Bottom of the Ninth

I choked up when a fourteen-year-old girl sang the Star Spangled Banner this afternoon. I’m not sure why; I’ve never fought in the military or had family members who died in a war. I don’t adhere U.S. flag bumper stickers to my car or own any clothing that bears the initials, “U.S.A.” In fact, you can’t trace my American roots back more than a few generations.

Yet, when she warbled, “…o’er the ramparts we watched…” tears welled in my eyes, threatening to fall for the rest of the song. Standing at the edge of the Charles River, I could picture it happening: bombs bursting in mid-air and the red glare of rockets revealing that our flag stood against all odds…

Maybe that’s just part of being an American in Boston.

The highlight of my first twenty-four hours was a Red Sox game on a perfect Sunday afternoon. Perfect for many reasons: first, the sunshine and 73 degrees, then the Italian sausage dripping with relish, ketchup and mustard. Perfect for the rituals that we Americans love about baseball: the wave, good natured trash-talking (“Hey battah, I like that ahverage!”) and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at the seventh inning stretch.

Most especially, it was perfect because these time-honored rituals happened at Fenway Park. I don’t care what state you’re from, to Americans, Fenway is special. (Except, perhaps, for Yankee fans… but I’d hope that they, too, see Fenway as beloved in the spirit of nationalism.)

Today wasn’t just any day to see Fenway; it was a month past its 100th anniversary. Arizona, where I lived for 20 years, didn’t even become a state until 1912. In Boston, they’ve played baseball for a century, thus the fans are serious.

Seattleites are fair-weather baseball fans – we like the game well enough, but aren’t impassioned. (Remember, we ejected the Seattle Pilots after only one year of poor play and the Mariners didn’t come to town until 1977.) In keeping with our spiritual freedom, we’re not religious about sports in general – a little here and there does us well: baseball, soccer, football and occasionally, the Rat City Rollergirls who play at Key Arena, once the home of the Sonics until we ignored them and they went away in 2008. For us, a game at Safeco Field is less about tradition and more about the liberal application of garlic fries, beer and bratwurst with sprinkling glances at the game.

Approaching an intimate setting like Fenway, against which Safeco is a giant steel cathedral, the crowd’s devotion emerged in a palpable hum. I arrived early to watch batting practice, marveling at how well maintained the old brick park was. I learned that they considered demolishing Fenway a decade ago, as it was falling down – it would have been a damned shame if they had given up. In addition to renovating the existing structure, they added seating atop The Green Monster – the hallowed left field wall that inspires Sox fans to don green T-shirts in its honor.

Watching the crew ready the field was like preparation for mass. Several uniformed young men took down the portable batting cage section by section, then hauled it off on a wheeled cart, like altar boys bearing towels and chalices for service. Field hands with rakes smoothed the dirt surfaces –home plate took four men alone– the way I imagine that they shine wooden pews before mass. The field crew then carefully loosened green tarps spike by spike from the pitcher’s mound and home plate, folding them in sections the way a priest might unwrap the host before communion.

Once the game was in play, a camouflaged door opened from time to time next to the score board; a man appeared to update the scores of other games by switching out the tiles by hand. It called to mind the way a deacon or attendant appears to assist the priest in his administration of sacraments. This weaving of devotion and ritual before me conjured the sound of Susan Sarandon’s opening drawl from Bull Durham, “I believe in the church of baseball.”

Baseball is indeed our nation’s pastime, to some a religion, but brick by brick in Fenway, it felt like a sacred American birthright. As with the gravity of music in Nashville –a force woven throughout experiences large and small– a sense of patriotism is evident throughout Boston, but most especially in its beloved baseball park and its fans who proudly swath themselves in red and blue.

After a few scoreless innings, I found myself absorbing the crowd’s tense emotions as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays chalked up two runs. Sitting in last place in the American League East, the Red Sox were desperate to claw their way out of the basement.

Bases loaded, Adrian Gonzalez pulled out a three-run homer during the bottom of the seventh and I leapt into the air with the rest of the crowd, wishing that I owned a Red Sox cap. Two runs from the Rays in the next inning clinched their eventual win, but the crowd stayed to see the game through to the bottom of the ninth, even though it wasn’t pretty in the end.

That sense of loyalty isn’t lost on me – the ability to stick things out when times are hard, when it looks as if there is no hope as circumstances and relationships are inevitably challenged. Watching people support a losing cause, even if it is just a baseball game, makes me question the degrees of my own loyalty to family, work, friendships, war, politics, country and the values that I believe in. On a certain level, I wonder if there’s anything I believe in enough to stick around for – especially when times are bad.

Like the rest of Gen-X and the Millenials behind us, I am a child of the Age of Choice; we are more empowered now as a nation to leave our situations when we meet disappointment or resistance. If we’re unhappy with our lot, that is enough for us to justify a change in city, country, job, career or marriage. If our insides and outsides feel maligned, we can choose to change our gender.

Even when I’m content for five minutes, I find myself testing that happiness in the back of my mind, wondering if I’m complacent or “settling” somehow. At some point, it’s no longer about moving on from situations that don’t fit, but more about continually moving as a means of fulfillment. Part of me wonders what’s wrong with that – if staying in motion brings happiness, how can it be wrong? But I do question it, because most people don’t live like I do, and there are moments when the well-established grass looks greener.

As the next era of my life rises –the dawning sun of self-realization, searching and independence that is middle age in America– I’m testing how my lifestyle will suit me, wondering if it will bring the same fulfillment that I’ve known these past six years. Looking down at an ailing right wrist, I wonder if I’ll continue to have the freedom of good health, and for how long. Reading texts from friends and my auntie, I wonder how many relationships I’ll maintain over the years. Scrolling through my photographs of Civita, Nashville, Venice, Cannon Beach and Boston, I dream of the adventures that lay ahead in the cities and countries I haven’t visited yet.

Though planning for the future is not an exact science, I also can’t help but wonder what it might be like to sign a mental contract with my life in Seattle for a few years, just to see how it goes — no looming plans to run away to Europe or move to the East Coast, no matter how good places like Boston feel.

Changing teams for bigger career breaks is necessary and understandable to a point, but the payoff of dedicated fans and trusted teammates is something that takes years to realize, and I find myself wading deeper into that world now. While I love the freedom to roam –and appreciate that I have that freedom to begin with– lately, I am equally as excited about returning home at the end of the journey.

Maybe there are more lessons in baseball than I once thought: don’t switch out at every inning – stick with your pitcher until his arm needs a legitimate rest. If you can’t hit a homer, there’s nothing wrong with a bunt, and they probably aren’t expecting it. If you go home early, you may miss the biggest play of the game.

When you stay –even if you lose– the support of friends and many pints of beer goes far towards healing all ills.

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One thought on “Bottom of the Ninth

  1. Ah the sports metaphor…I love when they are genuine like yours here. One that has been looping in my head lately, “don’t let striking out keep you from playing the game.” I got it from a really silly Disney movie but it stuck. Did you come home with a Sox hat?

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