Official Rules for the Baseball
Simple. Tiring, but simple. These were the rules for my trip to watch games at all 28 major league baseball stadiums within a period of one month.
My older brother once musingly said that all roams lead to road, and that statement as much as anything else I could write captures what it felt like to be out there. In order to complete this trip, I spent four to five times as long in my car as I did at the games themselves.
Yet there were only a couple of moments when I had a sense of being lost, because most of the time it was the road that had taken over my thoughts. One highway always led to another or a third one and that meant you could always get somewhere.
Early on in the planning, I decided that if I was going to spend a full 31 days exhausting myself and simultaneously waste most of my terribly slim life savings, I would squeeze in as much as I could. I didn't actually make it to all the extra places I had mapped out, but I did make it to all the games. Yet, in addition to being there for 7,478 pitches, 254 innings, and 273 runs, I also found myself visiting 10 very odd museums, seven unusual monuments, 56 sites of untimely death, 68 friends and relatives, and 11 places that defy broader classification.
In all, the trip exceeded 15,000 miles--15,275.3 miles to be exact, but I'll never be positive about the 0.3 miles so we might as well leave it at 15,275. Besides, I made at least 0.3 miles in illegal U-turns and anyway, that's what's printed on my car rental receipt:
After many Sundays of deciphering the blurred print, I became fascinated with the team abbreviations next to the player's names--CIN, BOS, WAS, and both CHIs. It was even possible to play games with them. As I ran my finger down the column, I looked for weird combinations or funny strings. The best in the American League was MIN-NY-WAS-CHI-NY-CAL- WAS-BOS (translation: Minny was shiny, Cal was boss), while the National had the ultracool PHI-LA-CHI-LA-PIT- STL-PIT (translation: Philly chilly, Pitt still Pitt).
In time, I began to wonder what it would be like to sit next to the Green Monster at Fenway (BOS), or over the ivy walls at Wrigley (CHI), or even to buy a seat where no home run had ever reached in Pittsburgh (PIT) or Cleveland (CLE) or New York (NY). At 7, I had seen only one major league game (in Tiger Stadium), and already the cities and stadiums and even the lines on the map that connected them meant something to me.
1961 written right side upThat was 1961. Now, with all the miles and innings behind me, the trip seems quite different than I had expected. My 7-year-old brain had made everything seem so easy. There were only 18 teams, and in my baseball daydreams my father always handled the driving. There was never a concern about sellouts, rainouts, and buying tickets early. No problem with traffic jams or breakdowns or flooding rivers in the Midwest. I never thought the trip would take six months of planning and a computer analysis of the teams' schedules to plot out a driving route that was workable and not too exhausting. In 1961, the whole world seemed simple.
1961 written upside down
When I finally sat down to plan the trip, it was 1993, and somewhere between 1961 and August 1993, America had become this strange combination of unbearably funny and unbearably tragic. For example, in Los Angeles, Robert Kennedy was assassinated only a few miles from a museum dedicated entirely to bananas. Over 14,000 banana things! Banana clocks. Banana earrings. Even sequined bananas. 14,000 bananas enshrined in a museum only a few miles from that hotel kitchen where Robert Kennedy lay sprawled, asking for a sip of water before he lost consciousness forever. Two places so different and yet so close to each other that I could see them in one afternoon.
So now, for me, that horribleness is linked to bananas. One thing silly and one thing tragic, but the dots are still strangely connected.
Or go to New York and stand on the same subway grate where Marilyn Monroe's dress billowed (Seven Year Itch) and know that you're just a few blocks from where Dan Rather was mugged ("Kenneth, what is the frequency?") which itself is only a few blocks from a museum that houses one set of George Washington's dentures (closed on Fridays) and finally realize that all three of these spots are only a few miles from where Kitty Genovese screamed for her life as she was chased and beaten and ultimately stabbed to death while 38 people watched or listened behind drawn curtains. ("Help me. He's killing me!")
You see, I felt like I learned something out there-- something inherent in the connections between these places. Not just that good or funny can live so close to bad, but that the connection between them is part of the "American Character." I honestly believe it's what makes Americans different. It's what makes me different.
A Condensed and Non-Chronological Diary
I went to Detroit on the ninth day of the trip. I had been at home in Baltimore the day before visiting Lauren (my life, my love, the center of my universe), my cats, and my mail. So despite the fact that I was looking forward to seeing Tiger Stadium again, I was feeling the sadness of the road more than I had prior to reaching home. Surprisingly, Detroit was great. The fans were fun and playful and sang along with every song that came across the public address system--such an odd sight to see a crowd of predominantly 20-year-olds singing all the words to "Help Me Rhonda," "Elvira," and "The Chicken Dance." They cheered the random dot races and booed loudly when someone in the "expensive seats" won the MCI Fan of the Game contest.
