IT’S SOMETIME BETWEEN ‘97 and ‘03, though I’m betting on the earlier end of that. Let’s say it’s ‘99 — that would square with my own personal chronology, given that I’m sitting in the cold, concrete, largely empty ‘V’ of Ottawa Stadium next to the woman who will later become my wife.
[In puzzling over the dates, checking baseball-reference.com and cross-checking it with thebaseballcube.com, what amazes me the most is that the man who just won the NLCS MVP by hitting .500, most of his hits crucial, despite being bowled over so forcibly by a Matt Holliday slide into second base in Game 2 that he was taken for X-rays to ensure his hip wasn’t broken, played in parts of seven seasons in AAA, all of them in the International League. Do you think he was sick of that circuit? Do you think there were times he said to himself, Jesus, not another goddamn game in Scranton, or Richmond, or, oh lord, Ottawa? Do you think there were more than a few nights in shitty motels when Marco Scutaro was just about ready to give the hell up?]
So yeah, let’s say it’s 1999, early in the season, probably April, May at the latest, a night game between the Buffalo Bisons and the Ottawa Lynx. Cold. Damp. Dreadful. The stands of the ballpark on Coventry Road in east end Ottawa, which haven’t been regularly full since the ‘95 season (wherein the Lynx beat the Norfolk Tides to win their only Governor’s Cup), are all but empty. The concession stands have run out of coffee and hot chocolate, so I’ve come back to my seat with another beer. It froths and spills from beneath the plastic lid pressed over it by the girl who pulled the pint. The first sip is sloshy and gassy. My hands are cold.
Scutaro steps in. I pronounce it “Scoo-TAHR-o,” probably because the PA man says it that way, though by the time he makes his big league debut, in ‘02 with the Mets, the media guides will carry a guide to pronouncing it closer to the way he himself says it: “SCOOT-aro.” I’ve seen him before when the Bisons have come to town, but he hasn’t been particularly memorable. “Italian?” asks my future wife. “Uh,” I say, checking the lineup one-handedly, “Venezuelan.”
In time I won’t remember who’s pitching for Ottawa, so I’ll be free to make it up. Let’s say it’s Mike Johnson, who’ll win 6 and lose 12 for this last place team in ‘99, but earn a September cup of coffee with Montreal anyway based on his peripherals. In later years he’ll do some more time with the Expos, bounce around the minors, do a short stint in Japan, and end up finishing off in the independent leagues.[i]
I will remember this: our seats are in the first row behind the Lynx’ dugout on the third base side. We sit with our feet up on the concrete roof of the dugout, while below it the players spit and laugh and brood and try to figure out a way out of Ottawa, the minors, baseball purgatory (a few will make it, most will not).
It’s not quite right to say that I am also, at this same moment, looking for a way out of Ottawa, though I’m certainly amenable to the idea. It’s a town not wholly devoid of charms, but at 22 they’re largely lost on me. Or maybe it’s that, having spent most of my life in the city, I just don’t care to seek them out anymore. I’ve escaped the suburbs, exhausted the all-ages punk show scene, frequented the same bar for far too long, dropped out of Carleton University (though I’ll be back there in a few years for a second kick at the can), done a tour of the service industry, written precious little despite the fact that writing is my oft-stated goal, and watched a steady parade of friends move away. I know nothing. My goals are vague, my ambitions ill-defined. At this moment, my certainties are few, but one of them is that this woman sitting beside me will save me from aimlessness and drift. You watch. She’ll believe in me despite scant evidence to support her hunch. She’ll convince me to buy a house in the country, marry me, bear our children. She’ll carry me through.
But tonight she humours me, sitting here in a cold, nearly abandoned ballpark, watching a meaningless minor league game, her head and hands wrapped tight, her butt surely as frozen as mine. She keeps score with a dull pencil. She cheers when appropriate. It’s just another night spent away from our apartment; we could just as easily be in a pub or a restaurant or at a friends’ place watching a movie. We are young and childless and we have time to fill. Tonight we fill it here, at the ballpark on Coventry Road.
Scutaro steps in. He’s a righty, so his back is to us. Johnson throws some pitches. I don’t know what the count is. There’s a man on base, or there isn’t. It won’t matter. Johnson goes into his delivery, rears back, takes his long stride…
In my life to this point I have caught one souvenir baseball. It happened a few years ago, at this very ballpark, when I sat down the first base side with a friend. Rochester was in town, and their first baseman was Calvin Pickering, a big, lumbering slugger in the mold of a Mo Vaughn or Cecil Fielder. I suppose Baltimore had hopes he’d learn to stay healthy and cut down on his strikeouts. He did neither. But on that night, he hit a dribbling foul ball down the first base side, and Rochester first base coach (and former Pirate, Phillie, Expo and Padre) Dave Cash picked it up, turned around and lobbed it to me. After the game Pickering stood next to the Red Wings’ dugout signing autographs. He signed my ball. That was great, a nice memory to be sure, but the nature of the acquisition — tossed lightly by a first base coach — made it feel as though the ball carried its own asterisk. It wasn’t a true foul ball caught, earned; it was given.
