Friday, February 15, 2013

Flying Past Fenway

Freeways in Boston could be beautiful at night. My brother and I discovered the lights of Fenway from the friendly confines of our car seats. The world outside the Volkswagen wasn't always easy to understand, but it was well worth the effort. Dad being Dad, we drove past the park pretty often during ballgames. I remember the surreal way that the Citgo sign raced toward us like an eager young lighthouse keeper with a lantern running out to meet a vessel. It stood perfectly still as we sped past, then became smaller and smaller in the back window until it was lost. The aura of the stadium lights lasted a few seconds longer before being swallowed up in the sea of headlights behind us.

Early memories of Fenway include another landmark too. It's still difficult to describe the catharsis that came with deciphering the fourteen letters that stood proud and tall on a nearby rooftop. In the realm of childhood achievements, piecing together "BUCK PRINTING CO" was an immeasurable triumph. After the meaning of glass doors with "TIXE YCNEGREME" had eluded me for a few frustrating weeks, I finally had to ask someone what the words said. As a developing young reader, solving this latest riddle on my own felt like a personal breakthrough of mammoth proportions.

Seeing the game played professionally for the first time was an eye-opening experience too. Crowded into a living room of restless relatives, a few cousins and I shared a small island of rag rug in front of the television. As the game progressed, adults that I'd known my entire life were expressing levels of emotion that weren't often seen outside of a four alarm crisis. There was whooping, hollering, begging, imploring, arguing and passion that seemed to get more intense throughout the course of the game. The vibe in the air was a little scary. It wasn't the result of demon possession, or palatable potions in translucent Tupperware. It was the agony and ecstasy of baseball.

The Yankees were playing somebody pretty damn good. Since green jerseys are etched in memory, I'm guessing it must have been the A's. The camera angles made me flinch for the first frame or two until my Grandpa asked why I was twitching with every pitch. Everyone had a good laugh when I explained that the mound was dangerously close to the batter and the catcher was bound to get his brains bashed in. The sport was just an abstract at that point. My experience was an ever-growing number of days playing catch, a collection of scattered concepts gleaned from conversations, and of course, those wonderful drives back home hearing an impassioned Ned Martin and his partners on the radio. Most of the time, it seemed like they were speaking in a foreign language.

It was no different for me in front of the television except that it was my relatives carrying on about the game and the discussions were framed with familiar gestures and rising tones. The true value of my new found silence became apparent as the game wound down to the final outs. As the room quickly hushed, everyone was staring at the screen with both the ashen certainty of a doomed submarine crew and the optimistic intensity of a bomb squad. After a few anguished moments, it was all over. My Dad, Grandpa, Uncle Skip and the other men headed out to the backyard to discuss the outcome. I tagged along to see what might be learned from the debriefing. In order to communicate with my elders during ballgames in the future, I would figure out how to understand grunts. I also learned that baseball at my Grandparents' house in upstate New York usually involved the Yankees playing somebody pretty damn good.

In the fall of 1975, my family moved from Boston, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon. Thanks to the merciful winds of fate, I wasn't raised in the heart of Red Sox Nation with relatives that followed the rival New York Yankees. Weeks after we headed west, Boston lost an epic seven game battle with the Big Red Machine. After settling into our new hometown, my brother and I discovered the lights of Civic Stadium. Dad still went out of his way to drive us past the historic ballpark, but we were often heading to a secret parking space in Goose Hollow. Membership in the Knothole Club was affordable, so we nursed our critical cases of Beaver Fever with season tickets in the bleachers.

Our home at the park was the sovereign territory of wise old timers weighed down with patches and pins, unrepentant loudmouths with swimming pool sized beers, little kids with doting thoughtful parents, and the occasional drunk who lunged for a home run ball before succumbing to gravity. I would learn a whole lot about live baseball in a rising cloud of cigar smoke overhearing blasts of commentary that were often every bit as blue. One night a game-ending call at the plate was so bad that everyone in attendance chanted a euphemism for cattle feces at the top of their lungs for ten straight minutes. It was a positively glorious thing to behold. It would happen again with equal vigor a couple years later at a contest with the Dukes. That night Lucky was ejected for swapping out the visitors city on the scoreboard with a replacement that read, "Albuturkey."

Baseball might have been on television once in a long while, but it was on the radio every day. The pair of transistor sets we got for Christmas were keys to another universe. In the magical spring and summer of 1977, Trailblazers basketball was the biggest story in town. As fantastic as the run was that year, Bill Schonely could only call 'em one at a time and they didn't pound the hardwood every night. Coincidentally, The Schonz was the play by play voice of the Seattle Pilots in 1969. He came to Rip City in 1970 to start over with another expansion franchise. The debut of the Seattle Mariners made that spring and summer just that much more amazing and succinct. Even though it would be a long time before the excitement of that glorious year was matched, both Dave Niehaus and Bill Schonely would be radio mentors to young sports fans all over the Northwest for generations.

Following the Beavers on the road became part of our routine in the summertime. From the debut of the Mariners in 1977, I was enchanted by the sounds of the Kingdome too. In time, Dave Niehaus grew into a surrogate Grandpa. It didn't take long to discover outlets in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego. Vin Scully, Lon Simmons and others became great-uncles. Minor league affiliates in places like Vancouver, Calgary, Tacoma, Salem, Boise and Eugene could be heard sometimes too. Between live play by play and midnight baseball rebroadcasts, games could potentially be enjoyed from the moment I got home from school into the wee small hours of the morning.

Once school was out for the summer, my brother and I would go outside and play marathon games of Wiffle Ball. On a good day, there would be an afternoon game to keep us company and an evening matchup to make sure we were exhausted. Sometimes we would try to re-enact the game as it happened. Other times we would try to play and keep an ear on the broadcast. These attempts to multitask would often result in a resounding thwack on the siding of the neighbor's house. As right handed batters, one lapse in concentration led us to naturally hit toward left field. We may have left Boston, but we kept the monster. Our monster was grouchy.

After the sun went down, it was time for dinner and more baseball. Long nights after full days became a routine ritual during the summer. Even after coming home from a double-header downtown. Looking back it seems like a great many childhood things led me from Yawkey Way to Puro Yakyu. The late night drives, the slow frustrating process of learning a new language, the hometown heroes playing in historic parks, the rhythmic chanting in the bleachers, and the transistor radio hidden in my pillow. Portland Beavers road games against the Hawai'i Islanders prepared me for the start times of NPB day games. Midnight baseball rebroadcasts of contests that went late would usually get started right around the same time as night contests do in Japan. Insomnia is no curse. It is a blessing. Four decades later, baseball remains a puzzle to be put together one brief glimpse at a time. It isn't always easy to see them play across the ocean in the wee hours, but well worth the effort. The game can be beautiful. Especially at night. Baseball is a gift from Japan to an owl on the internet.

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