For most of the game, I sat upstairs in the "home run porch," the overhanging upper deck of the bleachers, where an outfielder can settle under a fly ball only to watch as some fan gets a crack at the ball before he does. That night was a game for pitchers, and no ball ever came near me. Still, the "home run porch" was fun. It had a friendliness that I hadn't seen at any of the previous seven games. As a stranger to this group, I felt comfortable and accepted. But as became my habit on this trip, by the middle of the game I began wandering the stadium to see different views and to get a feel for the crowd as the prices of the seats changed.
I couldn't do much roaming in Detroit, though. Tiger Stadium, like a lot of other stadiums, has the unfortunate policy of blocking off the bleacher area. A higher priced ticket can enter or leave at will, but those with $4 stubs have to stay put. My wanderings were restricted to the upper and lower bleachers, the cheap seats. Around the fourth inning, I ventured back through the maze of catwalks to check out the crowd in the lower deck. The contrast to what I had seen was stark. As loud as the fans were upstairs, the crowd was equivalently quiet below them.
What was even more startling was that practically all the people in the lower seats were black. I hadn't noticed it before, but the upper deck was nearly full of those well-scrubbed- smiling-soon-to-go-to-college-and-own the-world white faces. They were what I once was. Downstairs was something I had never been-- careful, quiet, well-mannered, and black. After an inning or two of awkwardness, I went back upstairs and took the same seat I had had before I left. Within a few minutes, I felt the full impact of the irony of this self-imposed segregation.
Shortly after I sat down, a small, black kid, 5 or 6 years old, asked if he could sit next to me for a while because his brother was hitting him. I looked back at his parents and saw that they were involved in the game, so I just nodded.
And really, I'm sure it was okay. In my mind, no question had ever been necessary: there was a row of empty seats beside me. I suppose the boy asked because he was polite and because, at that moment, I was the right group to join--the quiet, smiling, isolated, row-to-yourself group. Somewhere near the end of the game he left.
In the next 10 days I saw 11 games, drove 2,500 miles, and nearly forgot about the little boy in Detroit and the self- imposed segregation in its bleachers. But Denver brought it all back. The drive to Denver was one I had dreaded for months. Due to starting times, the trip had to be all night and virtually non-stop. To help myself stay focused on the road, I picked up Lauren in Chicago and for the next three days, she played the part of noisy passenger.
Despite my exhaustion, the Colorado Rockies game was one I will never forget. The crowd was huge, and the game was probably the most exciting of all 28 (a five-run eighth inning rally by the Rockies to overcome the Phillies). The game itself, however, was not what was memorable.
By the third inning, Lauren and I began to play that exciting game of "Guess the Race of the Batter." Sounds easy enough, but in Denver at Mile-High Stadium, you can do it with your eyes closed. You see, each time a white player came to bat, the sound system carried a few lines of some terribly gritty and relatively wholesome rock tune--by artists like Bruce Springsteen, Guns and Roses, etc. But when a black or Latin American player left the dugout, you heard a line or two of rap or hip hop.
To me the pattern was obvious. Yet, more clear even than that pattern, was how benignly oblivious the 53,000 people sitting around us were.
I remembered Detroit. I thought of the little kid asking for permission to sit next to me, of the old black men and couples in the lower stands. The connection wasn't simply racial. It was about the isolation of being different or feeling that way. Or maybe nothing was as bad as I thought it was. Then againÉ
Four days earlier on a very humid Sunday, I had been in Montreal to see the Cardinals play the Expos. It was a sloppy game in a drab stadium. The Expos scored five runs in the fifth and thereafter were never challenged. In the middle of the seventh, the usual time for the seventh-inning stretch, I stood. Now, I had already been to 14 games in 14 days. I had stood and stretched through 14 virtually identical seventh-inning stretches. I had even listened to six-and-a-half innings of bilingual baseball--first French, then English. Still, I wasn't prepared for the French Canadian version of the seventh-inning stretch. Instead of "Buy me some peanuts and Crackerjack," the Expos management turned up the volume on the public address system and began blasting out the Revlon "Shake Your Body" theme song. Pretty soon, a crew of very pretty, very pert young women ran onto the diamond and began shaking their bodies. They waved and smiled and seemed particularly happy when the Jumbotron screen in right field zoomed in on them, closer and closer until eventually all that was left on the screen were the shakingest parts of their bodies. A sort of Cheshire cat without a smile.
