Mar 15, 2010

Playing Ball Like a Girl

I saw a girls little league team playing today when I took my daughter to the park. They were sporting purple uniforms. I watched them as they squinted against the sun, dug in their toes, smacked their mitts. They were maybe, ten, with skinny arms and long ponytails rapunzeling out of their purple caps. The left fielder mindlessly tap danced as she chanted "Hey Batter."

I might not have noticed them had I not seen my little daughter look that way. And I suddenly remembered that what I wanted most desperately in the late eighties was to play Little League. There were no girl teams, then. But once, at my brother’s game, I saw a player with waist length blonde hair, too pretty to be a boy, and my jaw burned with jealously. And hope. I knew if she had found a way in, I could too.

I begged my parents. I pleaded. I threatened to quit bathing. They were resolute, however, and refused to fight my first feminist fight with me. I don’t think they were being mean. I just don’t think they realized how obsessed I was with baseball.

Every day after school I played catch with my brother for hours. I caught fastballs, sliders, pop flies. Marshall, our neighbor, said I had “an arm,” to which I replied that I had two arms: one to catch and one to throw. When neither brother would play with me, I wore myself out with the lightening paced return of an upturned trampoline.

In the summer, my brothers had games every week at the Boys and Girls Club field. I have heard it said, and I agree, that baseball is the only game you can enjoy without paying attention. This fact is what makes the snack bar so important. It is the center of the Little League universe, around which all fields orbit. To me, nothing says baseball like a cinder block building with a metal roll-up window and a mom inside selling nachos and candy bars.

My own mother did not approve. However, I had other financial recourses: recycling, found pennies, and grandma. Every Saturday, I was happy to spend all of my money on chips and processed cheese.

Another great thing about baseball is the lack of time limits. Anything can happen. There is nothing quite like being at the ball field when the sun goes down and the stadium lights come on, and no one is rushing home for bedtimes. We knew our parents would sit on the cold aluminum bleachers as long as it took.

I collected baseball cards, too. Every week, I walked to the liquor store and bought a new pack. I wanted Orel Hershiser’s card bad. He had pitched two shut out games in the 1988 World Series and it was all any Dodger fan could talk about. I opened each pack with anticipation. I tried not to be disappointed when his card wasn’t there.

My dad told me that Nolan Ryan was a better card to have than Orel. I had a card that pictured Nolan mid pitch. It was a violent and moving pose. I liked to imagine the follow through, and the batter’s stunned expression. Nolan was fast. I liked him, that was for sure—but he was old, and he didn’t pitch for the Dodgers. The Dodgers were the only sports team I really believed existed, because I had been to see them play the Cardinals. The Cardinals only existed for that game, and they lost.

For how much I loved baseball, I am surprised at how completely I later forgot it. I felt some of the old fever, years later, during the Subway Series in New York, and during the Giants-Angels Series. There is nothing quite like the bases loaded at the bottom of the ninth—a chainsaw couldn’t cut that tension. Then, there are the hundreds of hours of outfielders digging their toes in the grass. I like that part, too. It’s slow, like life, with sudden bursts of activity. It’s graceful and brutal—I don’t think I can say anything about baseball that hasn’t been said before—but that’s what’s so great about it. A lot of people think about baseball an awful lot. Maybe someday Phoebe will want to play too, and I’ll pull my shift in the snack bar or on the cold bleachers.

The piece was originally published in October 2008 at the ezine

1 comment:

  1. Well stated. Baseball is a slow game, a poetic game, with so many highs and lows that you feel as though you read a novel. And it is a game that continually calls me back to childhood dreams of playing center field.