My son is reading the book Baseball Genius, and he loves it. Gabriel’s favorite sport is baseball. When my friend offered me two free tickets to see the Hartford Yard Goats play on May 20th, I took them without hesitation. I’ve been very critical of the baseball stadium, and I have several friends and acquaintances who have promised to never set foot in the building. I understand that sentiment, and I hope they remain true to it as long as it remains important to them. I’d always wanted to go to a baseball game with my son. We were given tickets to a game several years ago, when the team was still the New Britain Rock Cats, but a prior commitment prevented me from attending. Here was another opportunity for us, within walking distance of our home. That opportunity is not worth the $70 million (and counting) boondoggle the stadium has become. But there it is, sitting across from Salvin’s shoes, whether I watch a baseball game or not.
“I have to admit, after reading my book I’m excited to go to a baseball game,” Gabriel said when I showed him the tickets. His joy is worth whatever hypocrisy I might be guilty of.
Dunkin Donuts Park is a beautiful building. The only other baseball game I’d been to was at the old Yankees Stadium in the late 1990’s, and I expected all baseball parks to be in a similar state of disrepair. Not the Yard Goat’s new stadium. Barely a month old, many of the park’s surfaces still gleam. Gigantic high definition screens are everywhere to grab your attention for the few seconds of inaction between pitches. The field is emerald green perfection. Most impressively, the public bathrooms don’t smell like a bathroom. The “new building smell” will wear off someday, but it was a pleasant surprise to not have to hold my breath in front of the urinal.
The racial dynamics of the baseball stadium are unavoidable if your eyes are open. The crowds were overwhelmingly white, from all walks of life- families with children, couples out on a date, a pair of older gentlemen sitting behind me who were there to celebrate a birthday. A music group of children from Ellington made the trip down to the city to sing the National Anthem. My son recognized his former music teacher and rushed over to say hello to him. There were also people of color there besides my son and I. A black woman and her son were sitting directly in front of us. I saw black and brown families who were out to enjoy a day at the park as well, and diverse friend groups peppered throughout the stadium. Yet most of the people of color I saw were the employees at the stadium. They were working in concessions, greeting and directing visitors and cleaning. I recognized one concessions worker as a kid from my neighborhood, maybe eighteen, maybe younger. I didn’t see any of my neighbors at the game as spectators.
Our seats were excellent. We were sitting in Section 104, row D. There were only three rows between us and the field. We watched the game as if the Yard Goats and the Akron Rubber Ducks were giving us a private performance. Gabriel’s eyes were fixed on the players, waiting for the next pitch, the next swing. Something would happen, there’d be a flurry of activity and after he’d taken it all in, he’d look up at me and ask, “Why did that happen?”
Baseball is the sport I’ve played the most in my life, despite being genuinely awful at it. I played a year of little league with my mother as the coach. Thanks to a late birthday and a special accommodation to keep my brothers and I together, I was the biggest kid on the team. Still, I only managed two hits that season. They would be the only two hits of my three-year career. I played one year on a middle school travel team, and one year of junior varsity in high school. We lost every game both years, which made me the worst player on two bad teams.
I learned a great deal about the game in those years. I know what “turn two” means and I can explain the infield fly rule. That knowledge is important because baseball is a game of idiosyncrasies unlike the other major sports. Foul balls are strikes, but only on the first two pitches, so you can’t strike out on a foul ball, unless you foul off a bunt. Explaining baseball to people who haven’t played it is often an exercise in stating the rules and then quickly remembering to mention the exception to the rule.
And there are some rules you can’t explain unless you see it happen firsthand. Gabriel and I have tossed around a baseball in the park many times, yet there was never an occasion for me to explain what a balk was until the Yard Goats pitcher did one in the second inning. You can’t explain the exaggerated signals of an umpire until you see him jerk his arm back like he’s starting a lawnmower. You can’t describe a force out versus a fielder’s choice.
You also can’t experience the same exhilaration of a home run from inside your home. I was at college in Virginia in 2003 when Aaron Boone hit the game-winning home run that sent the Yankees to the World Series over the Red Sox (full disclosure: I’m an Atlanta Braves fan). The floor of my dorm exploded as my floor mates poured into the hallway at midnight to cry for joy or gnash their teeth. Dillon Thomas’ three-run shot in the bottom of the sixth inning didn’t have as much riding on it, but the excitement was the same as the home crowd erupted. I loved hearing the crack of the bat connecting with the ball, and my son yelling, “Yoooooooooo!” as he watched the ball sail through the air. We gave each other knowing looks each time the stadium’s sound system played the secrets jingle from The Legend of Zelda. We laughed as the Dunkin Donuts mascots raced each other between innings; Gabriel wanted the donut to win, but the Coffee Coolata edged him out. We talked about the excellently named Correlle Prime. We had a blast.
Gabriel and I left in the bottom of the sixth inning. The Yard Goats were up 6-2 at that point (they would go on to win the game 6-5). We decided to walk home instead of waiting twenty minutes for the bus. As we walked, we passed a cross in an open field at the corner of Main Street and Albany Avenue. A man was found dead there last summer. His name was Angelo Milardo as a picture on the cross attests to. There were no further news stories to announce Milardo’s name. His cross is fitting as the first thing you see when you enter the North End of Hartford, a place everyone seems to have forgotten about.
Baseball is a complicated game. The ideas are simple enough- throw the ball, hit the ball, catch the ball. Then you start asking questions. How should you throw the ball? Where? How hard should you hit the ball? Should you try to hit the ball? The more questions you ask, the more complex the interactions become until you have an entire pseudoscience dedicated to it. The idea of enjoying a baseball game is simple enough, too. As long as you don’t ask any questions.