I am told that I saw Stan Musial on his last trip through the National League, seeing my first game in 1963 at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. I am told, also, that I spent the afternoon playing with a girl of a similar age sitting a few rows behind us in the bleachers, a story I believe because I remember nothing of Musial or the game. I do remember, however, the chili dogs sold outside Forbes Field, the one part of the day I’ve never forgotten.
My next game was also my first American League game, a night game at Comiskey Park in 1968. I remember little except for an impression of the steep pitch of the upper deck and the incredible sweating ability of the Baltimore Orioles’ first baseman, Boog Powell. It was a hot summer night, and Powell sweated through the heavy uniform of the day, turning his gray road jersey almost black with dampness before he changed shirts along about the seventh inning.
By 1970, I am able to remember almost as much about the game–a late-summer, standing-room-only affair between the Cubs and the New York Mets in which Ken Holtzman tied a record, striking out the first five men he faced, and Ernie Banks hit his 500-and-somethingth home run (509 or 511?), but which the Mets won 5-3–as about the incidental details (my younger brother hated the el ride to the ballpark with such passion that we had to walk down to the Drive and catch a bus to take us back to the IC train and the suburbs).
I recite these incidences to show that a child’s impression of the game is not like an adult’s, that for a young child the game is little more than a spectacle, an excuse for a large gathering of people, and that a young boy can’t really concentrate on the game until his capacity to retain statistics develops sometime between the ages of seven and ten. (When a young girl begins to appreciate baseball for itself I cannot say.) We see young children at every baseball game, and they play a large part in every television spot in which baseball advertises itself to the public as the national pastime, but really most of these kids couldn’t care less. Which means that much of the impressionable youth some columnists and executives claim the game is played for is simply too impressionable to care much where Dwight Gooden or Daryl Strawberry was the night before, and that the game’s high moral code is meant mainly for a small window of fans–the 8- to 16-year-olds–who are going to find role models in whatever already appeals to them, whether it be Dale Murphy in Boys Life or a rough Jim McMahon parody in Mad magazine.
In any case, a child appreciates a baseball game in a unique way in which the game itself becomes almost secondary to the idea of the game–which is to gather with others and scream and shout and enjoy the afternoon–and that’s something many of us, the moralists and the stats fiends alike, had best take note of from time to time. Last Sunday, we took charge of a two-year-old whose parents are moving to a new house and who wanted to do some packing of breakables and some shopping for appliances without the hindrance of a child who has an aptitude for unpacking whatever has just been packed. We arrived slightly late, in such a flurry of confusion that–in collapsing the stroller and grabbing hold of the plastic batting helmet that kids under 13 were being given at the gate–I paid for a scorecard and forgot to pick one up, which as it turned out was just as well. We climbed the ramps to the upper deck and took our seats. The Cubs’ Steve Trout was already in trouble, with one run in and two men on base, and when the scores from Saint Louis and Houston went up on the center-field scoreboard–showing that my Rotisserie team starters Bob Sebra of the Montreal Expos and Rick Honeycutt of the Los Angeles Dodgers had allowed four runs apiece in their first two innings–I looked down at Max, with his back to the game, looking at the people here and there, and thought perhaps there was something to just watching the game go by, without a scorecard in one hand, a pencil in the other, with one eye on the game and the other on the scoreboard.
Max is at that wonderful age when he first begins to grasp the more difficult aspects of civilization, such as when the adults forget cups and he has to drink orange soda from a two-liter plastic bottle until the first beer cup can be drained and rinsed. He did this with a small amount of help and little mess, and with a few peanuts and a freshly cleaned beer cup he was on his way. As he sat forward in the seat to drink, the game was forced upon him, and he asked the questions of a two-year-old, much like Pasquale in the comic strip “Rose Is Rose,” only with better diction and a better grasp on the answers, and also with a slight case of the “Whyys.”
“Which are the Cubs?”
They’re in the white ’cause they’re the good guys. The Pirates are in gray and black, with the yellow trimming along the sleeves. They’re the bad guys.
“Why are the Pirates bad?”
Well, ’cause they’re trying to beat the Cubs. Why, did you ever know a nice pirate?
At first no, shaking his head, then nodding.
“I was a pirate once. But it was only pretend.”
Ah, uh hum. Yes. Then the tough one that always seems to come at the end of these series of whys.
“Why are the Pirates trying to beat the Cubbies?”
I don’t know if Roger Angell has ever addressed that essential question.
To our left was a boy, about four or five, sitting on his father’s lap. The father talked into his son’s ear, pointing at this and that on the field. This effort was probably wasted, I thought. Just in front of us was a seven- or eight-year-old, occupied with his father’s Walkman. Along about the seventh inning, he fell asleep. Confident and self-assertive, Max demanded his own peanut for peeling, and–given one that was slightly cracked–went to work. Trout settled down and the Cubs came back. A rare jumbo-hot-dog vendor came by and I ordered three, gave Max one, and damn if he didn’t eat the whole thing, including extra mustard.
Drawn in by the flurry of activity–after taking the lead with three in the bottom of the first, the Cubs let the Bucs have one in the fourth, then came back with their own run in the fourth and two in the fifth–Max took an interest in the names of the players, specifically the animal nicknames–“The Bull” and the oft-mentioned but injured “Ryno”–and the more distinctive two syllable names, Andre and Jody. Jody, especially, was popular with Max, because of the familiar high-pitched chanting of his name in the stands and because he wore his helmet both at bat and in the field, so that soon Max was wearing his own helmet pointed forward when the Cubs were up and backward when the Cubs were in the field.
That’s good, but where’s your mask? Do you have a mask?
“At home.” And for an instant I saw Jody Davis behind the plate, his helmet on backward and wearing a child’s Halloween mask.
The game dragged on. Trout was in trouble early, then first the Pirates’ and then the Cubs’ bull pens had problems. The game went beyond three hours. The child in the row in front of us went to sleep. Max, however, went on. Distracted, we gave him an all-star ballot, and with a little help he picked Andre and Ryno and Jody and the Bull before plugging away at the American League. He brightened at the seventh-inning stretch and coasted home, taking an interest, toward the end, in the glove held with anticipation by the 10- or 11-year-old behind us.
“I want one.”
I have one. Wait till we get home.
“Cubs win,” Max squealed all the way home.
Back at the apartment I wanted to watch the U.S. Open; Max wanted to play catch. So I got out the gloves and a Nerf ball and went to work with one eye on the television, rooting for Ben Crenshaw between tosses and then simply watching as Tom Watson struggled to win another major, only to have the steady Scott Simpson get hot and birdie 14 and 15 to tie as Crenshaw and Seve Ballesteros fell away. Then Simpson made a long birdie putt to take the lead on 16 and parred in. Watson struggled home, the birdie he needed ever just out of reach, and he just missed a monstrous putt from off the green on the 18th that would have tied the tournament and forced a playoff. Max was only mildly interested. He is too young for the concentration demanded by golf–where the spectacle is small, the noise silent. Some would say that if he is lucky he will never be so old that golf entertains, but my father–who took me to see Stan Musial, and who taught me golf not long after that–is not one of them, and for that I thank him.