Then as I watched the people in the stands jump into action, I became amazed. The game had been dull. Despite having the lead, the Montreal crowd had been quiet. Now, within seconds, people were singing and jumping and the female fans were shaking themselves in hopes that a cameraman might notice and briefly flash them and theirs across the Jumbotron. The excitement lasted only a minute or two, then the crowd settled back to quietly watch the Expos close out another home victory. It was just baseball again.
At first, I'll admit, I thought the scene was funny. Loud and strange and funny. For me, it was also sad.
I guess I should point out that last year I lived in France--ran away to Paris might be more precise. Therefore, my time in France probably colors my impressions of French Canadian Montreal to a certain degree. You see, I was disappointed in France. There is a rigidity to French society that surprised me. I expected off-beat and avant-garde, but instead I found a formalism that filtered down to even the normally unconventional arts and educational communities. In time, that formalism made me feel as if I had the wrong attitude. I smiled too much. I laughed on the Metro. I even walked on the grass in the parks. I'm not trying to claim that Americans are better than other nationalities--just a bit less defined, a bit more questioning, a bit more confused about what is right. I was lucky to have spent time in France, privileged even. But when I returned to the United States, I was happy.
And now when I think of it, my decision to finally take The Baseball Trip is tied up with the homesickness I experienced while living in France. I was home again, but a brimming bowl of Cocoa Puffs and a 3 a.m. trip to the 7-Eleven just weren't enough to make me feel that way.
Changing Road Patterns / Lane Shifts Ahead
Hey, remember me? I'm still in Montreal. It's the bottom of the seventh, and I'm all stretched out and reflecting on simple things like racism, sexism, and man's inhumanity to man. But watch out because the really good part is coming now. Just as I sat back in my seat and began to reflect on how lousy the world can be, I looked in my hands and saw that I was still holding my Montreal Expos 25th Anniversary Jello Mold. It was a frightening shade of blue in the shape of the Expos logo, and it came complete with bilingual Jello instructions. The Revlon girls were finally off the field, and the crowd resumed that odd, slightly formal quietness for the remainder of the game. But now it was okay, because Sunday, August 15, was Jello Mold Day at Olympic Stadium. No world can be completely lousy on Jello Mold Day.
Unfortunately, though, the whole world can be nothing but lousy in Oakland. The city-by-the-city-by-the-bay was my 25th game in 27 days, and it was without a doubt the low point of the trip. As much as possible, I try to forget the 17 runs, 11 pitchers, 340 pitches, 15 walks, and two errors in Oakland. What I won't even bother to try to forget is the scene of the man beating his daughter at the refreshment stand.
I was in line killing time or maybe just adding to my souvenir cup collection. That part I don't remember. I do remember the man in front of me. His young daughter was 3 or 4, and probably tired. It was after 9 p.m., and there were two more hours of senseless pitching changes ahead of everyone.
The little girl was tugging at her father's sleeve, trying to get him to lift her so she could see over the counter. He kept shaking her off, and she kept tugging--the typical battle of wills you see in grocery store aisles every day. But this father had no patience for the battle. At first, he snapped loudly at the little girl, then a few seconds later swatted her. She began crying, which angered him all the more. In quick succession he slapped her to the ground, picked her up by her hair, slapped her down again, picked her up by her feet, lifted her above the counter, and finally carried her away by one foot. In the midst of this action, he ordered a beer and a hotdog. So much was going on that I didn't notice whether he chose the Gulden's or the French's mustard, but I did see him wiping one brand or the other from the corner of his mouth as he carried his daughter away.
America the beautiful, right? Sometimes it's hard not to be cynical.
But that's not always the way things look. Only five days earlier I had watched a game that was as nearly perfect as Oakland's was terrible. I was in San Diego, one of only 10,000 people who bothered to see the last-place Padres play the fifth-place Pirates. Besides the very small crowd, there was nothing notable about the day. Except maybe the spectacular weather. There was a pleasant Pacific breeze blowing toward several hundred Army recuits in the left-field bleachers. Most of the time, the recruits sat quietly. Only occasionally did they let out a loud, olive- drab cheer in the direction of the Navy recruits clumped in the right-field bleachers.
As for me, I positioned myself somewhere in the middle of this gentle war, in the upper deck behind home plate. And from there I watched happily while seemingly every race possible coexisted peacefully: black, white, Asian, Hispanic. No matter the combination, it felt like it was working.
Not because it was so special, but because it wasn't. Like the Asian and Latin-American families who were most likely strangers before and after the game, but who still shared popcorn and ice water across an empty row of seats. Or the old man who responded to my question of "Where can I find section whatever?" by leading me up an escalator and along a concourse to show me the sign. Or the young black woman selling programs who smiled and told me to "Have a great game!" I had only walked by.
