i prefer not to watch when they’re at bat

I Prefer Not to Watch When They’re At Bat

by Ed Collins/October, 1998

Baseball is like tennis in that both sports  utilize a scoring system without clocks, where real time is irrelevant, and where the beginning of the contest is often just a feeling-out process.  Still, in the very first inning, when Stirling Hitchcock pitched to Chipper Jones, the Brave’s second batter, and when the count was one ball and two strikes, I had to stand––because everyone in front of me, and everywhere, was on their feet, (standing atop the proverbial band wagon), cheering and waving these little white handkerchiefs we were handed upon entering the stadium. The noise hurt my ears it was so loud. (For that matter, ten minutes before the first pitch, fans were on their feet. This will be tough to top, I thought, if, later in the game, when it counts, the team needs our support, and our emotional batteries have run  down to nothing. Who are these people, anyway, and what were they doing for fun before the playoffs? What is it that makes them emote so freely in public? Throw their arms overhead, lay their heads back and rattle their vocal chords raw? Like some kind of primitive primal healing, dressed in Padre uniforms, of sorts.

Miraculously, it seemed, the Padres won the first two games in Atlanta; now the series returned for three games in San Diego. At 8pm on the night before game three, I get a call from Bill Scott, an acquaintance (but suddenly  good friend), inviting me to the game. “Uh, sure, yeah, you bet,”I could’ve said.

Plaza, section 22, row 10, seat #6, is right behind the visitor’s dugout. In the 5th, just after 2 dogs, peanuts, a small Coke (and $10), 3rd baseman Ken Caminiti, stiff and permanently puffed up, (Does he bench press between at-bats or what?), pokes a seeing-eye single to knock in the go-ahead run. Stirling Hitchcock pitches a 6-hitter and the Pads win 4 to 1.

# # #

                  Now the Padres lead the series three games to two. On a warm and windless Monday evening, will the Padres clinch? From Plaza, section 50, row 1, seats #5 & 6, Robbie Seward and I sit behind Tony Gwynn and the Braves’ Michael Tucker, in the right field. It was Tucker who hit a ball in the 8th inning that had the collective effect of a middle-of-the-night phone call. It was Michael Tucker’s bat that took Padre Fans from pre-celebration celebration to post-job dismissal despair. Stunned into silence, mouths agape. Poof. Up in smoke: Dreams, fantasies, World Series––to funeral march. One crack of the bat and the ball lands 20 feet away. No way that happened.

Moments before––no the inning before––with the Padres leading 4-2 in the 7th, runner on first base, the Padres’ funny-named, goofy-looking manager, Bruce Bochy, replaces pitchers. It’s…it’s…it’s KEVIN BROWN jogging in from the left field bullpen. Broad sloped shoulders,

long muscular neck, huge hands hanging at his knees. Oh my God, it’s The Lone Ranger and Robin Hood, all in one. Saved! He’s coming to save the Padres! I can’t believe this. Rock-and-roll music blares, throbs from over my shoulder and through my head. (I can’t put my finger on when exactly pro baseball became baseball, and more.) A middle-aged guy in a navy-blue Padres jersey with the word Batman stitched across his shoulders and blue and orange pompom material under a Padres hat, hanging down to his shoulders, dancing on the wall above and behind Tony Gwynn. People all around me are shaking Padre- colored maracas, clapping, whooping, cheering, whistling. On the dynavision screen a young lady dances to a rock-jock tune, by herself, maybe or maybe not aware the camera is on her. Afterwards she sits down, only a bit self-consciously, beside Robbie.

Meanwhile, KEVIN BROWN has taken the mound. His dozen warm-up throws seem, even from section 50, jet propelled. He lifts his leg, turns his back to the plate, and in a blur, delivers a ball that, up close, must sound like a shot arrow and look like the Road Runner at warp speed.

