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April 1, 2008: Being There

This is going to be a kind of personal piece today, about life and baseball. Or perhaps about baseball and life.

I cried a lot yesterday. There are a lot of reasons why, and they all come back to baseball.

I drove to New York City Sunday night, had a lovely dinner with my good friend Lori in the Bronx, who shares the same birthday with me. We have a tradition of going to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium together, since the home opener often falls on or next to our birthday, and then having dinner at a steakhouse in Yonkers that we like (and that gives birthday discounts).

I thought I was going to miss the opener for sure last year, since I had a trip to China and Japan planned for early April, but as it turned out I was able to go to the game, then head home and leave pretty much the next day for the Far East. This year would have been my ninth Opening Day in a row.

And of course, as the media has trumpeted repeatedly, the last home opener ever in The Old Ballpark.

I wanted to be there. Sure, it’s just a game. Sure, I’ll have plenty more chances to attend games this season. I’ll very likely be there for the last game of the season. So you’d think it wouldn’t have been such a Big Deal that yesterday’s game was rained out, postponed to tonight, and that I decided to drive back home instead of trying to stay another day.

But it wasn’t until I was partway home that the tears hit. That the disappointment came on me like a wave.

I’ve often said one of the most amazing things about baseball is how it can reduce a mature adult to being ten years old again. I didn’t quite feel the disappointment as keenly as I would have at ten. But the more I thought about it on the way home, the more I realized I wasn’t just upset over one game or one rainy day.

The two-hundred mile drive back to my house from the Stadium is never longer than after a loss, and I associate it with nights like the time my friend Rich and I drove down to see Game 2 of the ALDS in 2001, with our hearts still raw from 9/11 and the game felt like attending a wake. Coming home after various other playoff losses, too. That drive is joyous and wonderful after clinching–one can get WFAN late at night through over half of Connecticut and there was one night after they clinched a round we did the drive and listened to happy fans calling in until well past New Haven. We also listened as long as we could the last night of Joe Torre’s tenure, too, the night Suzyn Waldman cried from the clubhouse while trying to report on the radio about how all of Joe Torre’s coaches were in tears.

Yes, there’s crying in baseball. Because people care. Because it’s a huge thing in the fabric of our lives, as huge as the things we associate it with, like family, and religion, and triumph and defeat.

They’re going to tear down my stadium! MY stadium, I say, like it belongs to me. I’ve been resigned to the destruction of the place since an Old Timer’s Day in 2002. I was sitting in the stands before the game, just looking around, and the realization hit me then that even if they did tear it down and rebuild on the same spot–it would never be the same. At the time we didn’t know what the plans for a new building were going to be. But preservation was pretty much out of the question.

As a historian, I hate to see real, actual things disappear from the world. The reason some of the things one sees in Cooperstown at the Hall of Fame are so striking is because these are the actual objects that were involved in the history. It’s one thing to know the story of how Jack Chesbro’s one wild pitch at the worst possible time cost the Yankees the pennant, handing it to the Red Sox in 1904. It’s another thing entirely to see the actual ball that got away sitting there behind Plexiglas.

I talked to Reggie Jackson this spring about the Stadium. And here’s what he had to say. “I don’t think I am as caught up yet, because I’m not there now. When the end comes, I’ll probably get teary-eyed.”

He went on to explain all the good and valid reasons why we’re going to enjoy the new stadium. And I have no doubt that I will. I believe that the fans that will cheer and root and pour their hearts out there are what will give that new building life, and the feats that the team that plays there accomplishes are what will make it precious to us eventually. I have no doubt about that.

But he went on to say, “I’m just not that sentimental yet. Maybe when it gets closer. I really wouldn’t want to be around to see them tear it down.”

No, I don’t think I could stand that. At the time I was nodding my head right along with him, excited about the new stadium, and the new season, too. It was a spring full of optimism in Yankee camp, after all. But he was right, I think, about not feeling as sentimental because he wasn’t there. I think Reggie will be feeling it as much as I am when the end actually comes.

“[The new one] won’t have its history,” he said. “And I don’t think you’ll lose the history. It’s just like I don’t play anymore, and I’m nothing in baseball except an old name, but I have my memories. They’re always with me. So if you wouldn’t let me in the ballpark, or you took my uniform away from me, I would be sad, but you wouldn’t take my memories away. I don’t think I’m explaining it well. But the memories that I have in my mind and in my head, whether it’s old cars or old homes or things like that, things change, things get better, and so I try to understand what they’re doing. You know, I remember when Mickey Mantle walked in front of me in Yankee Stadium and I looked down at his shoes, and he had the tongue turned over and it said number 7. Players don’t even have tongues on their shoes now. They’re not marked the way they were before, you know. And the 407 foot sign in right center, the 344 in right center… those are all numbers for me that I’ll always remember, forever. The field was sloped, it was sloped down toward left field. The old fence, the low fence was a Cyclone fence like that (points). The new fence hasn’t taken away my memory of the old one. So it’s not going to be gone for me. I was lucky to see it. And to have lived in it for a while. I’m not sad about it.”

He’s right, in that nothing will take our memories away. But I can’t deny that real things have power. Artifacts have power.

And for all my rationalization about how great the new place is going to be, that doesn’t negate the hurt that the ten-year-old in me feels about losing the old place.

When I was ten years old, my family moved from one place to another. We’d left New York City a few years before, and this was a move from one New Jersey suburb to another. I had a terrible time adjusting to my new school. I regularly came home crying and miserable.

