I get a little sad this time of year.
It’s fall and baseball will be over within a week’s time. And it’s not that I’m hankering for more, quite the opposite really—162 games plus a wild card, plus a division series, plus a championship series …and then a World Series is plenty, thank you.
The first pitch I watched thrown this year was from the outfield grass of the Cubs’ new Spring Training facility which bloomed like a desert flower somewhere northwest of Mesa on the banks of the Salt River. A buddy of mine had just handed me a cold tall boy of Old Style which tasted as if it’d been unearthed from someone’s great uncle’s wood paneled basement fridge in Skokie.
All the action was buzzing around the Dos Gringos pop-up bar in center field. Cubs fans, skin the color of Elmer’s Glue, were downing tequila shots from plastic cough syrup cups and chasing it with some Louie-Bloo Raspberry alcohol-infused slosh which spun hypnotic from an adult beverage cotton candy machine behind the barkeep.
The permafrost still not shaken from their feathers, nonetheless they looked as new as their visors. Hope was alive and pulsed through the stadium. A doughy and serpentine line out of the souvenir shop stretched down the third-base line and into the left-field concourse.
On the field, fresh faces with a snowball’s chance in Phoenix of making it did their best in jerseys numbered 80 and up. Performing over the Greek chorus hum of guilty pleasures: cracking that first beer at 10 a.m. and taking that last burrito bite after 1 a.m. The smell of sweaty sunscreen and the electric whirr of golf carts fills the space between the outdoor bars and tchotchke shops and steakhouse clatter of Scottsdale.
And then the regular season begins: The injuries, the streaks, the call ups, the trade rumors, the surgeries and the maybe-next-years. And then school’s out and then vacation. And then back to school and work. And then it’s dark when you go to work, dark when you get home.
During the fall of 1997, the San Francisco Giants—my father’s team, his father’s team and his father’s team—had advanced to the National League Division Series by winning the NL West with a 90-72 record. Eventual World Series champion Florida Marlins and their pair of aces, Livan Hernandez and Kevin Brown—plus Robb Nen in his pre-Giant days as Florida’s dominant closer, went up on SF 2-0 at home in the best-of-five.
The Giants returned to the gator-free shores of South San Francisco and 57k faithful had one chance to extend playoff hopes at the ‘Stick. The Giants’ Wilson Alvarez squared off against Alex Fernandez in a showdown of two would-be forgotten arms. San Francisco struck first with a solo shot by second baseman Jeff Kent, but veteran center fielder Devon White smoked a grand slam in the top of the sixth for the fish. After that, it was the bluster of trash and circling of sea gulls as Nen got Damon Barryhill to ground out to end the series.
My two favorite Giants fans, Paul Sloan and my Dad, were in the stands next to me. Paul and I had our faces painted. Once the final out was recorded, I looked over and a few tears ran down Paul’s black and orange cheeks. He cupped them in his hands before they dripped on his jersey. My Dad sniffed and gathered his scorecard and souvenir cup.
Two grown men sat there with me in between. They wept a little bit. And that made me sad.
I never brought up that moment, not to either one of them. Now that they’re both gone, I won’t have the chance. My assumption then, as it should be now, was they were sad the Giants lost. They were sad the entire season came down to just a few short outs. They were sad Kent’s home run was wasted. They were sad they’d have to wait not just till spring, but a year, five …maybe ten, to see the Giants in playoff form again.
Or maybe it was just a little relief. It was getting cold outside. Cold in those orange ‘Stick chairs especially. Cold in the garage where my Dad listened to most of the games. For him it was more a distraction than a passion. He wasn’t a sports talk guy and he often whiffed on the names of individual players. He just liked that it was happening, baseball as ritual and around him.
For Paul, there was passion. It was his idea a season later to go to Spring Training for the first time. After he’d relocated to New York, he wore his Giants jacket over his suit jacket on the subway during baseball season. In the tribute the New York Times published after his death on 9/11, his Giants fandom was mentioned prominently. And he wouldn’t have had it any other way. For that I am sure.
I get the butterflies every year I pop the tab on my first beer in a Scottsdale Circle K parking lot next to a Dumpster. I get the feeling that anything’s possible if only in the context that the weekend will be gobbled up in rickshaw fare and a ball of credit card receipts and flights to catch Sunday morning. But for that moment, I am floating three inches above the asphalt. And Paul’s just about to emerge from the restroom, Giants jersey open, hat on backwards, khaki shorts frayed at the bottom, arms outstretched above the adobe and cactus skyline. Sun filtered through fingertips.
I tune on the radio and listen in on the pre-game and think of my Dad and his dog playing ball as the game echoes up through the Manzanita and Sugar pine.
Both Paul and my Dad were Giants fans when it wasn’t so great to be one. I think they liked it better that way. Playoff appearances, which have come with the frequency of every iPhone release, were cherished like the wedding where those who attend believe in the couple more than the booze. Most seasons limped to a third- or fourth-place close with little to show but for a few ticket stubs and some lingering garlic fry breath.
My Dad, cancer-stricken in the last year of his life, couldn’t do much but be in his favorite chair with the game on in the background. It was a way to pass the time during the final days, so slow and long as the minute hand seemed to tick backwards, yet fleeting overall. Outside wasn’t really an option but I wonder if we shouldn’t have just given back his old black radio and let him linger awhile longer in the afternoon shadows.
All history is revisionist, especially when it comes to personal memory. I’m not trying to say those days of freezing fog and cold hot dogs and six-dollar bleacher seats were the best. They weren’t. But sometimes, when I’m alone, they’re all I think about.
So for me, it’s good to be a little sad this time of year. Not because this season is almost over, but because—like all others before it—no one individual is guaranteed another.
Spring will come around soon enough. 153 days to be exact. But I will be a year older and so will my buddies. And Paul and my Dad, gone a year longer. I have a new son. In his eyes I see renewal and the promise of the seasons I’ll never see. I know it’s a cycle and I know that has its purpose too.
I will shed a little tear when the last out is recorded, because now I understand a little better what Paul and my Dad saw that chilly playoff night in 1997.
This week, win or lose, another small piece of me will go away for good as the stadium lights dim.