In my field of view, from section 50, behind KEVIN BROWN, is the visitor’s dugout. I peer though my compact binoculars at the Atlanta Braves, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, each appear to be staring at KEVIN BROWN. They sit the same––back straight, fleet flat on the Gatorade-littered, smokeless tobacco-stained, sunflower-seed shell-covered ground. Frozen they sit. He’s a baaad man. Sour, dour expression on the face of the mercenary he is, KEVIN BROWN’s arms seem to stretch all the way to the plate. The ball hisses through the air, then pops as it lands in the plump catcher’s glove of beefy Venezuelan Carlos Fernandez.

Surreal. Robbie Seward doesn’t say a word. “Unbelievable,” I probably say, as the scene envelopes me, my ears, eyes, skin, nervous system. “Down go the Braves,” I and 60,000-plus fellow Padre fans think to ourselves, or outloud. As Padre fans, we’re all such underdogs, and it’s going to feel so wonderful to beat the odds. Our team is old and beat up, put together by training tape, Advil, cortisone and a variety of synthetic testosterone; but they seem likable and team, not self conscious. Arrogant Atlanta, in stark contrast: their super rich owner, their 6 or 7 NL champion-ships, coupled with Smoltz, Glavine, Maddox and Neagle––a baseball-pitching foursome of Michael Jordans, it seems. And we’re gunna win. We’re gunna win.

One inning later the ball hit by Michael Tucker floats over the head of Tony Gwynn. (Michael Tucker, that doesn’t even sound like a baseball name.)

“Let’s watch the 9th inning from closer to the trolley,” I tell Robbie, who nods in agreement but stares vacantly.

What the hell if the Padres don’t make a comeback: 3rd-string catcher Greg Myers smacks a home run to bring the Padres

within one run, and the hoarse fans are back on their feet. Finley with a walk, Gwynn at the plate, Maddox on the mound. This is stuff of Hollywood, could it be? If he hits a home run here I will always say ‘I was there.’

He doesn’t.

In the trolley car people don’t talk––depressed or in awe––we just had witnessed drama of the highest order. The best baseball game. Ever.

And I don’t feel good about it. We’ve shot our wad––laid down a bet, gambled and lost. In KEVIN BROWN we made a bold move and it backfired. Momentum, the heavyweight force of sport, has turned. Up 3-2, the series goes back to Atlanta.

# # #

                  I’m a cowardly fan now. At Robb Field I sometimes can’t watch, from the clubhouse/trailer, where the drama is played out on television. I give a lesson to Kevin Chen and miss scoreless innings one, two and three. A cancellation allows me to see the fourth, also scoreless, and fifth.

Then an Atlanta left fielder named Danny Bautista stumbles on a Texas leaguer from none other than pitcher Stirling Hitchcock (Why is it that this baseball name seems OK to me?)––his knees buckle as he closes his glove (and eyes, certainly) before the ball hits it. Five (5) Padres runs in the fifth. I’m giddy, but still spineless––I chose to watch the Braves’ half of the 7th inning from the court, where a radio brings the play-by-play to Gretchen Mager’s high school team practice. On the court I can bounce a ball, restlessly pace back and forth, talk to anyone, pretend indifference. In the Padres’ half of the inning my courage comes back and I return to the clubhouse/trailer. Then my student Evie Kalmar comes for her lesson, unaware that she’s rescuing me from my jitters.

“Ed!” Liba Placek yells from the clubhouse/trailer porch. “It’s the bottom of the 9th!” I go.

Then, square-jawed Trevor Hoffman, for now the steely-nerved Padres closer, protects a 5-0 lead. And the Padres win.

Back on the court, light-footed and light-headed––floating, it seems––I finish Evie’s lesson, and the Placek kids’ too––balls struck and gathered and advice given and taken, all to the background of horn-blowing––two hours’ worth––old and mostly new Padres fans, greeting each other like friends, waving and beeping and sticking their heads out car windows; people of every type, politic and persuasion, all agreeing on one thing:

It feels good to win. barcloaf1-1