home, clearly and with authority, then shifts her focus and calls the even closer play at second the same way. She explains what happened to the confused scorekeeper and clicks a run scored on her ticker, takes out her brush and defines home plate, then moves effortlessly back behind the catcher, ready to call the next pitch. The shortstop, a beak-nosed Scandinavian with sky blue eyes, stretches his long frame to the left and snags a line drive, then takes a couple of strides to second base and taps his foot on the bag. He raises two fingers toward the outfield, then returns to his position, pushing his fist into his glove. The third baseman comes in on a little grounder, angling foul. He watches it spinning toward the line, then glances up at the runner, almost to first. The ball stops just inside the line. He playfully scuffs it with his foot, rolling it foul. Then he turns around and grins his grizzled grin at his teammates and tips his hat to the third base coach of the other team.

I began to see the importance of these small moments midseason, at a game the regular umpire couldn't make. The city sent a substitute—a man in his forties with a rock star haircut, dressed in a sleeveless shirt and wind pants. He had a black leather fanny pack where he kept his ticker, cell phone, and cigarettes. Between innings he called friends while the old men made their way into the outfield. If home plate got dirty, he swiped his foot across it. The scorekeeper had to correct him, twice. No great sins, these, but they amounted to something. They amounted to a game far less enjoyable, both to play and to watch. They amounted to feelings in the air, a distraction brought on by each unfocused action. The old guys began to doubt the difference their toughness could make. The people in the stands paid attention to the umpire, not the plays. The morning sun became uncomfortable, and the two ballplayers at short and third knew there was nothing they could do to restore the balance of the game. They waited it out, like rain.

Today's game is a good one and I wish it didn't have to end. I look over at Pa. His hair is a halo of white, and his blue eyes are watery in the bright sun. He turns his head and winks, shooting an empty sunflower hull at me, then turns back to watch the last of the players slap hands with each other before they head home. It's okay if I never knew Dizzy Dean or Joe DiMaggio. I have my own set of Golden Oldies. I've seen them play, and imagined the rest.

—EFQ

 

CATHY BROWN, having lived her life surrounded by real athletes, appreciates them as any real fan would. She currently makes her home in Longmont, Colorado.

© 2005 Cathy Brown

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