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MY TURN AT BAT

Chatter
By Deborah Linder

My mother holds an ice cream cup in her hand and waves the flat wooden spoon in the direction of the field. "Look," she tells me, but we both know she's not talking about the batter at the plate. "Three strikes and you're out," she says, as if to remind me. As if I didn't know.

Our home team, the Big Red Machine, is in a season opener contest against one of its National League rivals. It's early afternoon, a time when I should be safely ensconced in junior high. This is not a problem, however: a slipped note to the principal's secretary, the same note that is sent in every Opening Day, takes care of it. "Please excuse my daughter from school today at noon," the note reads in my mother's wild handwriting. "She has an important appointment." And just like that I've been sprung from the drudgery of algebra and phys ed. My mother and I don't always make it down to the stadium for the "important appointment," though; some years we sit in our living room and watch the game on television.

Three strikes and you're out. It would be easier if we were talking pitch count, or the unlikely possibility of a Ken Griffey whiff. But we're not, of course; we're talking divorce.

The subject of my mother's marriage came up around the third inning, although it's been on our minds for a long, long time. My stepfather is a brute, violent and malicious, and too fond of cocktail-hour temper tantrums and sickening, reckless rides on the boat he keeps on the Ohio River. I want my mother to leave him, and I believe she wants to leave him, too, but she is afraid. Not just of him, but of her future.

"That would still only be two strikes," I tell her and try to keep my voice level. Two divorces. "And who's keeping score, anyway?" I am anxious to say the right thing this time, to discover the elusive combination of syllables that will propel her—propel us—out of this horrendous situation. I am barely a teenager, yet today I am trying out for the role of team manager. "Besides, you wouldn't even have to get married again," I implore her. "You could stop at two." Step out of the box, I want to say, stop chasing pitches.

We still do not look at one another, only at the game that is being played down below. The Reds get a base hit. Runners advance. My mother and I cheer, finish our ice creams, tuck our cups under our seats. The conversation will continue throughout the game, and yet this is where it will stay. Here, at the baseball stadium, where all important discussions take place.

 

Who knows how this conversational pattern developed? It might have begun years earlier, when the Reds still played at Crosley Field, a time when my mother—a pretty young divorcee with a small daughter—began to introduce me to prospective daddies. The men would ply me with felt pennants, baseball caps, and cotton candy and pledge to catch a foul ball—often the first of their unfulfilled promises.

And afterwards, my mother would ask me what I'd thought.

 

My best friend Jenny and I attend Reds games on the free "Straight A Student" tickets offered by the newspaper and the ball club. Our first forays into unsupervised adulthood, we board the stadium bus at the local shopping mall and wait for our parents to leave the parking lot. Then we tie our shirttails into knots at our waists and slather on lip-gloss. Although both Jenny and I can recite stats on any player on the roster and speak authoritatively about the last outing of our favorite pitchers, on these nights, we watch little of the actual games. We spend more time circling the concession stands, brushing our hair in the bathroom, flirting with the other students—or sometimes the grown men—who sit nearby. Occasionally, I am ashamed to realize that we are less interested in the action on the field than in the developments in the stands. Somehow I am no longer just a teenage girl with a Johnny Bench poster above her bed; I am careening along a path toward something unknown.

By the sixth inning, we are exhausted. It is not easy trying to become the kind of girls we imagine boys desire. Plopping down into our upper deck seats, we sip our Cokes and stare down at the Astroturf.

A base on balls. Home run. Triple to left. Suddenly, things don't look promising for our guys.

And yet, for the first time tonight Jenny and I relax. This is a game we understand. It has a particular logic, a sequence of play, rules. No matter the outcome, we'll be able to explain what happened. And what's more, the motivation of these eighteen uniformed men—unlike the males we're acquainted with—seems perfectly clear.

Please, please, please, I whisper to Jenny and she nods. It doesn't matter that she thinks I'm praying for a pitching change or for the man at the plate to ground out. We still have three innings to watch: that's plenty of time for us—and the players down below—to get it right.

 

My stepfather did not attend baseball games with us. He'd head down to the river while my mother and I marked time at Riverfront Stadium. He claimed the game was slow, and after a while, I didn't even bother to argue with him. "There is nothing slow about a ninety-six miles per hour fastball," I could have said, but didn't. There were too many times when he was teetering toward one of his moods, when I could only watch my mother fix him a drink and massage his neck with her manicured hands. I knew to go to my room then and to shut the door, to listen to the game with the radio turned down low.

Finally, I was learning to read the signs.

 

Some years later, I take a French exchange student to a baseball game. He's eager to learn American—both the language and the culture—and where better to instruct him? This is, after all, America's Game. Yet the lingo and the activities on the field prove more difficult than I had anticipated. How to explain a fielder's choice, an intentional walk, a brushback pitch? Some things seem to have no translation.

Innings pass. The French student is still baffled by what is taking place on the field although he declares an affinity for Cracker Jacks. He is fascinated by the "wave," and laughs aloud at the cartoon antics on the scoreboard. "So many fat people," the student whispers, and I can do nothing but feel apologetic for the girth of my fellow citizens. By the seventh inning he is clearly bored and even the spectacle of forty thousand Americans singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" does not capture his attention. Perhaps the cultural gap is too great.

Just as I'm prepared to suggest we leave, he confides that he's very happy to be here. "Here?" I ask, surprised. "At the stadium?"

"No, no," he corrects, and then smiles apologetically. "Here—in America."

Yet, as we are driving home, the young Frenchman looks worried. "But what about the wiener?" he asks.

