Everything counts in baseball

by Josh Linehan

It could be any town near the middle of the nation, but this one is yours. There is but one rule: You have to be quiet during this part, as we come out of the trees and approach the metal fence near centerfield.

Coming out of the blackness in the pines, you gape at the same colors blasted emerald by the lights until they meet the burnt orange of the infield, like someone painted a green sunset on the ground.

You don’t have to be quiet just out of reverence, but also so you can hear. Listen carefully and you can make out the hum of the enormous lights and the buzz of insects as they climb up the stanchions toward them. Far away you can hear the scrape of plastic cleats on dirt and the murmur of the mindless infield chatter, the half-hearted interjections of “Whaddaya say one-two?” and “That ain’t you,” and every so often, with a runner on, the whole thing coalesces into a brief, rising yell of “Goin!” as a would-be thief takes off into the night.

They sell beer from the concession stand now, so there’s no need to stand out in centerfield, peering out over the low part of the fence with a six-pack beading at your feet. Do it anyway. The game starts at seven, but no one will mind if you don’t show up until after eight, when the sun and starting pitchers begin to fade and the blanket of night and the beer begin to lift the yoke of the day’s heat.

Admire the meticulous field, groomed much more carefully than any of the players – or the fans, for that matter. You’ve been coming to these games for years, so it won’t surprise you when, after the game, the hometown boys amble from their dugout with three-day stubble and untucked shirts and tend the field, dragging and watering the infield if there hasn’t been rain and rechalking the lines for whomever will use it next. This is natural.

Stand and watch. The hometown team should win, but it doesn’t matter. You’ll end up meeting the players you graduated with at the same bar afterward regardless of the score. Listen for the ping of aluminum on fake horsehide and squint your eyes to see if the visiting pitcher’s curve is starting to flatten out a little bit in the later stanzas. It happens to the best of them.

The game will be notable for what you don’t see, and for the words you cannot hear over the infield rabble and the giggles of the girls sitting alone up the third base line and the taunts of “Two hands while you’re learnin’!” aimed at the outfielder who misjudged a lazy fly.

You won’t hear of steroids, nor will any of the players seem any larger than a man can get from working road construction. Collective bargaining will be the furthest thing from your mind. And, yes, they’ll play until there’s a winner, though you get the feeling no one minds much, so long as they get their hacks at the plate – and at their buddies if they dribble spit on themselves or overdo their eyeblack.

Those terms turned up a lot everywhere else this summer, plucked from the headline ether and jammed into a single graph in editorials and pundits pages to – in some alternate universe – summarize the current state of baseball. They mash together in an angry black jumble, run up the flag pole to show the precarious position of the game once considered America’s pastime. Most annoying is when they call Major League Baseball “the game.”

“Can the game survive a strike?” they wonder aloud.

“Is the game being tainted by steroids?” The thought is almost too much to bear.

Whither the game, they cry from myopic corners and tall buildings. Surely, on the heels of a work stoppage in 1994, another strike would have sounded the death knell for baseball.

But in baseball you count everything. It is a simple truth. A swinging bunt for a single counts as much as a rope into center. If one wants to take the measure of baseball, shouldn’t all the bartenders and real estate agents who suit up and play men’s amateur count as much as the over-amped tycoons and blundering owners who talk about a game but flash the steely eyes of bottom-line businessmen?

On the field, the hometown nine, clad in red shirts with blue lettering and red candy-striped pants are beginning to have their way with the visitors.

Their catcher, a young man who almost certainly stepped out of the womb and clipped a line drive up the middle, has just ripped a laser into the gap in right center and it rattles the fence in front of you. Back in the infield his oldest brother, who began on first, is chugging around third and heading for home. He made all-conference in college – three children and 35 pounds ago – but his bearing around the bag suggests that tonight, if just on this play, his mind can close the gap.

The visiting second baseman, in his road grays, is whirling on the outfield fringe – crow hopping and catching and grabbing seams and turning and eyeing the runner and gunning – all in one motion. The fans up both lines are standing and even the men in mesh-backed seed hats directly behind the plate are leaning forward.

Behind the plate, the cleanup hitter, a big lefty who also happens to be the editor of the town newspaper, drops the weighted bat he’s been swinging and crouches, his arms flying out and down like some kind of enormous bird.

The catcher pounds his mitt once as his mask does a little half spin in the dust and he crouches, one leg already draped in front of the plate. The shortstop remembers to fake a tag at second as if he cut off the ball and both runners slide. Dust flies in every direction, rising in translucent clouds that float by the infield lights like wispy trails of smoke and then vanish.

You drain your beer and manage a smile. This winter there will be more talk of stadium and taxes and levies and other nonsense. Sure, it would be nice to watch a game in an outdoor stadium. Sure, it would have been nice if the Twins could have beaten the Angels. But it doesn’t matter. Today, there is no joy in Mudville, but that won’t last long. They’ll get ’em next year.

The game abides.

Josh Linehan is a University senior and Daily reporter. He welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected]