America’s Pastime: Staring at the Ground

tc3354.jpgWe took Jack to his first baseball game last night. The Single A Houston Astros affiliate (The Tri-City ValleyCats) is based in Troy and they were playing the Detroit Tigers affiliate. Jack’s tells me his favorite team is the Detroit Tigers ever since Mr. Rogers made the most of a beautiful day and visited Tiger Stadium during one of the episodes. I guess it’s too much to ask that a son like the Yankees, as his father does, instead choosing a team from the mid-west that hasn’t won a world series since 1984 and was paid a visit once by a man in a cardigan with a zipper who regularly visits The Neighborhood of Make Believe and has befriended hand puppets with names like King Friday XIII, Lady Elaine Fairchilde and Henrietta Pussycat. On the way to the game I envisioned an archetypal Field of Dreams Ray Kinsella “You wanna have a catch?” father/son moment happening between me and Jack. I envisioned helping Jack try on my baseball glove, my arm around him pointing to the different fielders and positions explaining their roles, sharing with him the timeless secrets and legends of America’s pastime. I pictured a foul ball suddenly jumping off the bat and picturesquely arcing through the twilight. Reaching up with my glove through a crowd of reaching hands I could almost feel the ball as it settled perfectly in the webbing. I would sit down and hand him the ball, he would take it with both hands and then look up at me with a smile of amazement and admiration.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly how it happened. We had great seats along the third base line which we settled into after getting a bite to eat at the concession stand, however we had to leave Adam’s stroller at the top of the stairs because there was no room for it in the row so Adam sat on Kathleen’s lap. As we were sitting down the announcer was saying something over the intercom which admittedly was a little loud but Jack pressed his hands over his ears as if a howler monkey had gotten tickets for the seats behind us. Jacked continued his “lalalala I caaaan’ttt heeearrr youuuu” pose until I motioned to him that the annoying announcer had finally shut his trap and it was time for the national anthem. He stood with me and I showed him how to put his hand on his heart then pointed at the flag raised over center field. Though he wasn’t sure why he was doing it, he was quiet and reverential for the entire song and I was very proud of him. We sat, watched some local yokel who was the 10th caller into some lame radio promotion throw out the first pitch and then got ready for the game to begin.

Right before the umpire bellowed “Play Ball” the guy right in front of us, not the howler monkey behind us, looked at me and said, “Good thing you got a glove there. You really got to stay on your toes when there’s a lefty up. The foul balls shoot right into this section and if you’re not ready you can get really hurt. Last game some guy took one right in the face… knocked out a bunch of his teeth…had to take him to the hospital.” I looked down at Jack whose attention was 100% preoccupied with the bucket of popcorn he cradled on his lap, then at Adam who at 8 months old still bumps into stationary objects which move at an average speed of exactly 0 mph, and then at Kathleen whose hands were busy holding Adam and I figured I’d sacrifice the part of the fantasy where I let Jack wear the glove and instead just keep the glove on my hand and do my best to protect the family from any teeth shattering foul balls that were belted our way. As the game got under way I leaned into Jack and began explaining the positions and their roles on the field. “The pitcher throws the ball to the catcher. That guy over there is the First Basemen. What do you think his job is?” He looked up from his popcorn, thought for a moment, then said, “His job is to look at the ground.” I glanced over at the first baseman and sure enough he had his hands on his hips and he was staring at the ground kicking pebbles out of the base path. There is no sport like baseball; bursts of excitement followed by long stretches of time staring at the ground.

After the top half of the inning the scoreboard camera panned across the crowd and stopped on Kathleen and Adam. We looked up at the scoreboard and there was a 25 ft high version of Adam, toothy jack-o-lantern smile, jumping up and down on her lap like the celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County. I nudged Jack towards Kathleen so that he could get in the shot, too, just so that he wouldn’t get jealous or feel left out. Thankfully he was in the shot long enough to see himself on the screen. Disaster averted. By the time the first inning was over it was evident that the Father/Son bonding moment I was envisioning wasn’t going to happen. Jack told me he was bored and Kathleen needed to put Adam down because her arms were getting tired. As I was the first line of defense against baseball’s version of dental extraction, I obviously couldn’t hold him so we gathered up our things and decided to walk around the stadium a bit.

Thankfully, the stadium was “kid-friendly” and has a whole section devoted to young fans complete with jumping park and games. Jack spent the second and third inning on an inflatable bouncy-bounce ride that was shrewdly designed with a slide angled at a mild 75 degrees creating a drop-off that lemmings would shy away from. Jack seemed to handle the slide portion relatively well enough only once causing our hearts to go into cardiac arrest when he jumped from the top of the slide to the bottom without touching any portion of the slide in between. Some other kids weren’t nearly as, well let’s say, graceful. At one point I turned and asked Kathleen if children didn’t develop vertebrae until their teens after I watched a 7 or 8 year old boy tumble down the slide mostly on his head, his body practically bending in half the wrong way as if instead of a spine his back was supported with Linguine Fra Diavolo. In the fourth inning we ventured down the right field line which had a grassy knoll scattered with children at the far end next to the visitor’s bullpen. The prospect of rolling down the hill and playing with these youngsters was too much temptation for Jack to resist so the fourth and fifth inning we watched him roll down the hill and play some hybrid game of tag, run the bases and “hide behind the shrubbery until your parents call your name in panic because they think you’ve been kidnapped”. Even though it seemed liked most of these kids knew each other Jack acclimated himself to the group dynamic pretty quickly and even though he got a few looks that suggested, “Who are you?” and “How do you know how to play hide behind the shrubbery until your parents call your name in panic because they think you’ve been kidnapped?” he fared pretty well.

After one last quick stop at the jumping park and near Chernobyl melt down conditions for Adam we decided our first baseball experience had come to an end. Jack, obviously, didn’t want to go. Not because he wanted to watch the game but because he wanted to shove even more handfuls of popcorn into his mouth, drink growler sized cups of soda with a caffeine content of a triple espresso and continue to treat his backbone like it was Prince Spaghetti night. The truth is that I think I was more disappointed about leaving than Jack because as we left the stadium I caught a glimpse of the first and the second baseman staring at the same spot on the ground and I could just tell that that something exciting was about to happen.


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