Saga in Two Parts
Part I: Red Sox vs. Yankees, July 1, 2004
A baseball game is simply a nervous breakdown divided into nine innings. ~Earl Wilson
There is no such thing as complete motionlessness. There is no such thing as complete silence. Even when you are totally at rest, your cells dividing, your heart beating, and the blood coursing through your circulatory system make a subtle sound, to say nothing of the soft whisper of your breath. Even when you think you are not moving a muscle, tiny electrical currents are causing some of your muscles to spasm ever so slightly. Your diaphragm pushes up on your lungs, expanding your chest as you draw in breath, no matter how subtly you think you are breathing. Your eyes blink. You swallow. You cannot be completely still or silent as long as you remain alive.
But on Thursday, as the Sox and Yankees battled through extra innings, I came close.
Commercials came and went, and I didn't move in my seat. I didn't swivel in my chair, nor did I lean backwards. I most certainly did not get up to get a glass of water or use the bathroom. My feet planted firmly on the floor, my hands gripping the armrests, I sat through spots for Ford and ESPN and whatever else. I blinked and breathed and that was about it. I could not move.
Both teams loaded the bases what seemed like about a dozen times each. Keith Foulke spat and gazed askance at the batters and left the game after the ninth with sweat pouring from his brow. He's one of the sweatier ballplayers out there. Mo Rivera came in and did his usual.
Then Curt Leskanic, the new guy. I figured, game over, but he worked himself out of jam after jam, till I was wondering how much more I could take. My heart was thudding. My stomach felt like I'd swallowed a hot coal.
When Derek Jeter went flying, spikes flailing helplessly, into the stands down the third-base line, my jaw dropped slowly and remained in that position for the rest of the game.
It was this moment, and no other, that held me captive for long after the tarp came back onto the field.
After his catch, Derek Jeter came up gushing blood from his chin, his right cheek an angry purple. Fans fished him out from their midst and gently set him on his feet again, where a trainer took over, pressing a towel to his chin as his teammates approached to touch his shoulder, his sleeve, as if laying their hands on him could heal him, or perhaps simply to reassure themselves that he was still breathing.
Meanwhile, I sat bolt upright in my living room, mouth open, feet flat on the floor, hands gripping the armrests. I'm still struggling for an adequate--let alone eloquent--way to describe how I felt in that moment.
So here goes, I'll just say.
For one thing, the thought that Jeter had just saved at least one if not two runs from scoring was the last thing to cross my mind. The first thing was that I hadn't thought it could get any more intense than Game 7, but that moment had just blown it right out of the water.
The second was that what I had termed Apocalyptic Baseball was now not only taking place, but hitting Warp Factor 5. The other two games of the series had not even come close, gut-wrenching though they had been. As Derek was returned to the field, the game crossed into that alternate dimension, the one where there was no game yesterday, and there would be no game tomorrow. By the end, Bronson Arroyo was warming in the bullpen, ready to forfeit his start on Friday. Because Friday didn't matter. Friday wasn't even on the radar. Everything--absolutely everything, the fabric of the universe had been snagged and sucked into this vortex--had come down to these few pupil-dilating seconds of harsh cognitive dissonance.
This is part of the reason why I abstained as much as I could from Red-Sox-related media over the past couple of days. Not because I was angry, but because I wasn't. When the game crosses into that parallel universe, where five infielders are switching gloves with every pitch and the entire team is hanging on the dugout barrier and the All-Star shortstop goes ass-over-bandbox into the seats, there's no way you can fault anyone for anything. Not really. Sure, you can piss and moan all you want about the way Kevin Millar let that hit fall in right field, or about Nomar riding the pine instead of pinch hitting, but I can't blame anybody. We were on another planet just then. And when the light of the next morning brought the second-guessers out of the woodwork, I didn't want to hear it.
I will also admit that I did not want to see the Red Sox again just yet, either. Because the fact still remains that as we reached two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the thirteenth, the one thought that simply refused to be quiet in my head was, we never win games like this. This poisonous mantra's slimy twin brother was, just like '86.
I know. I know. If this means I'm voted off the island, I understand.
But it was more than that. It wasn't as simple as the fact that we lost. No, you see, another thing Jeter's catch did to make my brain implode was force me to admire him, admire the effort he put forth, admire the literal sacrifice he made and the way he utterly abandoned himself. The solicitousness of the fans in the stands and players on the field as he was pulled up again, so carefully, so gently, even made me see them, these enemies, as perhaps more human than I had given them credit for in the past.
Jeter's first name for me is usually "Fuckin'". This was strange new ground.
