Last Tuesday was the first eighty degree day of the year. Sun blazing. Air filled with the first shudder of summer. As if the atmosphere was shaking off the frost and hibernation.
And I had the day off!
So you know what I did?
Helped someone move into a three-story, walk-up in Boston on a narrow street with resident parking only which didn’t mean a damn because there was no parking to be had.
But this isn’t about that endeavor. Ghastly as it was. It’s a big part of my skill set to forget the refrigerators of the past, hoisted into my chest, dripping something quite a bit more viscous than water into my crotch and sock with a flight and a half to go.
Some say I can forget these minor interruptions because I’ve been hit in the head more frequently than the AMA deems reasonable. But I think it’s because I like to focus on what’s ahead. Forget the shit and keep looking for the pudding.
And that’s just what we did. As I’m changing my shirt (I didn’t have the foresight to bring pants. Or socks) we’re discussing what our next adventure is. Being in Boston our thoughts turn toward some places we hadn’t visited forever, if at all, but also some of our favorite boites (if you’ll excuse the term used for places with pest strip sticky floors).
“How about The Bleacher Bar?” I offer knowing it’s a winning suggestion. Not that we’ll go there, just that I won’t be looked at as if I’d just called places with pest strip sticky floors ‘boites’.
Knowing it’s hours before the game I have a good feeling we can get on street parking. Which we do. Right under something, less viscous than what is stuck to my pants but still unnerving, dripping from the over a century old Fenway Park. I don’t know about you, but, I’m leery of things dripping on me from anything one hundred years old.
“Whatever that is better not take the paint off my truck,” my better half says semi-undeterred.
We enter The Bleacher Bar and it’s fairly empty. A few workers milling about waiting for the inevitable pre-game rush. There’s a lone man sitting in the area in front of the grate that offers a priceless view of Boston.
Dead centerfield to home plate at Fenway Park.
Oh sure, for the previously mentioned hundred years, that view was available. From a minimum of seventeen feet in the air.
This is a ground level, unobstructed, three hundred and ninety foot view to home plate and the rest of the ‘lyric little bandbox’ John Updike so perfectly described.
This is a view a select few like Ellis Burks, Fred Lynn, Reggie Smith, Coco Crisp, Tris Speaker, Dom DiMaggio, Dave Roberts, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jimmy Piersall, Tommy Harper, Tony Armas and, yes, even Johnny Damon, among few others have enjoyed.
We’ve been to The Bleacher Bar many times and almost every time I’ve seen someone walk away from the grate with tears in their eyes. I’ve seen people gasp. I’ve seen people transfixed, unable to move until tased.
If baseball is a religion in Boston, this bar is our vatican.
Sort of fitting for Boston, wouldn’t you agree?
We walk through the vast bar to our seats at the trinity of tables at our alter. The guy sitting in the middle table, alone, barely registers our arrival. It wasn’t until we order our beverages (“The blood of Tris”) and snacks (“The body of Lynn”) that he pulled himself away.
“I didn’t even know this place existed.”
He was a Bostonian by right but moved away as an adult. He was here with his wife who was taking some classes a long throw from us. He was surprised none of his friends, who’d never left Boston, didn’t tell him about it.
“Guess it’s time for new friends.” I offered. He didn’t disagree.
Emboldened by Cape Codders, he approached the grate, swiftly crouched and, unseen by any authority, stuck a finger through the grate to gather a pinch of warning track clay. Coming back with less than is kicked off a cleat, he is satisfied and not too bloodied.
“My Father would kill me if I didn’t get him some.”
I’m sure wills have been altered for lesser transgressions.
Soon after the day went from light and larcenous to a place many people, myself included, didn’t think existed anymore.
A couple arrived so, in respect, we sat quietly allowing them to worship as they saw fit. You could tell they were tourists. But that didn’t stop them, the guy more so, from allowing the experience to envelop him.
For awhile the five of us sat there, yes, transfixed, left alone to our own thoughts and memories. The breeze that blew in from home plate buzzed me like high heat during a pennant race. There was a flavor. Sweet yet melancholy (we ARE Red Sox fans, after all) that reminded me of the reasons I love this game.
