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July 7 2001: Sky’s The Limit

There are any number of pleasures unique to summer for those of us in the northeast–fresh corn bought from a roadside stand and eaten uncooked, sweet and messy in the car, searching for shells on an Atlantic beach with bubbly seawater seeping warm through our toes, nighttime concerts in the public square, block parties, yard sales, picnics–the list goes on and on.

So why did it take me until my mid-thirties to discover one of the finest pleasures of summer? Green grass under my feet, the sky pinwheeling from periwinkle to peach to fuschia to indigo as the sun sets, I’m on a baseball field.

I, and many scribes before me, have written of the sublime experience of spectation at a night baseball game. Thomas Boswell put it best, perhaps, in a piece about the lighting of Wrigley when he noted that “As the day dies, night and baseball seem to arrive together in tandem. No other American sport uses the changing sky so effectively as a visual overture.” But let me assure you, if it seems a wonderful time from the sidelines, it is even moreso between the white lines.

Some nights I go to practice with the teams of the New England Women’s Baseball League. Other nights a small gaggle of baseball-fevered friends and I get together to throw the ball and swing the bats. These experiences have put me on sandlot fields, in public parks, on schoolyard diamonds, all around the Boston metro area as we sometimes must search for an empty field–because we’re not the only ones who have developed a taste for this summer delicacy. The other night we settled for an unused soccer field without lights, as we sojourned from field to field like beachgoers trying to find a patch of sand for our blanket.

On the soccer field we set up a traveling backstop, courtesy of “Radioactive” Rich Macchi, a catcher with the Newton Giants (in the Boston area park league for men 30 and over) and the undisputed King of Equipment among us. The softball field by the parking lot was in use by two teams in uniforms, the Little League field with its two hundred foot fence was claimed by two motley groups of kids and teenagers, many of whom were far too large for the undersized field. We had an hour of light in the sky and we made use of it, playing catch, taking batting practice, and fielding fungoes.

Out in the field I could hear the shouts and cheers from the nearby fields, smell the recently mown grass, feel the breeze blowing away the heat and haze and worries of the day.

Who knew that shagging flies could be such a tonic? The week before I had been standing in right field as the North Shore Cougars (NEWBL) took batting practice. The nearest person to me was at first base, far too far for conversation. My cell phone was somewhere in a bag along the third base fence, too far to hear. The sun set beyond left field as the moon rose over the aptly-named Mystic River. A bird in a tree along the river, not thirty yards from me, found the moon sufficiently bright to keep singing. I never caught sight of it, but the feathery fellow kept up an operatic recitative throughout the evening.

Most of the Cougars are right-handed pull hitters, so the closest chance I had was on a foul ball that went into the weeds and almost into the Mystic. The rest of the time I was happily entranced, watching the distant pas de deux between batter and pitcher, interest sharpening for the moment when the pitcher would come set, then relaxing when the batter would swing and the ball would go foul, to the catcher, or to some other fielder’s mitt. My life is full of stresses: debt, career decisions, overwork, health complications, a basement that floods… all imminently forgettable when the grass is dewy and a dirt-tanned ball is rolling across it toward me.

I should invent a name for my gang of overeducated Generation X-ers who love baseball. I don’t know why, but we were each bitten by the baseball bug separately in recent years. We’re thirty-somethings, a couple of Ivy League diplomas and grad school degrees spread among us, variously employed in and around the tech industries. We love/hate the Red Sox, the Yankees, the Mets, so no major league team will inspire a name to satisfy all (although we all secretly love the Cubs). We’re a little bit Bad News Bears, with wide variation in our athletic abilities and backgrounds, but I see us more like the cast of a 1980s John Hughes movie. Would that make us The Baseball Club? Sixteen Cardinals? Pretty In Cleats? Of course, no shortage of puns present themselves. Diamonds in the Rough? Seams Like A Dream? I’ll stop before it gets ribald.

I suppose that gives me something to meditate on the next time I am standing in that wonderfully insulating bubble of the field, my mind clear of burdens, waiting for the stars to appear.

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