A quiet game

Late summer 1985, and I’ve been told to get to bed. I’m just beginning the seventh grade, and Mom and Dad are enforcing the bedtime rules. Lying in bed, I struggle to fall asleep, even though the room isn’t quite dark yet. I can hear the sounds of a late summer night though my open bedroom window: a dog barking; an occasional car whooshing down the street, temporarily drowning out the mad cacophony of frogs and insects; the neighbor’s sprinkler swishing in his front yard, striking our aluminum siding every 43 seconds.

I hear Daddy’s footsteps pounding up the stairs. He opens the door gently, and pokes his head in. I’m pretending to be asleep. “Psst. Hey. Get up. He’s about to do it,” he whispers.

I get up and follow him downstairs. “Let’s go over to Ray’s,” he says. Ray, or Big Ray, as the neighborhood kids call him, lives next door. He’s the type of man who only wears white T-shirts, and sits on his front porch all day, on a rusty lawn chair, usually whittling away on a piece of wood. I go to school with his son, who we call Little Ray – even though he outweighs all the other kids on the block combined.

Daddy and I leave the house and step out into the cool summer night’s breeze redolent with new mown grass and the wet smell from the sprinkler and Mom’s hanging baskets. Big Ray’s dog sits on the front porch, her tail thumping against the steps when she sees us. I can hear all the televisions up and down the street blaring through open windows. Every man is watching the same thing.

Ray sees us come up to the door, and waves Dad in without a word, his eyes never leaving the television. We step into the smoky living room. I dry my bare wet feet on the smashed green shag, and say hi to Little Ray, who is wearing his too-small-for-his-belly pajamas and drinking Pepsi straight out of the bottle (a whole bottle! On a school night!). His dad has pulled him out of bed, too.

Without looking, Big Ray reaches beside his chair and pulls a cold Stroh’s out from nowhere and tosses it to Dad. “It’s still the first inning,” he says, “He’s up next.”

“I think this is the night,” says Dad. He winks at me. “You understand how big this is, don’t you?” I nod. I never knew Ty Cobb, he was my Grandaddy’s hero, but the entire state has been infatuated with him for the past month. All anyone talks about is Rose and Cobb, and base hit records. I even have a Red Machine baseball cap, like every other kid in Ohio, although I really don’t understand what the big deal is.

“He’s up. Here it is, this is it, this is it…” says Ray, expertly flicking his pull tab into the kitchen trash can.

Ol’ Charlie Hustle strides to the plate, and the TV camera zooms in for the closeup. He looks nervous. Another camera pans around the crowd – everyone in Riverfront is on their feet, cheering, chanting “Pete! Pete!” On the mound is the Padres’ pitcher, who looks depressed. He’s flown two-thousand miles for the privilege of being remembered as the one who threw “the pitch.”

Rose eases his 200-pound frame into his distinctive crouch, just left of home plate. He takes a few practice swings. Big Ray and Dad inhale deeply and hold it as the first pitch comes screaming down the line, just outside of the zone. Flashbulbs pop everywhere as Rose sits like a rock and lets the ball break away. Ball one, and everyone exhales.

I look at Little Ray, and he takes a big swig of Pepsi to taunt me. He knows I’m not allowed to drink soda pop. Our fathers jump at the next pitch, which Rose swings at but hits foul, and the ump calls the strike by ripping an imaginary cardboard box.

Another pitch, another ball. The tension is almost suffocating. Then, the jet-lagged pitcher throws a slider for the 2 and 1 pitch, and Rose connects. “That’s it, that’s it…” Dad says, and we hear the collective roar of dozens of men up and down the street screaming in joyous unison at their television sets.

The ball flies in a lazy line-drive, and drops into the soft green behind second base, and Hustle strides coolly to first. Fireworks go off. Fans go crazy. The television broadcaster screams into the microphone.

The tension broken, Rose starts weeping, and Dad mocks him. “Oh boy, here come the waterworks…” But the television camera stays focused on the batter’s face, and after a few moments Daddy and Big Ray look at each other with moist eyes, and shake hands.

It will take me a dozen years to understand that look.

Big Ray and Daddy are sharing something; something masculine, unspoken, but a feeling and emotion still communicated clearly. I feel a little jealous, so I look at Little Ray, thinking maybe we could share something, too, but all he does is take another big pull on that Pepsi bottle.

“Isn’t that something,” Dad says, after what seems like an eternity. He downs his Stroh’s in one or two gulps. “Let’s go,” he says to me. I wave goodbye to the Rays and let the screen door bang against the house, and we trek back across the wet lawn.

Once in bed, with my damp feet tucked between the sheets, Dad sits on the edge of my bed and begins rambling excitedly. I realize that baseball is what defines him; it’s a perfect metaphor for his generation – long stretches of deliberate, careful, action mingled with moments of chaos. He tells me of going to triple-A games with his father. The first time he went, he entered the stands from the parking lot and the first thing he noticed was how GREEN everything was; and he stood there, completely shocked, as the expectations created by his tiny black-and-white television were destroyed. He tells me how Grandpa always carried two tomatoes to the game, one in each trouser pocket. During the seventh-inning stretch, he would pull them out and they would each sink their teeth into the ripe flesh, and taste the hot juice of summertime.

Our daddies have baseball, I realize. The boys of summer share a quiet dignity that appeals to my father and his generation. That feeling permeates the stands, and it transmits through the radio and television sets into the hearts of fans. But I can already tell that the game is not for me. My friends and I will share another game, most likely one that is a metaphor for our generation, something that is the mirror image of baseball, something that has long stretches of chaos mingled with moments of serenity. Football, probably.

His stories done, Dad thumps me on the shoulder, and says goodnight. I concentrate on the symphony of insects outside, and find myself sliding into the quiet serenity of a summer night’s dreams.

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5 Responses to “A quiet game”

  1. agentgray Says:

    This is the best baseball memory I’ve read in a long time. I grew up a Cardinals fan (still am), but I remember my father calling me into the living room to watch this moment.

    Being a baseball fan I can truly understand what this means. It was the same thing when I knew that my grandfather and dad were there to see McGuire break the homerun record.

    It’s too bad that baseball is not for you, but, yeah, formulate a memory that you can share with your own kids.

  2. theMonkey Says:

    Thanks, agentgray.

    I do enjoy baseball; I remember the goosebumps I got when McGuire hit his big HR. Big moments in baseball seem to be more “special” when they happen. Maybe it’s because they don’t happen often; or at least, it seems that way.

    As far as formulating memories with my own kids, my oldest has already told me that she’ll never forget watching the Bucks win the big one in 2002… we were in this tiny hotel room in Orlando (visiting Wally World), and watching it on a small television, all of us going berzerk when double-OT expired.

    Maybe we’ll have another special moment this year with Pujols? Here’s hoping. :-)

  3. your wisconsin sky watcher Says:

    I do remember that night watching it with my daddy! How I do miss him!

  4. motherMonkey Says:

    Was I completly oblivious to what was going on???

  5. theMonkey Says:

    Yep, most of the time.

    …oh, you meant…

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