“It is the life-affirming genius of baseball that the short can pummel the tall, the rotund can make fools of the sleek, and no matter how far down you find yourself in the bottom of the ninth you can always pull out a miracle.”
Bill Vaughn, American author and essayist.
Coming out of the concourse at Candlestick Park I gazed on the greenest thing I’d ever seen. I was 8 years old when I caught that first wondrous glimpse of a sea of the most perfect grass you’ll ever lay your eyes upon. To an 8 year old that field seemed boundless. It’s a rite of passage, that first ever professional baseball game. Looking out at the field is only one of the colors of the sensory rainbow of that first game experience, a stamped forever memoir. The smells that you would forevermore associate with a ballgame; the spice of hot dogs and that secret brown mustard you could never find at the grocery store, the pungent odor of onions bursting from the bins at the condiment counter and the malty aroma of sloshing beer.
And the sounds. The pregame buzz of the crowd filing in; batting practice wafting up from the field, the crack of the bat, pop of the glove and the players’ banter. And of course there are the vendors, hawking food, drink and souvenirs in loud voices, all calling out in that singular ballgame peddler’s accent as if they’re all from some mythical land with a baseball language all its own.
“Prograaaams. Getcher prograaams heah. Hey-programs.”
“Hot dogs heah. Get-cher red hots.”
“Ice cold beah, heah. Getcher ice cold beah heah.”
That first step out of the concourse slams the senses like a bat crushing a 95 mile an hour fastball.
In 1962 the San Francisco Giants were still relatively new to The City, just 5 years removed from having broken the collective heart of Manhattan, following the rival Dodgers who’d moved from Brooklyn to California.
If you love baseball you don’t forget that first experience and you remember that first opponent. For me it was the Saint Louis Cardinals and Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Stan Musial. Aside from being awestruck coming out of the concourse I probably did what most kids do at a ballgame; started squirming and whining around the 5th inning, asked for and was granted a limitless ration of junk food just to keep me quiet and negotiated for a souvenir.
During those first years, I left the game with a variety of mementos; pennants for my bedroom wall, big pins depicting a player’s photo and a red, white and blue ribbon poking from the bottom, and a collection of caps. Oddly enough I wanted caps from other teams; I had a Cardinals’ cap, a Cincinnati Reds cap, a Cubs’ cap and a plastic Philadelphia Phillies replica helmet.
But the treasure of all treasures was a baseball autographed by the Giants. It’s the only souvenir that I kept and still possess – thankfully. In those days laser printed phonies weren’t available. Balls were set out in a team’s clubhouse and players would sign them during down times. Years ago I dug it out of a box of stuff and turning it over in my hand, I realized that I was the owner of the autographs of Hall of Famers, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and the greatest of them all, Willie Mays.
It made up for all the autographed balls that I’d worked for after games and subsequently lost. Those were the days when fans, mostly kids, gathered at the accessible players exit and asked for autographs as the players filtered out. One of my favorite players was Sandy Koufax. I can’t recall how many times I got his autograph on a ball that I would eventually go out and play with and then lose in bushes or down the street or in a pile of junk that made its way to the landfill. I imagine that some lucky soul pulling up hedge trimmings might have come across one of those balls and said, “What idiot let this one get away?”
Sandy Koufax was a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers and the Giants. It’s a mutual loathing that reaches back to the late 19th century, 1890 to be exact. It’s a searing contempt between players and players, fans and fans, children and parents and husbands and wives that started in New York and made its way cross country to California. It’s a rivalry that’s sundered friendships and launched household civil wars. The feud between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots has nothing on the bad blood that exists between Dodger and Giants fans. And while Mary lost her head over her feud with Liz, it isn’t rare that fans figuratively lose their heads over the Dodger-Giant rivalry. This I know from experience because I lived it from childhood to sometime in my 30’s.
Mom was a San Francisco Giants fan. Over the years I committed a series of infractions that probably gave mom pause to wonder if her real son had been switched out at birth. There was the time that I blew off the family Easter dinner to go to a girlfriend’s family dinner; this one was a real biggie on my rap sheet. There was the battle over long hair that I eventually won. There was Jimmy Hendrix, The Doors and The Iron Butterfly. Oh and don’t let me forget the psychedelic art posters in my room or the time when mom caught her 12 year old son deeply engrossed in a Playboy magazine. She either asked herself where she’d gone wrong or more likely blamed it all on dad.
But of all my perceived felonies the gravest and most heinous was the ignominy of her son being a Dodger fan. It couldn’t have been any worse if the FBI had shown up at the house and arrested me for spying for the commies. Bringing home and wearing a blue cap emblazoned with those two hated letters L. A, was on par with kicking the family dog – maybe worse. The dog would get over it but that cap was the ghastly specter that tormented the household as long as it retained its unwelcome residence.
The beginning of any Dodger – Giants series marked the commencement of all out warfare marked by insults, raised voices and slammed doors that concluded in a mutual silent treatment. And poor dad, who could take baseball or leave it, and he would just as soon have left it, was resigned to act as the umpire.