Is that some of what I’m feeling, when I look at this move? I fixated a little on our old house. But it wasn’t the house itself that I missed–it was my old life, my old friends. But the house seems like such a tangible thing.

The House That Ruth Built. The outraged ten-year-old in me cannot believe they’re going to tear it down.

Meanwhile, I may as well take this opportunity to announce that I’m retiring from the playing field. I’m forty. The Slaterettes are happy to have me so long as I can haul my ass down to Pawtucket to get in uniform. But it’s not fun in the late season when the light gets real dim and you know the ball’s coming because you saw the pitcher wind up, but it seems to disappear into the sepia-tone of the world.

I actually had a decent season last season. My team was fun and my bad knees even held up pretty well. But I don’t think I’m ever hitting .400 again, and I don’t ever want to feel like I’m the 15th player on the 15-woman roster.

Of course, then comes the question… if you quit playing, what are you going to do with yourself?

I don’t know. I’m going to miss it terribly. I don’t want to find some 40+ softball league near my house that plays on a well-lit field and allows courtesy runners. Just so I can smell the dirt and touch the grass?

I’ve thought about learning to umpire. But, I don’t know. Maybe someday.

The truth of the matter is that baseball isn’t fun when you miss your pitch all the time. I played my last season at forty years old and that seems like a good time to call it quits. Playing more years won’t make up for the fact that I wish I had started much younger and that the opportunity to play didn’t come along until I was in my thirties.

corwin says he won’t believe I’m really retired until I actually sit out the season, though. He’s right. There’s always a possibility that I won’t be able to stand it and I’ll show up on when Slaterettes season opens with a bat and glove. But as of right now, no. The hill is getting too steep to climb. Which is a depressing prospect, but there you have it. Maybe I’ll have to look into vintage baseball…

The next logical step for me, actually, is starting a women’s and girls league in Cambridge, MA. But honestly right now I don’t have the time. Perhaps that is something for some years down the road, too.

Meanwhile, in this year, it’s been a very long winter. And they’ve been teasing us with the start of “baseball season” with several false starts, too. The Red Sox played an opening series in Japan over a week ago. The Nationals opened their new ballpark a night earlier than everyone else because… I’m not sure why. I guess because ESPN wanted them to. And yesterday, things were supposed to finally be underway.

But they weren’t. It rained. And then it rained some more. And I drove 200 miles in the rain to get home after the game was called, crying. I’m definitely depressed and I should be old enough by now to recognize the symptoms. But the best treatment I’ve found is baseball itself, so go figure.

Meanwhile, tonight, they will play the first home opener at Yankee Stadium that I have not been at in almost a decade, and the fact that it will be the last home opener in the building really does make a difference. Because as a historian and as a fan, I know that Being There is a meaningful thing. Real events happen in real places and are witnessed by real people. “Reality TV” is such an oxymoron. The compelling thing about sports on TV or radio is that they are live, the next best thing to being there, but nothing beats being there.

Now that my retirement is upon me, it is starting to sink in how significant being on the field really was. This thing happens when you play, I think, where your mind focuses so much on the game and on the mindset necessary to play, that you forget a lot of the other stuff around the game. Playing itself, the act of playing, fielding, baserunning, keeping your head in the game, and so on is so all-absorbing at the time it is going on that you develop a mindset for playing that is quite different from the one you have as a spectator, or fan, or historian.

This is why I was surprised today when I finally started going through the stack of baseball books that have accumulated on my desk over the past 12 months and discovered my name so prominently featured in one of them. I’ve gotten a lot of good books. Some I bought, some were sent to me by publishers or authors hoping for a review, others I got as gifts. I’ve been meaning to read them all, but I haven’t had time.

One of the largest in the stack is the “Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball,” edited by Leslie Heaphy Mel May. Leslie gave me a copy of the book at last summer’s SABR convention in St. Louis. I’ve been a member of the women and baseball committee of SABR for a couple of years now, and we’ve corresponded a lot in email about it. I recalled sending her some photos of the New England Women’s Baseball League and such.

I didn’t realize, though, what a lynchpin in the system I apparently was, as a bridge between the historians and the current players. But I am the very first person thanked in the Acknowledgments. “There are many individuals who deserve special thanks for their help in gathering materials, starting with Cecilia Tan,” it says, “who is herself a player. Cecilia provided information not only about her own experienced but also about the 24-hour benefit game in Arizona. Most importantly, she provided contacts with a couple of hundred other ball players.”

Yeah, I guess I did! It was only then that it occurred to me that… holy crap… am I actually IN this encyclopedia? Yes. There I am on page 282. 162 words encapsulating my sporting and athletic achievements.

In other words, I was there.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like much. What did I do really, but drive around like a nut searching for the right out of the way ballfield in Lynn where the North Shore Cougars were due to take on the Lowell Robins? But put on cleats and tear up the grass two nights a week in Slater Park in Pawtucket, RI? Maybe I’m the Joe Garagiola of the women’s leagues. I was never the best player, but I’ve told the most stories about it.

I can tell the stories differently because I was there. You can look it up.

And so, yes. It would have mattered to be there for this home opener. But I’m not going to be there. I will pin my hopes instead on being there for Game Seven of the World Series, which would be the only truly fitting occasion to say goodbye to the old ballpark with. We’ll see if it happens. A lot depends on the weather, and the Yankees, and things beyond my control.

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