When I was eight years old my family started going on Friday nights to watch the Albuquerque Dukes play baseball at Tingley Field, across from the Rio Grande Zoo. In the early 1950’s it was already an old ballpark, with splintery bleachers covered by rickety wooden awnings. During games it was always dark in the stands, as if all available wattage went to light the dusty infield diamond and the patchy yellow outfield grass. The low outfield fence advertised Kistler-Collister’s department store, the Lobo Theater, KGGM Radio. From the zoo came the pungent, greenish aroma of orangutan and elephant dung, which mingled with the ballpark smells of popcorn, yellow mustard, and cigarettes.
At first, not understanding baseball at all, I viewed it as a show more than a game. A pitcher’s high leg kick, a runner’s slide in a cloud of dust, an outfielder’s leap with his back against KGGM. Exciting moments without consequence. Then my father started explaining the game to me, connecting catches to outs, outs to innings. I loved my new knowledge. I loved his voice when he talked about baseball. Measured. Logical. Like the game
At our house, during summers, play-by-play from Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese accompanied my Saturdays as I ironed shirts and dried dishes. On Sundays, when my mother and sister and I returned from church, my father would usually have a Los Angeles Dodgers game on. I couldn’t wait to trade my white cotton gloves and scratchy nylon dress for shorts and a tee shirt and join him for the game. “What’s the score?” “Who’s up?” “What inning is it?” “Who’s pitching?” Of the two daughters I was the designated son, the one who liked baseball. I had found few places of easy belonging, but as long as a game was on, I belonged with him.
About forty years later, on the afternoon of October 2, 1995, I was getting ready to go with my writing group to Elliott Bay Book Company in downtown Seattle. We wanted to hear Kaye Gibbons read from her wonderful novel, Charms for the Easy Life. I was on a steady diet of cultural events back then––operas, plays, concerts, poetry readings. I was as likely to attend a sports event as I was to put on a scratchy nylon dress and go to church.
Of course after twenty-five years in Seattle, I knew it had a major league baseball team––the Mariners––and I was aware they played in a bizarre concrete mushroom called the Kingdome (I had never been inside) and that they routinely occupied the cellar in the American League. But on that day you couldn’t be awake in Seattle without knowing that at long last the Mariners were in some kind of playoff game at the Kingdome. In fact, it was a one-game playoff against the Angels for the AL West Division Championship. I still don’t know what made me turn on the television.
When I did turn it on, I saw the raptorial gaze of Randy Johnson peering from his six-eleven height down over the rim of his black glove, down the sixty feet six inches to the sign given by catcher Dan Wilson, down onto the poised musculature of clean-up hitter Tim Salmon of the California Angels, who, to open the fifth inning, struck out looking at a 1-2 slider that traveled in a virtual parabola from the tips of Johnson’s impossibly long fingers to the outside corner of the plate. It traveled in an arc so wide that Salmon must’ve had time to envision his entire off-season, which was to begin in about ninety minutes. It traveled in an arc so wide it picked me up and carried me all the way back to Tingley Field.
An hour later at the Elliott Bay Book Company, geographically close to the Kingdome but miles away in sensibilities, Kaye Gibbons opened her remarks with rueful references to the inanity of baseball and Seattle’s hysteria over that day’s game. With a few snickers and nods of superiority, the small audience agreed. We were a tiny redoubt of culture holding our own against the neighboring Huns of organized sports. I pretended to join the group disdain, but I knew in my heart it was already too late. After the two innings I had watched before leaving the house, baseball had reclaimed me. Reclaimed me with Jon Miller’s play-by-play melodies (“…the count two and two now as Davis can’t catch up to the high hard stuff…”), with Randy Johnson’s slider (“a right-handed hitter can’t hit that ball”), and with Ken Griffey Jr.’s at-bats (each one like a short story complete with plot twists and character development). Forty years is a long time to hold your breath, but I was back.
The poet Donald Hall has said about baseball, “I love the game. The shape of it and the crucial moments of it remain the same. I love its distance from anything else that makes [it] a complete, coherent little world…” For the past twelve years I have allowed the coherent world of baseball to possess me. Forty years became a blip when I saw Griffey dig into the batter’s box, tuck his chin into his right shoulder, and flutter his eyelashes at the pitcher like a coquette at a cocktail party. Everything he did––everything they all did––was both new and utterly familiar. Runners still measured their leads off first and twitched their fingers, preparing to steal. The catcher still rose from his crouch like a missile from a silo and threw so hard to second that his mask whiplashed to the side of his head. The center fielder, starting almost before contact, still glided to the spot where a 400-foot fly ball descended into his glove. Even the pauses, as any fan will insist, are poetic: Edgar Martinez strolling from the on-deck circle while studying the length of his bat as if it contained runic instructions for a line drive, or Ichiro Suzuki lofting his custom black tamo-wood Mizuno, exhaling, and plucking his sleeve to time his swing.
These things make baseball my language of joy. The joy of belonging––to a team, to a parent, to a coherent world. The joy of a double down the left-field line, the clean surprise of it. The joy of a throw home, the catcher blocking the plate, tensing, trusting, believing. The joy of a 1-2 slider that carries a team to its first post-season. Joy can come alive like that, when random pieces of history and rhythm, pause and expectation, melody and lyric, suddenly rearrange themselves into a pattern that leaps up, back against the wall, and catches your heart.
“Forty Years” first appeared in the on-line journal Slow Trains.