I can’t say exactly what it was that caused me to mend my ways and renounce the evil empire that was the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maybe I felt that the Dodgers just didn’t resemble the team that I’d loved as a child; Drysdale, Koufax, the Duke, Maury Wills and the Davis brothers had been replaced by faces I couldn’t relate to. That gritty team of the 60’s that consistently came out on top of one run games was replaced by some strange cast of characters out of Hollywood. Grit had been replaced by flash personified by the pretty boy smile of Steve Garvey and his off the field drama. Or maybe I just got tired of being a San Francisco Bay Area reprobate. Whatever it was, sometime in my late 30’s I rejected the boys in blue and adopted the Oakland A’s.
The A’s and I had a somewhat brief tryst. It was always a little bit strained because I never could (and still can’t) accept the American League’s designated hitter. I may have chosen the A’s because at the time the A’s digs were more welcoming than the Giants’ Candlestick Park. “The Stick” as it was often called, along with a colorful lexicon of obscenities, could, on a windy Bay Area night be one of the coldest places on planet Earth. I recall one particularly frigid night when my friend Scott and I rejected beer in favor of hot chocolate. A hospitable fan in front of us fortified our chocolate with a splash or two from his whiskey flask.
The Oakland Coliseum on the other hand was a comfy little field with a center field backdrop of green grass dotted with colorful flowers. And the food at the Coliseum was vastly superior; why settle for a plain hot dog when you could have an Italian sausage brimming with onion and peppers.
I would often show up at the stadium just as the gates opened and then head straight for the sausage vendor and the beer vendor. Once provisioned I would sit in the lower seats and watch batting practice. It was that spiritual sports time when I could enjoy the ball park sacraments of dog and brew and listen to the players’ chatter accompanied by the stadium music of the pop of the glove and the crack of the bat echoing around the near empty stadium. It’s one of the most enjoyable times of an afternoon of baseball.
The ambiance of that park would change when the City of Oakland caved in to Satan and granted Al Davis a remodel that turned that friendly little ballpark into a grotesque abomination in order to lure the Raiders back to Oakland (as it turns out the Raiders would once again screw their fans by moving to Las Vegas).
My affair with the A’s resulted in a dream come true; attendance at not one but two World Series. In 1989 the A’s beat the Giants and in 1990 the A’s made a brief appearance in the fall classic before getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds.
And then baseball jilted me. Betrayed because of greed and vanity. It was the steroid era and the mockery that would stain the record books. Records that stood for years were mere castles of sand smashed by a wave of drug induced performances that Major League Baseball countenanced and fans would debate over for decades. But I was done with it. I was the heartbroken suitor who would never love again.
As the furor was quelled and the suspensions put an end to the sham I started to warm up to baseball. I would eventually shift my allegiance again, this time to the Giants, but there was still one demon to be exorcised – one Barry Lamar Bonds. As long as Barry Bonds dishonored the field I refused to go to a game. To me Bonds was (and is) the face of the gang of transgressors who tainted the record books. Bonds is the thief who stole from Mays, Ruth, Maris and Aaron. As long as he donned a uniform I would boycott the Giants. Baseball and I have made amends. Cora and I started attending games, even taking a vacation to Washington DC to watch the Giants play the Nationals.
We’ve gone through three World Championships, each one seeming to be improbable as the seasons began. Lately it’s been hard times but not every team can win and most years you have to enjoy the game just for the game itself. As former commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti so eloquently put it;
“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
But it isn’t as if there aren’t issues. As with any relationship there are those aggravations, like drinking milk straight from the carton or not wiping the scum off the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. Baseball is trying to remake itself. The haters will tell you that the pace has become too slow and the games too long.
The truth is, the game hasn’t changed. It’s the way we live that has changed. We have to have everything now and gratification has to be instant so that we can move on and fulfill the next burning thrill and then on to the next and the next. Life has become a constant quest for the instantaneous blast and baseball doesn’t fit into that mold. We don’t have the patience to watch baseball. We don’t have the attention span. We’ve lost the ability, or the desire to concentrate on any one single thing for two hours. We can’t sit down to dinner without checking our phones multiple times to find out what happened in the intervening minutes. No,the pace of the game itself hasn’t changed markedly unless you account for the introduction of more commercials.
And so baseball has decided to tinker once again with the game. No more four pitch intentional walks, limited visits to the mound and the idea that Major League Baseball is toying with, that a relief pitcher must face at least three batters before getting yanked. Has MLB considered what will happen to the length of a game if said relief pitcher gives up a conga line of base runners or can’t find the plate if his mother’s life depended on it? It’s enough to make you want to go nose to nose with the commissioner and argue the call while kicking infield dirt on his shoes. For now I’ll stand in there and wait to see what pitch Major League Baseball decides to throw.
Photos were taken between the 2010 and 2016 baseball seasons at AT&T (now Oracle) Stadium in San Francisco, The Oakland Coliseum, and Nationals’ Park in Washington D.C.