THE BALLPARKS OF AMERICA are open for business. In Chicago, in Des Moines, in Batavia, New York. They have unlocked their turnstiles and they sit awaiting the gathering crowds. Their concourses are swept, their concession stands stocked, their playing surfaces cut, watered, swept, raked, painted.
In the ballparks of America — brick beauties in big cities, small diamonds with aluminum bleachers among Midwest cornfields, forgotten wooden grandstands with Rocky Mountain backdrops — you are treated to the aromatic bouquet of roasting peanuts, hotdogs and beer, grass, sunblock, the peppery smell of smokers in their designated areas on the concourse. In the ballparks of America you can gaze upon the impossible green of the coddled grass, the endless blue of an afternoon sky, or the blinding white glare of the lights on their stanchions, carving artificial daylight out of the velvety summer darkness. In the ballparks of America you can sit next to Americans and it is the closest you will come to being let into their homes. It is a cultural point of entry, into Budweiser, and heckling, and how romance operates in the United States. The slouch-panted, flat-brimmed, tattooed, pencil-line-bearded young men not on the field drape an arm over the soft, round shoulders of girls who may one day soon give them children, and your heart is both hopeful and sad on their behalf.
Sweet high summer is almost here, and so the ballparks of America have begun their siren calls, tempting you south to such exotic locales as Burlington, Vermont, and Cincinnati, Ohio, and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In heeding their calls you may find yourself someplace new, or you may return to places you have already known, and remember with both fondness and despair.
In Great Falls, Montana, it was 110 degrees and the mascot refused to move. In a plush jackrabbit costume, in the fullness of the Great Plains’ heat, (s)he couldn’t be blamed one bit. The jackrabbit plunked itself down at the end of your row, put its feet up on the seat in front of it, and sat. Daylight left but the heat did not. The Great Falls Dodgers, as they were then known, beat the Billings Mustangs and you clapped and wiped your brow and headed out into the suffocating night. At the Motel 6 you cranked the air and fell asleep watching Baseball Tonight, as happy as you’d ever been.
In Sanford, Maine, a woman told you about what the mill closures had done to the town, about how there were no tourist dollars because Sanford was so far inland. Orchard Beach caught all the tourists. But Sanford had its little ballpark, and their summer collegiate team, the Mainers, in their bright gold and kelly green uniforms. You sat in the covered grandstand and ate caramel corn and ice cream sandwiches.
In Spokane, Washington, your ticket was drawn and you won a free 1-year membership to a local gym, the only prize you have won in your life. Though Spokane was lovely, you had to decline.
In the ballparks of America they used to segregate the paying customers but the policy has changed, if not the sentiment. You’re not entirely sure where that stands.
At Spring Training facilities in Arizona the sun was so intense that there were sunscreen dispensers in the washrooms. In the swampy Florida heat you could cool yourself beneath a spray of misted water while you watched non-roster invitees wearing numbers like 98 attempt to unseat a veteran and steal a place on the bench of an actual Major League team.
In Auburn, New York the rain came early and ended the game but still they launched the Fourth of July fireworks afterward, high into the Upstate sky, while the teenage members of the grounds crew reclined on the pitcher’s mound and took it all in.
In Seattle you could see Mt. Rainier as well as Ichiro in his rookie season. Both were astonishing.
In Chicago’s north side, though their boys were down 14, Cubs fans cheered a single hometeam run as though it were a game winner, which goes a long way toward explaining what a century of futility can do to a group of people. The hot dogs and the beer were good, anyway. In the ballparks of America there’s always something to eat, even if the game is lousy.
In Syracuse the trains rumbled by the fence in left, shaking the remaining mortar from the brickwork of the abandoned factories.
In Boston they’ll throw beer at you for wearing Yankees gear, which seems like a terrible thing to do to with a beer.
At the old Yankee Stadium they closed Monument Park the day you and your father were there, though you had lined up for an hour. “Why would they do that?” you asked. “Because they’re the Yankees,” somebody said. All you had wanted to do was pay your respects to Miller Huggins, but they wouldn’t let you in, so the Rays’ 7-1 victory was all the more sweet. Seal and Heidi Klum sat first row, right behind the dugout, but you and your father made do with nosebleeds over left field.
In Philadelphia they booed when a Mets batter fouled a ball off his foot and needed a moment to allow the pain to subside. They booed louder when he was okay.
In Baltimore you found that they have, in Camden Yards, one of the more beautiful spots on Earth, though it often sits all but empty. They told you that they’re used to having more Sox fans than O’s supporters on hand whenever Boston visits. During your visit the crab shacks were full of New Englanders who ordered more beers in their ridiculous accents. You stood behind Jason Bay in line at a Barnes & Noble. The New Englanders recognized him first.
In Allentown, PA, you saw none of the restlessness Billy Joel described; everyone seemed perfectly happy to stay, to eat corn dogs and ice cream, to watch their IronPigs turn unpolished young men into potential Phillies.
In the ballparks of America you wouldn’t want to be a woman in the presence of so many men with beer in their hands and in their heads.
In Los Angeles they beat a man into a coma for wearing a Giants jersey.
In the ballparks of America you have seen and can see again the best of America, and the indifferent, as well as the worst. In the ballparks of America you may feel as though you are close to understanding America, or maybe just Americans, as you sit shoulder to shoulder with them in your short sleeves and sip beer, and keep score, and question a called strike. In the ballparks of America you refrain from asking them what they’re doing to democracy, or what they have against public health care, or what they’ll do when their cities collapse in on themselves. You focus instead on those things that you agree on: the game on the field, those who have played it before and those who are playing it now. In the ballparks of America you can sit back and be among and with Americans and you can watch baseball, and for nine innings, even if their republic is crumbling outside the turnstiles, that’s all that’s needed.