But on this cold night, I’m in a prime location to get a ball. I await my opportunity with raw hands, a cold beer in my grasp. Johnson is in his follow-through now, having just released a breaking ball from his fingertips, and Scutaro is way out ahead of it, but he recognizes this in time and slows his swing, just hoping to make contact. He catches the ball with his bat way out in front of the plate, the bat head swinging sideways through space, coming across toward third instead of straight out to centre. The ball glances off the tip of the bat, and it zips toward the Lynx’ dugout. En route it skips almost imperceptibly off the damp grass, then kicks high.
I don’t know when I stopped bringing a glove to baseball games. At some point, I suppose, I reckoned that the chances I’d need it were dwarfed by the odds that it’d make doing things I was sure to do — read the lineup card, drink beer, eat popcorn, clap — a bit of a pain in the ass. Maybe it bespeaks a loss of faith, the death of the belief that among thousands of people, I’d be the one toward whom the earthbound ball would be headed. In that light, it’s a bit heartbreaking, isn’t it, this coming to terms with the unfeeling realities of our world? Or maybe I just figured out that, at Ottawa Lynx games, the easiest way to get a foul ball was to watch which empty section it landed in, and saunter over there at some later point to pick it up. All of this is to say that, on this cold evening at the ballpark on Coventry Road, seated just behind the home dugout on the third base side, I have no baseball glove. And that ball that Scutaro just hit has bounced off the grass, and is headed in a trajectory that will take it just over the lip of said dugout, and right toward the point in space currently occupied by my head.
But I’m cool. Half-full beer in my left hand, I lean forward onto the balls of my feet like an infielder. My future wife gives out a little shriek when she sees where the ball is headed, leans away and shields her head with her arms. My vision focuses like crazy, a tunnel of light surrounded by blur and darkness. I tense and prepare. I have a fraction of a second to figure out what to do here. I have dismissed the idea of a clean catch based on the speed at which the orb is screaming toward me, and the fact, previously mentioned, that I no longer bring a baseball glove to games. I don’t have time to consider the fact that everyone in the ballpark is looking at me (even if that is only a few hundred shivering souls). I put my right hand up to shoulder level, and position it to roughly where I think the ball will go. It turns out I’m pretty accurate, though my eyes can’t have relayed that info to my brain — there was no time. There’s an instantaneous calculation at play, a vectoring, a weighing of experience and guesswork. The ball touches my hand (I feel only an impact, no sting), there’s a dull, meaty thwack, and I push upward, shot-put style. The ball, now considerably slowed, lofts straight upward, perhaps ten feet over my head. I continue to watch it, now standing bolt upright. I still have a beer in my left hand. It is still half full.
The next moment is a long one. I have time to consider the two possible outcomes. The first involves catching the rebounded ball cleanly, bringing this brief scene to a satisfying conclusion. The second ends in abject failure, possibly embarrassment. I want very badly for the first to occur.
Meanwhile, having apexed, the uncaring ball is dropping back toward earth, right back at me. There’s a gasp from the small crowd — or do I imagine that? Is it from me? — as it nears. I flatten my right hand, the same hand off which the ball has so recently ricocheted, offering my palm to heaven, like a penitent.
Like a feather it lands. Like a balloon. It nestles gently and soundlessly into my hand and I close my fingers over it and hold it there a moment, afraid I have imagined the moment, afraid the ball is made of glass, or smoke, or dream. But I squeeze it and come to trust that, yes, it is substantial, it is real, it is firm, and beautiful. I bring it down to a smattering of applause, most importantly from the woman who will become my wife. I hold the thing in front of me as I retake my seat. Then I glance at my left hand, and the beer still there, and happily discover I have spilled not a drop. A rare, warm elation fills me. I have, to my own mind, pulled off an elusive stunt. I am quietly thrilled.
I want to say now that Scutaro has watched the whole thing, the long moment since he swung on that breaking ball and tipped it down the LF line, and that he witnessed my act of balance and quick wit, maybe even tipped his batting helmet in my direction, or at the very least smiled. But I don’t believe this to be the case. When I look back, he is resettled in the batter’s box, his back to us, bat waggling over his head and eyes fixed on Johnson, awaiting the next pitch.
The ball in my lap, I am fairly beaming. The woman by my side throws her arm over my shoulders. “Nicely done,” she says, and asks to see the ball. I hand it to her and she inspects the thing, feels its smooth leather, the surface rubbed down to a dull off-white, a scuff mark on its flank where it hit the grass.
“How’s your hand?” she asks.
I look at it. Red, raw, it suddenly begins to throb and to sting, a heat coming into it. I can feel my palm swelling ever so slightly, the skin tightening. I can already feel the dull ache it will endure tomorrow.
“Fine,” I say.
[i] Of course, it could have been Ted Lilly, the lefty who drove around Ottawa in a Mustang with California plates, presumably the fruit of his signing bonus, and to whom I once sold a Best of John Mellencamp CD; he went on to play for the Jays, Cubs and, now, the Dodgers. It might also have been reliever Guillermo Mota, now Scutaro’s teammate in San Francisco.