Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Hopes Eternal

Winter continues to hold on in northern Maine. Yes, the temperature has inched up so that the daily highs are around 33 instead of 3 degrees, but the snow is still on the ground. No crocus has dared to show itself. The robins haven't even thought of returning, though a lonely goose was spotted yesterday. When the wind howls, we are still bundling ourselves up and running to the car. The long death-grip of winters up here are hard to understand unless you live in Maine or the Dakotas, Alaska and the upper reaches of Minnesota. But it is baseball season and that means hope.

The Fan hasn't always lived so far north. The early years were lived in places that still had winter, but they were less severe and spring came sooner. The birthplace was Bergenfield, New Jersey, a town of four square miles and 36,000 people. That's the same population as the entire county up here in northern Maine. Bergenfield was, of course, a suburb. The George Washington Bridge was only twelve miles away. We could sneak on the golf course in the northern part of town from first sneaking on the property of where the nuns lived. The golf course abutted Knickerbocker Road, a name like many others that belied the area's Dutch past. The names are only symbolic as the area now is strictly a bustling and hustling city with big maple trees where long lines and car accidents are just as common. The golf course was a place to see land that wasn't totally covered with buildings. But the best thing about sneaking onto the golf course, especially at night, was that, on a good day, you could see the Statue of Liberty.

The Fan's sister is the only family member who still lives in that area. She's worked in New York City for forty plus years and has done the bus to subway routine thousands of times. Before the Fan moved north, treks were taken into the city, sometimes to meet the sister for lunch. New York City was like the hometown on steroids. Everything was multiplied a thousand times. How can so many people live in one small place? The streets are wide and so are the sidewalks, but neither could ever be wide enough to support the cars and the people that want to travel along them.

And the craziest people lived there. There was one guy who had a whistle in his mouth and his thing was he had to walk in a straight line. If anyone blocked his ability to do that, he would blow the whistle. The Fan remembers wondering how the guy had managed to live so long without the whistle being crammed down his throat. Another guy spent his entire day crossing the street in a square pattern: South, West, North, East and then start all over.

There are parks all over New York City, but their statues are covered in pigeon poop and the grass and few trees all clung to life in a losing battle against the constant fumes and trampling of people. Central Park, is of course, a diamond in the city, but even that place is a place to avoid at night when all kinds of scary things happen.

Like most urban areas, there is one place of refuge: The Stadium. Though stadiums are also large concrete structures surrounded by concrete and steel everywhere else in the city, once you walked through the ticket gate and into the concourse, you could hear the organ playing a festive tune. Walking past vendors of all types, you followed the crowd urged ever onward by the call of something truly different than the rest of city life. Once you found your gate and your section, you walked through a short tunnel to a place that took your breath away. The baseball diamond.

For day games, it was a magical place of green grass and brown orange dirt. Workers with long hoses sprayed that dirt with an artistry of geometric precision slowly making that dirt darker until it was all the same hue. The patch of green and openness held a promise like no place else in the city. You knew magic was going to happen there. There are other diversions in the city such as movie houses and play houses. They offer a magic too, but they were magic without the sun and the breeze. They might have shows that offered hope and message, but ultimately, they showed the same shows over and over. In the Stadium, a different drama happened every day.

We are spoiled by watching our sports on television. And while watching a game on television is a blessed event, there is nothing like sitting in a Stadium watching the same drama unfold. Somehow, each person in the stands become a part of the same organism. We are all living and dying watching the same story. Foul balls become a festive event and people turn to each other and share the excitement of what almost was. In cities where you are taught not to look at people in the eye, once in the Stadium, people pass along your hot dog and your drink and think nothing of passing your money down to the vendor at the end of the row. We are community.

We all gasp at the same time and cheer at the same time and boo at the same time. We rise to our feet in unison. We all get fooled by a fly ball to the outfield each and every time. About a third of us are keeping score and hoping our pencil points don't break as we mark our "K" and draw the line to first base for a single. Each half inning brings an intermission where we take in the sights while listening to music. We all take in the little things like ball boys running to and fro in rehearsed tasks that keep a game moving smoothly. In the sixth inning, we watch the grounds crew with their magical mats smooth out the infield. We watch infielders make their own patterns in the fresh dirt. We shout at players we know can't hear us. We clap in rhythm unexpectedly. Our souls all become interwoven at the drama we are witnessing together.

For some of us, those collective moments happened all too rarely, especially those of us with limited means and opportunity. But they live inside us forever and a part of us relives them whenever we watch another game on television. That baseball usually happens in warm weather makes it different than football. The more clothes you wear, the more you are separated from your neighbor. It's why those of us in northern climates are more conservative by nature. The shirtsleeve crowd has an easier time bonding over an event taking place before us.

Those memories last a lifetime and add to the hope that comes when a baseball season starts all over again. Social media that has proliferated our society allows us to see that people all over this continent feel the same way. People we meet electronically hope just as much for Opening Day in St. Louis or Toronto. Opening Day gives us all something in common no matter who we root for. It opens our eyes to fans with long-time pain rooting for perennial losers like the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Royals. It gives us a glimpse of what is important to them and we end up rooting for their Billy Butler and Pedro Alvarez. We are all fans of this great game of baseball.

And for us, Opening Day is a national celebration. And even if snow is still on the ground and the winds still make you huddle and pray for the car heater to work, we know that somewhere it is spring. Somewhere, the grass is green and players in clean white and gray uniforms are going to thrill us for another season. We all start together with the exact same record. We all hope for the same thing. It's truly a wonderful time of year. In some ways, it might even beat Christmas. It is baseball season and we are all young again and stand in wonder and hope.

Rejoice people. It's our time again. There is no way of predicting how it will all turn out. But wherever we are, we are symbolically connected by this lifelong passion...this love...this game that is inside all of us. Enjoy every minute of it.

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