It contained every ball I every caught, threw, got hit by. Every ball I hit square and those I chipped in disappointment. Every time I stepped on the field, no matter what went happened last game, there was an opportunity for perfection.
Short lived most of the time, but hey, how many people can say they threw a three pitch inning AND had an unassisted triple play? Not in the same game (I’d STILL be bragging about that) or decade, but, damnit, I did it!
And it could only have happened in baseball.
And that’s why we became fans. That why we began following our team. That’s why we root. Because, as silly as it is, we can still see ourselves, in our mottled and dirt strewn third generation uniforms, making those plays.
After a respectful amount of time we traded greetings. But, being Boston and him being in a Miami (Heat not Marlins – not that it matters) shirt, there had to be a ration of ribs fed. He took it in stride and, in lackluster defense, said he wasn’t even a Heat fan.
He was a Lebron fan.
As if THAT made it any better.
But, because of where he was, he was forgiven his transgressions.
It turns out he and his photographer, oh, I mean wife had been on the road visiting ballparks. It’s their goal (yes, not just his. We confirmed this. She’s a fan. And photographer but someone has to take the pictures!) to visit every major league ballpark.
This was their last day on the road but, arms laden with goodies (he didn’t want to leave it back at the hotel with his bags. Priorities, you see. You can always get new underwear but a Dave Winfield signed lithograph? Not as easy), he had to visit The Bleacher Bar once more.
“This is the best ballpark I’ve ever seen.”
Oh sure, suck up now, James lover!
But it was true. It was in his eyes. You could feel it move throughout his body. He was, as Annie Savoy so aptly stated in Bull Durham, in the church of baseball.
He regaled us with this trip, their others, they were talked into making a pilgrimage to spring training parks, he showed us game used balls, autographs, pictures (many, many pictures. Some of which he was asked who the person was only to be told, “I’ll tell you later!”), stories about who he’d seen on the street (the dog whisperer! Amazingly, walking dogs), in a bar (who, if his performance the next day was any indication, maybe shouldn’t have been there so late), one about having to pay $40 to walk into a similar bar at Yankee Stadium (“That included nothing!” He said. “The least they could have done,” I replied. “Was smack you in the head and say, ‘Welcome to New York, sucker!'”) and many other warm and fuzzy stories.
That’s when it hit me. All these yahoos in their $300 ‘official’ jerseys and Yankees Suck chants at bar mitzvah could never understand this man. Just a guy from Los Angeles, in a Heat t-shirt, with his bags full of memories waiting for their spots in his rec room. Oh, and they have them! He described his rec room in intense detail.
Maybe they were never transfixed, lost in that forever moment between the time the ball leaves the bat until it reaches that final destination. That’s the moment, when joy and despair are conjoined twins, fans like him are made.
After a long while he seemed to be in the bottom of the ninth in a tight August contest. He slowed down to absorb the last few moments here. His departure was imminent and it hung heavy.
He watched a couple players from The Angels, his home team, jog past. One of them, a guy he said is a guaranteed superstar, recognized him and told him not to get too drunk tonight. That simple exchange caused roars of laughter and a camaraderie he’ll always keep close.
All because of his love for baseball.
Moments before he had to drag himself away, melancholy filled the air. It wasn’t sadness as much as the inevitable. Just like a baseball game, it will always come to an end. Happy for some, sad for others.
We shook hands, closer than we’d been mere hours before. I told him I was glad he visited Boston and we were fortunate to have him. And with that, they were gone to be replaced by another group. Sad for some, happy for others. I started to engage but they didn’t have it. The panache. The passion. The love for the game. So I let them be.
Shortly after, as is the rule, they put down the overhead door putting a barrier between people and the grounds. Too many yahoos and not enough fans, I guess.
And with that, it became just another bar with a great address. So that’s when the believers filed out.
Later that night, watching the game from the friendly confines of my living room, I felt sad. Until the Angel who reminded the guy not to get hammered came to bat. He’d told me he was sure this player was going to hit a home run tonight. I said I’d think of him if it happened. It didn’t.
But it didn’t stop me from thinking about him, high over the skies of middle America, with his bag full of smiles and heart full of excitement. And it won’t stop me from thinking about him again.
Because of meeting him, hopefully, I’m going to be a fan.
For all the right reasons.