I'm confused. The wiener? The hot dog he ate in the fourth inning? What more is there to say?

"Who was the wiener?" he asks despairingly, and then I begin to laugh. "Our team won," I tell him. "They beat the Braves three to two."

 

When I was younger, my mother and I made many plans: We'd travel down to Florida for spring training and get lots of player autographs. We'd take a road trip, just the two of us, and sample other ballparks. And the next time the Reds were in the World Series, we both vowed, we'd get to one of the away games, too. But the truth is, the only baseball games we attended were in Cincinnati. I think my mother liked the idea of travel, but it occurs to me that she was never really one for taking the trip.

Spending an Easter at the ballpark offers an opportunity for a special kind of religious experience. Today the Dodgers are battling the Padres and I am feeling the love. I love the neighborly radio voice of Vin Scully that drifts through the stands and the giant palm trees that sway beyond the outfield. I love the smell of the sizzling grilled Dodger Dogs and consider myself in love with just about half the guys on the team, including the capable Mike Scioscia, the crazy Fernando Valenzuela, and the jolly skipper Tommy Lasorda.

I'm also developing a rapid attraction to the man sitting next to me, a man who will eventually become my husband. He's crazy about baseball, too, and on this fine April day, early in our relationship, we talk about earned run averages and on-base percentages and memorable postseasons. By the sixth inning, we've moved on to discussing past relationships. These, of course, are reluctant confessions—necessary yet uncomfortable—as we navigate a path toward intimacy. I focus my gaze downward and allow myself to feel soothed by the precise geometry of the playing field, the hypnotic crisscross of the lines of cut grass. From this distance, with my blurred eyes, the players resemble plastic toy figures on a felt green board.

We will come to this stadium in Chavez Ravine often. Our conversations will shift from those early explorations of each other to wedding plans and later, to anxieties about impending parenthood. One hot night in August, several years later, I waddle through the fray of Dodger fans that arrive late and leave early. My due date is three days away. I can barely squeeze past the other fans in our row to get to my seat. Once there, I remain, beached, until an eighth-inning rally forces me onto my swollen feet.

Two weeks later we're back, the weight having shifted from my belly to the bundle now in my arms. Our newborn son wears a baggy Dodger jersey. "His first game," we announce to anyone who dares to glance our way. The baby is unimpressed by the spectacle of the Dodgers beating the Mets and decides to wail, instead.

We rock him to sleep by murmuring the play-by-play in low voices, early imprinting into the wonder of this new world.

 

Over the years I learned to let go of my passion for my hometown team and adopted a pragmatic, polyamorous, "love the one you're with" approach. The Twins, Dodgers, Cardinals, Cubs, White Sox, Orioles, Phillies. I was moving around the country frequently. After the first time or so, the team allegiance loosened and affections became easier to shift. Everyone knows that long distance relationships are notoriously hard to sustain.

My mother did not leave her husband. Perhaps she believed that it was too late to make a trade. Eventually we stopped attending baseball games together. I no longer know if this was an attempt to curtail our discussions—or a simple divergence of interests. Eventually I even stopped going home.

It's been a long time now since I've seen the Reds play in Cincinnati. There's a new stadium downtown and the name Ken Griffey, albeit Junior, still appears on the Reds' roster.

 

My husband and I take our children to San Francisco for a vacation. There is a whole city to explore, to roam and wander, and yet we are stationary, fixed here in our seats. The water view from the stadium entrances us, as does the spectacle of Barry Bonds' forearms. There is good beer at the concession stands, the June sun is burning off the wet haze, and the Giants take an early lead.

Our younger son is content to accept money and go in search of garlic fries. He is disdainful when we ask if he needs us to accompany him. "It's a baseball stadium," he tells us witheringly and waves his ticket stub. He is as comfortable here as at a neighborhood playground.

In addition to the logic of seat and aisle numeration, we like to think that baseball has helped to teach these boys many good lessons: the importance of mixing your pitches and of blocking the plate. That it takes twenty-seven outs to win and the same number to lose. That bonehead plays happen, even to the best players. And most importantly: that it's always better to go down swinging than to be called out on strikes.

Bonds hits a long fly and the crowd groans as it curves foul.

The older boy hunches forward now, elbows on his knees. "It's going to be a big change," he says unexpectedly, and I know he's referring to the new high school he'll attend in the fall. "A whole new ballgame," he offers, passing me the bag of peanuts. I nod, waiting. This is the first time he's brought up the subject and I'm glad that he finally seems ready to talk. I'm ready, too.

At that moment a question flashes up on the scoreboard. "Can you imagine anywhere else you'd rather be right now?"

It's just propaganda, I tell myself, although the brightly lit words have filled me with an odd sense of delight.

"There's going to be a lot of kids I don't know," my son says, and there's a faint note of anxiety in his voice. "But it'll probably be okay." He pauses. "Right?"

"It'll be a big adjustment," I say. "But I think it'll be fine." We cheer as a fan snags a foul. "I think you'll be fine."

"Yeah," he says. But it's clear we're not done talking.

I glance back up at the scoreboard but by now the words have disappeared. It doesn't matter. The question—and its answer—is something I know by heart. As long as conversations need to take place, as long as there's still plenty for us to say, then no, of course not—there's nowhere in the world I'd rather be.

—EFQ

DEBORAH LINDER teaches writing and literature in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a town whose nearest major league ballpark is 77.35 miles away. She consoles herself by writing fiction and creative nonfiction and continuing to root for the Cincinnati Reds (whose ballpark happens to be 507.12 miles from her home).

© 2006 Deborah Linder

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