Tuesday, July 10, 2012

An All-Star Evening at the Ballpark

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring.

Annie Savoy, opening sequence of Bull Durham

I love America, and I believe it is my solemn duty to pass along to my children a love of all things American (except peanut butter and jelly sandwiches - never had one, never will).  First and foremost for me, right after the 2nd Amendment (that is sarcasm), is the quintessential American sport of baseball (please, don’t start with the football argument – your sport is named after the global sport of soccer).  To love the US of A is to love baseball.

I’ve done my part to indoctrinate my three, and I have met with some success.  I failed with my oldest daughter, but not for lack of trying.  We had partial season tickets for the first 4 seasons of Nationals’ baseball, and I taught her to keep score at the games.  It helped her learn the game and sit still.  She was almost a witness to baseball history on September 6, 2006 when Ramon Ortiz went 8.1 innings of no-hit ball, only to lose the no hitter, the shutout and the complete game (but preserve the win).  I blame myself.  As the 9th inning began, I told her that something really exciting was about to happen, but I couldn’t tell her what it was.  Even the passing thought of a no-hitter obviously was enough to ruin the moment.  I jinxed it, but to love baseball, you must embrace the sweet science of the jinx.  The joy of a near no-hitter was not enough to ignite her Natitude for the game.

I’ve been more fortunate with Thomas.  He was a blank slate for my teachings.  In the Nats’ inaugural season at RFK, we stayed after the game for Kids Run the Bases and I couldn’t resist giving him the opportunity to be on the big field like his heroes (OK, I wanted to go on the field, and he was my excuse).  I explained to him that the run would start at first base, around the diamond, and then I’d meet him at home plate.  My baseball protégée looked up at me with his 6 year old eyes and asked, “Which one is home base?”

Like I said, he was the blank slate.  I almost gave up at that moment, but soldiered on.

I kept at it as my patriotic duty.  I eventually took him to Cooperstown, we have been to an Opening Day (2007), and he was with me in the stands to witness the MLB debut of Stephen Strasburg when the Bucs went down swinging/looking 14 times in 7 innings.  He has been fully infected with baseball fever and this year it is metastasizing into pennant fever.  So I am batting .500 with my first two kids.

I had one more chance to pass along the respect and appreciation for the national pastime – 7 year old Lucy, but I needed help.  With Lucy, I had a secret weapon.  Uncle Slam, the mascot of the Carolina League affiliate of the Washington Nationals, visited her school this spring bearing the gift of free tickets to a future Potomac Nationals game.  Give a first grade girl some free tickets, and it becomes not an invitation but an obligation.  Uncle Slam Wants YOU, and the call needed to be answered.  You can’t get more patriotic than that.

Last Thursday night, we headed to the ballpark.  As luck (bad) would have it, this game conflicted with another quintessential American pastime, Raft Night at the pool.  After some cajoling, some bribery and some threats, Lucy agreed that Raft Night could wait, and we would attend services at the Church of the Diamond.  Unlike regular church, I promised it would be really fun. 
We arrived early and shared some dinner.  Chicken fingers and fries, $8.00.  One hamburger, $5.50.  Two bottles of water, $9.00.  For $22.50 we could have eaten at McDonalds for a week, but at Pfitzner Stadium, that was one inadequate meal in the stifling heat.  A lousy dinner, $22.50.  Dinner with my daughter at the game, priceless.

It was hot in the shade, but our seats in the grandstand redefined hot.  We sat there like those sad little hot dog-like products in the 7-11 rotisserie, baking beyond recognition.  The metal rows of benches reflected the heat, announced as 97 degree at first pitch, but our internal temperatures had to be closer to an FDA-approved 170 degrees, safe to be eaten by vultures.

While enjoying a warm bath in a pool of our own sweat, a team representative came by and asked Lucy if she would like to be the Fan of the Game.  The Fan of the Game, we were told, announced “Play ball!” over the loudspeaker to start the game.  After a few weak audition shouts, Lucy got the hang of it and she was hired.  She was excited, even though I am unsure if she had any idea what Fan of the Game meant.  She was feeding off of my excitement which was plentiful.

We were escorted onto the field and Lucy lined up along the first base line with all of the Potomac Nationals’ players for the National Anthem.  As a father, a baseball fan, and an American, that is one image that can never be replaced, until she wins a gold medal in the 2020 Olympic Games (Competitive Hair Braiding, demonstration sport).  As a young girl, my wife was once honored at a Little League game as Homecoming Queen or Princess of the Park, or something like that.  Now our daughter has a similar honor in her mental scrapbook. 
The memory will need to last since there is no photograph.  I did not have a working camera with me.  My phone has a camera feature, but I don’t know how to work it.  Therefore, it isn’t a working camera.  I am one of the remaining dinosaurs that believe that if God had wanted us to take pictures with our phones, Thomas Edison would have invented the telephone before Alexander Graham Bell.  Besides, in the intense sunlight, I couldn’t see the screen of my phone anyway.  In this case, the “sun was in my eyes” excuse is valid.  

After the anthem, Lucy was introduced to the crowd with a rousing ovation, and right on cue, she belted out those magic words, “Play ball!”  It worked.  They played.

The magic, however, didn’t end there.  A nice man in the stands handed her a foul ball that he had caught.  The team representatives found us in the 2nd inning and offered us a seat upgrade.  I bet her a dollar at one point that a particular batter would hit a home run, and he did (I did not collect, just added it to her tab).

To top it off, the Potomac Nationals won in a laugher, 14-3.  The quality of the play was decidedly minor league – Frederick Keys had 3 errors, P-Nats had one – but Lucy seemed unfazed by the lack of major league talent.  When the infielders backed up on grounders instead of charging the ball (“Play the ball, never let it play you”), I was disappointed.  She could have cared less.  As long as her Ice Cream of the Future, Dippin’ Dots, didn’t drip and melt on her shirt, she was fine.  When you are the Fan of the Game, you have perspective.

It was a long evening in the heat, so we were finished after 7 innings.  Teaching her that you NEVER leave a baseball game early will have to be a lesson for another day.  I granted us special dispensation because of the Code Red weather.  It’s a rule. 

As I carried her on my back towards the car, I asked the question that I was hoping only had one answer.  “Lucy, did you have fun tonight?”

She gave me the perfect answer:  “It was better than raft night”.  Now ain’t that America?

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