It was that picture of emptiness and peacefulness in San Diego that I thought about as I tried to wipe out the ugliness of the scene in Oakland. Always inept, the Padres managed to fall behind 9-1 by the fourth inning. They would wind up losing 10-5, but it was hard to care. There were other things going on. More important things.
Maybe you're still wondering about the little girl in Oakland. If you are--yes, the security officers were called, and the police were notified. I'm sure no one has much faith that the story ended happily, but it was nice to see more than one person head off toward the security office. Still, it was only a tiny band-aid over a problem that was almost certainly unfixable.
There's more, you know. Cincinnati and the million ushers, Anaheim and the "cheese head," etc., etc., but I can't do that to you. Instead, I'll just start the car toward home.
Caution, Railroad Crossing X
It was a little after 6 a.m. on the 29th day, and I was racing a train across south central Wyoming. Little by little, I caught up to it, and 20 minutes later the lead cars were gone from my mirrors.
The countryside is empty in south central Wyoming. No trees and few hills. It's a difficult place. Especially for me, because I used to live there. My mother still does. My father is buried there. But when I did live in Wyoming, it always felt wrong--like there was no place to hide. No way to change and fit in with the crowd. Last year, I thought France was the solution, and I was wrong. I missed America. I missed that feeling of chaos and I missed being so far away from things no one could claim to understand.
Now, on the 29th day, I was nearing my mother's house, and the hard part of the trip was over. I was tired. Lauren was with me again, but she was too tired to be noisy anymore. It didn't matter though, because I was pretty sure I'd finish according to plan. I had a thousand miles to drive and three games to see in a little more than two days, but I had been through worse. I had planned out every detail of this trip and it worked. All the miles and museums and relatives and friends--it worked. Most everyone thought I was nuts, but the plan always made sense to me. It might have been a stupid plan. It probably was, but it was my plan, and I felt like I had the privilege to mess it up in a zillion different ways.
That part about messing things up reminds me of that loonoid French philosopher (Baudrillard, I think) who's gone around making a name for himself by saying America doesn't exist. He says that Disneyland is the true America. That's ridiculous on more than just the obvious level. Take, for example, the man from St. Augustine, Florida, I met on my seventh day out. For no sensible reason, he once decided to clear out his living room, buy a couple of display cases, and show off his treasures--the gem of the show being Lee Harvey Oswald's pocket comb. A couple of hand-painted road signs later, and he was a museum. Maybe it wasn't the Louvre, but it was certainly personal.
Similarly, there were the people of Ashburn, Georgia, who live in the shadow of the world's largest concrete peanut. Somebody must have thought it would put them on the map. The same could be said of the world's largest thermometer in Baker, California, or the weathered sign for the World Peony Festival in Sarcoxie, Missouri. Each of them a great idea. Then, over time, what started as dreams of capturing that perfect niche changed into curiosities worth remembering.
Since my return from France and especially since this baseball trip last August, I've come to understand that I'm closer to the man in St. Augustine than I am to the man I thought I'd be when I was in school. I remember one night well past midnight (circa 1975) when my roommate, Hiram, and I were at the Student Snack Bar. We were eating something indescribable and simultaneously fixing the world. It was that night, amid the French fries, that Hiram and I decided to pick a real-world problem, a big problem, something complicated like how people read--and solve it. We didn't have to solve it that night, we had our whole lives ahead of us. But it was on that night that we resolved to take on the challenge.
The only problem was, somewhere along the line, things changed. Hiram became a professor at a school in Boston, and I, well, I sort of left the system. Going here or there, but never quite getting where I wanted to be. Eventually, I became too old to be young.
I don't know if Hiram remembers that night in the Snack Bar. One would hope he'd have the sensitivity to forget. Regardless, it's comforting to think that there are always lots of dreams. Moreover, none of them has to remain the same. So as I drove across Wyoming racing the train, it seemed entirely possible that things as potentially meaningless as the quietness of the lower bleachers in Detroit, or the insensitivity of the crowds in Montreal and Denver, or the anger of the man in Oakland, might someday be curiosities worth remembering.
I've now driven my 15,275 miles and seen my 28 games in one calendar month. I've connected my dots and finally realized that each of us will be touched by different moments, different pictures--different dots. And for all our lives we can connect our dots into silly wrong-headed patterns, and it won't really matter, because sometimes even the mistakes will turn out to be right.
Tom Land, who earned his PhD in psychology from Hopkins in 1978, writes from Baltimore. He offers special thanks to Lauren E. Sucher for her editorial assistance.
Send EMail to Johns Hopkins Magazine
Return to table of contents.