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THE STATE OF THE GAME

Two Decades, Two Games, One Life
By Walt Lindberg

Baseball fans often talk about their first game as if it were a truly magical experience. The setting is one of the game's great sanctuaries—Wrigley, Fenway, Ebbets, Forbes—and the event of epic proportions: Mazeroski's homerun, a Nolan Ryan no-hitter. Not so with yours truly. My first big league game came on a summer evening in 1987 at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. The Twins were in town, and we had cheap seats in the left field bleachers. We were celebrating my big brother's birthday. I was six years old.

Twenty years later, on a summer evening in 2007, my brother and I took in another Orioles-Twins contest. It wasn't his birthday, and our seats cost quite a bit more, but such is life.
I had moved to the greater Baltimore area about a year earlier, and we were finally able to catch a game together. After many glances at the schedule, conferences with the wives, and a false start or two, we convened outside the Eutaw Street ticket window about an hour before game time. Just enough time to get dinner from Boog Powell's BBQ and watch the end of the visiting team's batting practice.

Baseball is a part of my family. It is involved in every family reunion, every holiday, every conversation with Dad; I cannot escape it. My family's torrid affair with baseball goes back generations: Great-grandpa was a Browns fan, stating with definitive authority that George Sisler was the greatest first baseman ever (a fact that would irrevocably shape my family culture). Grandpa, who grew up in rural Pennsylvania, rooted for Philadelphia's great slugger, Jimmie Foxx. Something drew my dad, a boyhood resident of the Deep South, to the Dodgers and Duke Snider. Someday my kids may wonder how Ryne Sandberg became their dad's hero, and why Uncle Andrew's favorite was Eric Davis. (They'll also wonder why power hitters were so skinny back then.)

I don't remember much from that first game. I have only faint hints of images that may, at this point, be more imaginary than real. My dad probably kept score while Mom kept me and my brother occupied between innings. With absolute certainty, though, I remember being awed by the enormous glove of Twins left-fielder Dan Gladden. To my six-year-old eyes his glove was the biggest piece of leather in the world. He could catch anything with that glove! I'd never seen a glove that big before; mine barely extended beyond my tiny fingers, and Dad's was old, worn, and cracked with years of church softball and backyard games of catch.

This being Baltimore in the late 1980s, there probably weren't very many fans in attendance, although I recall one spectator a few feet to our right on the wooden bleachers. Even as a six-year-old, I recognized the negative effects too much alcohol could have on the human body, and the stadium police came by halfway through the game to escort him safely away. It's funny what our minds let us remember.

When we were kids, this life of baseball seemed normal. Didn't everyone's dad send birthday cards to old ballplayers? On occasion, Dad even took us with him to visit retired players. As a young lad, I sat in the living rooms of Milt Gaston and Whitey Kurowski. Throughout my life, my father has corresponded with the likes of Andy Pafko and Mickey Vernon—who were two of his favorites—and Tom Oliver, to name a few. None of these things seemed exceptionally out of the ordinary. The visits with old players were a special treat, but just another part of life in my family.

Almost every family vacation involved a ball game. My first game took place during a trip to visit my mom's family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, about ninety minutes from Baltimore. Catching an Orioles game would become an almost yearly event. A trip to Florida one spring balanced a day at Disney World with a stop at Plant City for a Reds vs. Royals spring training game. (My only memory of the game, aside from the oppressive heat, is George Brett spitting out a huge wad of tobacco on his way from the dugout to third base one inning.) We took trips to Chicago, Cleveland, and Atlanta, but we most often ended up in Baltimore.

So here I was again in Charm City, watching the Orioles try to beat those pesky Twins. The O's were in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, and the great Johan Santana was on the mound: things didn't look good for the home team. Fans were still grumbling about the 30–3 loss to Texas earlier in the week.

While we munched on our BBQ sandwiches and watched the final few Minnesota hitters loft easy pitches into the outfield, my brother and I talked. The conversation ranged all over the field: our jobs, our marriages, his kids, our churches, music, who we wanted to see in the World Series, and, of course, the inevitable pounding the Orioles would receive at the hands of the Twins.

I'm sure our conversation differed twenty years ago. Our careers and marriages obviously weren't in the picture (girls were just better-smelling kids who couldn't throw), and we hadn't yet acquired the vocabulary needed for a really interesting theological discussion. What we had, though, was the wide-eyed excitement of kids at a baseball game. Dad probably did most of the talking, pointing out the scoreboard, the last-minute actions of the grounds crew, the mysterious activity in the dugout. This narration is still part of his pre-game ritual. As he sits, making the final preparatory touches to his scorecard, Dad's resonant baritone cuts through the crowd. "I wonder what we'll see today, boys . . . anything can happen, you know."

After a couple of decades and countless games, the pregame excitement has worn off a little. We were able to calmly take in our surroundings, casually checking the out-of-town scoreboard and marking the progress of the batter's box chalk crew. Everything was unfolding as expected. There were ceremonial first pitches, the announcement of the lineups and the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, just as there had been in every baseball game before this one. We watched an uneventful top half of the first inning, the crowd still settling in around us.

Then, just as Dad would have warned, the unexpected happened. Two quick home runs in the bottom of the first, and Baltimore was making Santana look human. Was this going to become a slugfest? A blowout? I was worried that Santana would be taken out early, and our chance to see one of the greatest pitchers of his era cut short. Much to my relief, he settled down, and everything stayed status quo until the sixth, when Baltimore tacked on yet another run.

In some ways, I moved away from the game in college. I suppose I had more important things on my mind. Or maybe it was just the natural result of being away from home for the first time. I was reaching out and grabbing new things, meeting people, becoming an adult, and besides, Sandberg had retired and the Cubs were lousy.

As my new adult life developed, though, baseball stayed around. It was too deeply entrenched to go away quietly, and, as always, Dad kept the flame kindled. As I learned more about myself, I began to understand why he enjoys baseball so much. It's not the numbers, it's the relationships. He enjoys baseball because his sons enjoy it, his parents enjoyed it, and his grandparents enjoyed it. The people that played the game have stories to tell, and he loves hearing those stories, connecting them to other stories, and finally, passing those stories on to us. Each game, each play, is a story waiting to happen.


We hung around outside the ballpark after the game back in 1987, hoping to get an autograph or two. After the game last summer, we simply exchanged a firm handshake and a hug, and went our separate ways, each of us to cars parked on opposite sides of the stadium as the postgame fireworks boomed between us. I don't remember who won my first game. The Twins won the most recent contest, coming back in the last three innings to get the win for Santana.

Twenty years separate these two contests. Neither was very remarkable: just another game in Ripken's streak, just another notch in Santana's belt. But somehow, they are remarkable, if only for the perspective they have given me. They are points of reference between which my life can be measured. These two games help me see how I've grown as a fan, as a person, as a part of a family. Herein lies one of the beauties of baseball: it gives us time for reflection.

You never know what's going to happen at the ballpark today. You could witness a perfect game, a triple play, blundering errors, dazzling displays of hitting or fielding, or, as some local fans saw in 2007, the worst defeat since McKinley was in office (and we all know how things ended up for McKinley). You might even see a completely unremarkable game, a game so normal that it forces you to look past the fence and the bleachers and the parking lots, the kind of game that propels you into your past.

—EFQ

 

WALT LINDBERG's wife says that being a Cubs fan is a good quality in a husband: it makes him enduringly loyal and used to disappointment. He teaches elementary band and orchestra in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.

© 2008 Walt Lindberg

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