It’s raining this morning. Raining cats and dogs. Earlier it was raining refrigerators, boxcars and horse drawn wagons; with horses attached. But, none of that stuff happened last night. Last night it rained home runs, big cheers and great joy! Great joy after deep gloom; the best kind to have. That’s the story of baseball, one of mankind’s greatest achievements along with a cold mug of suds and a fat sandwich, and kids who play the game with heart, so guys like me never have to grow old.
Here’s how it happened.
A BRIEF CAUTIONARY NOTE: The reader will be aware, I hope, all half dozen of you, that what I shall tell below is a story, not factually perfect. I took no notes, and I work from an overtaxed memory. But it’s a true story, believe me.
It all started a few days ago when the home town team, The Nashua Silver Knights, was scheduled to play The I Mavericks from Portsmouth, NH, in a three game series to see who would go up against the Western Division’s team for the 2016 Champeenship of the FCBL (Futures Collegiate Baseball League). We’ve had season tickets for several years now, and a season’s worth of ball games in the open air, with attendant beer drinking and hot dog eating and screaming at the umps, cheering for the good guys, costs about as much as a night down in Bean Town or a day at Fenway , is closer to home and better for the soul.
Anyway, our guys lost the first game. Actually it was stolen from them. But, like Mom always said, “There’s no use…”, right? And besides winning or losing, we knew we were better than “them”. So, like everyone in Brooklyn long, long ago, we headed for the next game, last night’s, up in Portsmouth at what I was led to believe was a nice place for a game, Leary Field; our hearts topped off with hope and swagger. We bought our own chairs with us, and I thought, “This is real!” as, after paying only three bucks, we wandered across the field with our folding seats, and jackets just in case. It was a beautiful night for baseball, a game of which makes every night more beautiful. But, nature had put on the Ritz for the game: clear sky, high clouds, a neat little park across from the library with church steeples and old houses and tree lined streets ringing the place, and a quarter moon crooning brightly in the light of the setting sun. I kept looking for Norman and his easel.
The game was late getting started, and I can’t remember thinking it was because of the crush of the crowd. Fewer than a hundred people were in the stands, or spread out along the chain link fence on the visitors’ side. I remember thinking that the ball park was a hitter’s paradise. It looked like a place for high school ball; no fence further than about 350′, and none higher than 7′. Compared to ours in Nashua, where Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella played, it was an orange crate to a mahogany chest.
Anyway, I couldn’t help remarking to one of their players, as we passed them by on the way in, “Good game last night.” He looked up from his stretches and said, “Thanks.” “You got lucky, ” I answered and walked on. It was going to be a serious night of ball.
The first three innings were a hitless, scoreless pitchers’ duel, lots of strikeouts, but, also something else. There were lots of terrible calls from the home plate umpire. By the end of the third inning, it was more than obvious that the bad calls on the other side were for balls instead of strikes, and on our side he called them the other way ’round. I know it’s not a good thing to hate anyone, but this fellow was the one exception where hatred was a virtue. Well, not “the one” exception. But, you know what I mean.
Striking everyone as odd, the first thing he did when coming out to the field was rearrange the batter box boundaries, a thing no one had ever seen before.
And so it went. We scored two runs on one hit in the fourth, and it seemed to me, and every other one of the folks with us that the ump was definitely favoring the other side. Yet even with a tenth player on their side, they couldn’t score. Our coach was visibly angry with the guy, and our own players were getting upset. One of our pitchers, the starter, came out in the middle of the fifth because he was too visibly upset to continue. The umps tactics had gotten to him.
The relief fared no better, and by the 7th inning the score had been tied. Then, they broke out in front, scoring three more runs on a double by their big first baseman with the bases loaded; bases that were loaded on three walks in succession delivered to them courtesy of the ump, and another pitching change for us due to the same cause. The kid who came in took the mound, and I could see that the terrible conditions behind home plate had already had an effect on him. His behavior was full of contradictory signs, all doing with trying to work under tough conditions. It’s hard building a castle when it gets knocked down before you can get a wall up. Bad metaphor, I know. Nevertheless the whole team was by this time affected.
We fans, we few on the right side, were catching the virus, too, feeling powerless. About all we could do is commiserate with the team, and curse the ump, while watching bad call after bad call, and our hopes drain away. Strangely enough, there was a deafening silence from the fans on the other side; as if they were, somehow, ashamed.
