Photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

April. And No Baseball

I was thinking this 0-Dark-Thirty about baseball. And the lack thereof. This time, the season is stopped before it starts. I thought about the strike-shortened year. Remember that one? Ken Griffey Junior was on a torrid pace to break Roger Maris’ home run record. Pretty much everyone in the Northwest was carried along by the excitement. Seattle was suddenly a baseball town, with a miraculous, second-generation star patrolling center field. The Mariners at some point even signed his father, a formidable member of the former Big Red Machine. That season they launched back-to-back father-and-son homers!

I was in Baltimore the night before they stopped playing. A clerk in the gift shop, recognizing a pilgrim, happily led me out into Camden Yards to see the plaque, high on a brick wall of what had been a warehouse. The plaque marked the spot a ball off Junior’ bat had smacked. A looong way from home plate. It had been years since I watched a Baltimore home game — in old Memorial Stadium. The day I saw Brooks Robinson and Boog Powell put balls out of the park. I happily settled into the stands as thunderheads boiled off the Chesapeake, occluding the stars. They were determined to get the game in before the storm hit and the strike began.

Like many other best-laid plans — and Junior’s quest for more than 61 home runs — it was not to be. The players were walking out after tonight’s games. Thunder rolled. Lightning flashed, so bright it eclipsed stadium lights. Which flickered nervously. And then the deluge came. Game called — not a rain delay, just…over. Fans were urged to leave the exposed stands quickly as the storm worsened. Balmereans loved their baseball and hated the strike, and grumbled as we left in the downpour.

Balmerean humor, repeated during the exodus: Ain’t that just the way? Last game of the season CALLED on account of rain? Rain checks? For WHAT, I wonder?

I couldn’t get any wetter; I walked up the hill to my hotel. Along some of what might be called mean streets. But old experience as a newspaperman on the police beat taught me hooligans stay home in a cloudburst. An old docket-cage sergeant told me they were as averse to getting rained on as cats. Maybe that’s were cat burglars got their name…cop humor. Don’t know about burglars, but the streets were swept of muggers. Maybe they didn’t want to deal with tough,hard-working, very annoyed baseball fans who might welcome a target for their ire.

Now this: April without baseball. Some wag said when Waffle House closed in response to the pandemic it was the end of the world as we know it. Perhaps, in states where there were Waffle Houses. None hereabouts, and I miss them bad as I missed Krispy Kremes before they finally set up Washington State outposts. But baseball? April without the National Pastime? That seems pretty Gotterdammerung to me.

I offer here a little story about baseball in another venue, and in the fall:

the famous milk-bottle carnival scam where suckers try to knock a pyramid of bottles off a stool to win prizes. Never happen. Until…

Fastball

Photo by Justin Bashore on Unsplash

Today on the midway at the Puyallup State Fair, I observed one of those perfect moments.

A young man confronted one of the oldest games, the pyramid of milk bottles you try to knock over with a baseball. You have to knock them clear off the stand or no prize. You get three tries for fifty cents. Few succeed. When I was very young, my carny relatives bred cynicism deep when they told me every game was rigged.

The young man held all three baseballs, selected one to throw and stepped back. “You’re handicapping yourself,” the barker said. “You can stand right against the rail.”

The young man smiled, took a half-step toward the rail and unleashed the ball. It utterly demolished the stack of bottles, scattered them everywhere. The barker hauled down the giant stuffed animals with poor grace. “Give you two more prizes if you can do that again,” he grunted, tugging on the rack holding the gaudy plush bears and giraffes and what not.

The young man demolished the second stack. The two girls he was with laughed with delight and filled their arms with giant fuzzy animals.

“That all those things you want?” the young man said quietly.

They were giggling now. “We can’t carry any more!” said the one holding two of the prizes. They were half as big as she was.

“C’mon, double or nothing,” urged the barker.

I knew the young man was not a shill because I had been a shill myself once upon a time (“if this little kid can do it, surely you can!”) and because there was no assemblage of onlookers to encourage. I was buying coffee across the sawdust, and other than the participants I was the only one who even noticed.

You don’t see many fastballs like that outside a major-league ballpark. The young man smiled again at the barker, tossed the third of his baseballs back on the table, slipped back into his jacket and walked away with the girls. The barker frowned after them.

One of those small, perfect moments.

(From Shadow of a Soldier: Army Tales From An Unpublished Diary & Other Orphan Stories.)

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