Snow Angels in the Outfield
Snow flurries and subfreezing temperatures well into the second week of April seem to be just what the manager ordered! As of this writing, the Pirates are 9-3 and atop their division. Already, disillusionment over the departure of “Cutch” and Cole has turned to reconciliation. I know that Aunt Dorothy would have been convinced that the newcomers were “such nice young men” — just as nice as her beloved Jay Bell.
Indeed, a little bit of ice and snow never dulls the enthusiasm of “old lace,” silver-haired grandmothers with an insatiable love of baseball; the phenotype endures. The game must go on…
Shoeless Joe from Hannibal MO
*This post first appeared on The PediaBlog on September 1, 2016.
MIND ON THE RUN — Baseball And Old Lace
(Musical Accompaniment: “You Gotta Have Heart” from the baseball classic “Damn Yankees” on YouTube.)
For much of the twentieth century three things were a fixture in the baseball culture of America: the New York Yankees winning the pennant, the venerable Harry Carey singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the seventh inning stretch of Chicago Cubs games, and the Washington Senators firmly entrenched in the basement of the American League standings. The team’s pitiable lack of success, even lack of mediocracy, inspired a heart-warming play/movie, “Damn Yankees,” featuring the team’s potential savior, “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.”
But a fictional character could not save the ailing team, and eventually the Senators escaped from the wrath of the D.C. patrons by moving across the border to Canada and becoming the Montreal Expos. Ironically, the new team escaped from the basement but not from bankruptcy, and the team executives made a second effort to win the hearts of Washingtonians. The reprise was highly successful and the resurrected Washington Nationals are currently competing with the “Damn Cubs” of Chicago for the National League crown. Maybe it was just getting out of the same league as the Yanks.
The fortunes of the Pittsburgh Pirates took a different trajectory. Blessed with a host of young talent and a future Hall of Fame manager named Leland, the team came within one out of making it to the World Series in 1992 when Barry Bonds, then just a “puppy,” could not throw a lumbering Sid Bream out at the plate. The name of the utility player for the Atlanta Braves who pinch hit and drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning has been long erased from our civic consciousness.
At any rate, this imbroglio seemed to break the heart and spirit of Pittsburgh baseball for 20 years, as the team nose-dived into record-setting losing seasons and became a basement-dweller of the same ilk as the Senators. But for me and an old woman named Dorothy these were the best years of our lives.
There are no greater baseball fans than widowed, silver-haired old ladies whose children are grown, whose grandchildren live outside the state, and who get connected by fate with a distant relative in his middle age who needs a haircut. This middle aged man “lived too far from the city to learn baseball” when he was just a kid. More accurately, he stank so much at baseball that, instead of always batting ninth and playing right field, he had become a diehard fan by default. “Aunt Dorothy” precisely fit this phenotype. A brother-in-law of mine highly recommended that Dorothy cut my hair when she was not busy cutting that of her life-long elderly friends, neighbors, and nursing home inmates.
Cutting my straight, limp hair in the parlor of her Northside home was a no-brainer, so we concentrated on our strategies to return the Pirates to competitiveness as if we were the board of directors, the general managers, or the agents of a phenomenon like “Shoeless Joe.” She listened on her radio to every inning of every game of West Coast road trips — more diligently than any Pirate fan had in the past or ever would — without falling asleep as I had done with the Yankees as a kid growing up in New Jersey.
Dorothy loved the young, clean-cut, humble players, and I think she dreamed that shortstop Jay Bell was her grandson. During those 20 lean years she was our family’s guest at company-sponsored outings to Three Rivers Stadium and, since my kids weren’t all that excited about family bonding experiences, she was my sidekick. Although Dorothy frenetically moved around her salon, at the ballgames she sat smiling quietly for the duration — neither eating stadium junk food, drinking beer, nor even going to the restroom. Sometimes I wondered if she was privy to some private replay of her entire life being shown to her alone on the Jumbotron between innings.
I cannot remember whether her dear Pirates won or lost any of the games we attended and in those seasons of the doldrums it was generally thumbs-down; only one dreary ballgame we attended alone stands out in my weakening, constipated memory. It was during the “dog days” of late August when my wife sent me to the ballpark as a distraction — a third consecutive miscarriage seemed to be in progress. I confided the heaviness of my heart to Dorothy, subconsciously seeking sympathy. “Don’t worry needlessly” she consoled. “These troubles have a way of working themselves out.” Now I realize that what she really was saying was, “Have heart, young man — you gotta have heart!”
About a week later something seemed incongruous with the seemingly terminating pregnancy: the hormone levels were rising rather than falling. A fetal sonogram was performed. In previous situations the radiologist had personally disclosed the sad reality that the sac was empty. This time he strolled into the room and pointed to the screen. “There is the heart — you can see it beating.” We knew that the baby was a fighter.
The rest is history. The miracle child — known to his close friends as “Hobo Joe” — would become a long distance runner and run a half marathon before he was a teenager. Dorothy died before she could ever see Hobo Joe run, or play baseball, or even “play catch” with his old man. As irony would have it, the kid never got into baseball; maybe he just could not resist the loneliness and ecstasy of the long distance runner.
When Dorothy was playing out the bottom of the ninth in a nursing home, reminiscing as she faded in and out of consciousness, I ran a marathon in her honor. I hung the finisher’s medal in her room; after her death, it could never be located and I just gave up hope of ever seeing it again.
“It 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 alone — just when you need it the most.”
— H. Bartlett Giamotti, former commissioner of baseball, renowned for his insatiable love of the game. He died of a heart attack at the age of 51 while still in office.
Now our Pirates are in the wild card running. It would be quite a twist of fate if our resurrected team faces the reborn Washington Senators in the playoffs. It would be a confrontation of perennial losers that would ignite the spirit of any old diehard fan. I imagine that Aunt Dorothy would be granted a front row seat in that big ballpark in the sky reserved for those who followed West Coast road trip games on the radio when the teams were down and out. I can see her before the games signing autographs with Roberto and Willie — and maybe wearing an old lost marathon medal over her heart.
Although beautifully written, I believe Bart Giamotti’s postulate is erroneous. For the true blue baseball fan, even the chill rains of old age and the bitter frost of dying cannot deprive us of the sport’s memories. When our minds become near empty and we need them the most, the memories of baseball endure within our hearts.
*** Dedicated to Joshua Krull, a heroic 17-year-old boy who recently survived a heart transplant. I was fortunate to be a small fiber in the miles and miles of his old heart, discarded but not forgotten.