The “scouting report” on our opponents from one of the fellows who was with us said that they were weak in pitching. Who needed good pitching when one was able to count the ump as a player. Nevertheless, there were some things the guy had to call balls, and out bats still worked. So, despite the handicap, the fellows managed to even the score. And it was tied at five runs apiece.
But in the eighth inning one of our guys hit a solo home run, a shot clearing the fence way out in center field; too far, I thought with a grim satisfaction, to be ruled foul by anyone so inclined to try. And, that ignited everyone! The celebration lasted through the next two at bats by our lads, I think. Some folks were literally dancing with glee. I know I was. It was Christmas and the Fourth of July and VE Day! I picked the latter to remind everyone, you special seven readers, that work had still to be done.
The bottom of the eighth didn’t change a thing for them, and we went into the ninth ahead by one run. I have to say the other side tried everything they could in a long time at bat; but their best efforts still left things as they were. And, as they were was definitely not to safe a position to hold on to. One run against a team that had beaten us by five just two days before was no cushion to rest on. It was a sharp rock in your back! Everyone knew it, and knew we needed to build a bigger lead. A combination of worry and determination and purpose built like a coming storm on us, on everyone, I think. The “game” took one a meaning more than play. The on deck “circle”, a stretch of gravel next to the ugly squat cinder block shelter that was the dugout, was a busy place with sometimes three players stretching, squatting, practice swinging, loosening up….waiting, and trying not to wait. The dugout itself was quiet. The fans, when we weren’t biting our nails, and looking for rabbit’s feet were doing what fans ordinarily do; our best to build a little hope, give a little support.
Have you ever been in a position where you get in inkling that the weather is about to change, feel a cool breeze on a hot sweaty day, a lightening of the heart, a change in attitude about someone or something? I had sat quietly for some time during the last inning really worrying about our thin lead, and, I guess, praying that we could build on it, to ensure the win I hoped was coming. And as the first batter walked to the plate, I thought I felt that breeze. This is no hindsight working on me now. I simply had a premonition that things were going to be OK. Only, I didn’t yet know how OK they were going to be.
So, I stayed to see.
I mentioned that pitching was our strength. Well your can go for the ride of your life on a pitcher’s arm, and we certainly had a stable full of thoroughbreds. On the other side of the field, they were no judges of horse flesh. I guess that is why they relied so much on the kindness of umpires. In this instance it failed them. The fellow on the mound, God bless him, could give the ump no help, because he kept throwing things so low only an ant could hit them. And what wasn’t low, was west of Chicago. Oh, there were a few pitches that weren’t ankle high, and one of them, perhaps more, became hits. He may even have walked one of them, despite the umps’s best efforts for the team. The bases filled, then, and another single sent another run in.
The sun had arisen on a beautiful day and the birds were all in marvelous voice. As a matter of fact everything sounded great, including the prolonged madness of our celebratory screaming. We filled the bases again with, I seem to recall a miserly hit to shallow right field. And that inkling I had had was growin’ fast, beyond intuition, beyond certainty and coming up on fact. By that time several among us behind the chain link fence may have been frothing at the mouth. I know at least two who certainly sounded that way.
The next fellow up, one of the steady producers, but not the biggest weapon by far in the arsenal, cleared the bases with a grand slam. And while it was all over in a few dozen seconds, it seems to me now that it took several hours while tragedy and triumph mingled on the plains of battle, and the opposition’s dugout became a mortuary.
And then, our last at bat grounded out. And, as if all it was was Dad and his pals leaving the factory after the whistle blew, our few fellows on deck turned and walked off the field. And I felt as if civilization had just been saved.
I listened to the sound of Verdi’s “Dies Irae” in my brain as the other guys trudged up to the plate, and I asked God for one or two small favors, three mercifully quick outs or perhaps a couple of runs, sort of as a comforting sip of water, a mercy before the just end. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? And it was God’s pleasure to remain where He was and let unfold what had been ordained before the worlds were made, before the stars in all their solemn majesty were set on high above. There was no long tragic march into Valhalla, no Wagnerian parade across the bridge into Valhalla. The end was a brutal fact. Merciless and swift and sure, as the lion suffocates the helpless zebra. And silence. For a split second before we all,players and spectators erupted in one triumphant rush and roar.
He had granted my first prayer…the one I really, really wanted.