All the other times he's made a play to rob us, he did it so I could hate him. This time he'd even denied me that.
That's the way the whole game was. Hideously beautiful. Nauseatingly dramatic. Gorgeous in such a ghastly way. Heroic and tragic and more than I could bear.
And so I needed a break.
But Fenway was calling me back.
Part II: Red Sox vs. Oakland A's, July 6, 2004
Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things. ~Robert Frost
The other sports are just sports. Baseball is a love. ~Bryant Gumbel, 1981
Finally, finally, he comes loping across the outfield grass toward where my father and I are clutching the fence in front of us and peering over it like small children. Finally he swings the bullpen gate open, and the catcher goes into position behind one of the two plates. He's been dicking around over in left field for so interminably long that it has made me cluck my tongue several times in exasperation. Doesn't he know I'm here?!?!
But finally he's where he belongs, which is right in front of me. He takes off his hat and his hair springs out, standing practically on end, and deep dark eyes glower from under his heavy brow.
The catcher is ready behind the little plate at the other end of the bullpen.
He replaces the cap and strides to the faux mound. Swipes his foot to clear the rubber. Palms the ball, turning it over. Deposits it in his glove. He coils, drawing himself close, then opens up all at once, sprinter in full stride, bird in full flight, every kinetic thing that has ever happened, and the ball goes whistling by my feet. It hits the catcher's mitt with an explosive thwack.
I am agape. I am agape at Barry Zito. I've never been this close to Major League pitching before, even warm-up pitches, and I am simply amazed.
"He's not even throwing hard yet," my dad chuckles. He's the one whose idea it was, as we stood in the right-field concourse area, to explore the bleachers and visit the bullpens.
"This gives ya some appreciation," he goes on. "Now imagine trying to hit that."
"No." Is all I can think of to say.
To my right Wake is throwing in the opposite direction, his nonchalant windup in stark contrast to Barry's energy. "Atta boy Wake! Go get em!" we screamed earlier as he walked his slightly gimpy walk out toward the pen. In his red windbreaker, he began to jog back and forth around center field, ignoring us.
Mirabelli is crouching somewhere behind the wall that separates the bullpens, and I can hear the thwack over there, too.
But Barry won't let me look away for long.
It is the most amazing thing I've ever seen, the way that ball just blazes over the ground. You can hear the rush of the air it shoves aside on its way to the catcher like the afterburners of a tiny jet. Whooshthwack. A pause, a slap as Barry gloves it again, and Whoosh...thwack! Curveball.
"Take ya seats." An absolutely ancient usher is suddenly in my face. I want to swat him away like a mosquito; it feels as if he has woken me abruptly from a sound sleep.
"Take ya seats folks. Take ya seats." Grumpily, we comply, but not before I can stop at the top of the tunnel leading back down towards the concourse and take one look back at Barry's deep green torso as it twists out another missile. God, you are a beautiful creature, I think to him silently. Then with an impish smile I add, I hope you lose today.
In the second inning as he loads the bases over and over and walks in two runs, the crowd is already speaking in tongues as Billy Mueller takes the plate. When Billy hits a no-doubter toward the Monster Seats I half-expect to see greasy televangelists pressing on the foreheads of quivering believers, lowering them gently to writhe on the ground.
Apparently my friends and family are seeing me on TV a lot at this point. Because of the camera angles and where our seats are located, I appear like a devil on the left shoulder of every right-handed hitter that takes the plate.
David Ortiz pops up foul. The ball yo-yos up into the twilight sky and then begins to plummet directly toward my gawking face. I freeze in panic. At the last moment, though, it dips away from me and caromes off the railing of the section in front of us. In the ensuing fracas, a guy from the field box in front of us manages to snare the ball in his hat on a bounce, but the force of its flight knocks his cap out of his hand. A younger man scurries up like a scavenger robbing a nest, snatches the ball out of the hat and runs away, arms pumping. The man with the hat shakes his head in disbelief while my father roars with laughter.
Later when someone else gets a hit, my father turns and high-fives a freckle-faced kid behind us. The kid's goggling face when my father holds up his hand makes it my turn to laugh.
Even later, I'm tapping the popcorn guy I've chased up the stairs on the shoulder and he's just turning around and I just have time to say "Hey," when Nomar cracks out a bases-clearing single and the crowd around us blows up without warning.
Manny Ramirez makes the whole ballpark burst into flames whenever he approaches the plate, but, toward the end of the game, his at-bat is less important with an 11-0 score, so it's just me and another idiot in the field box ahead of me that stand to cheer him on. I don't know what comes over me, but I find myself waving frantically at him, yelling, "Manny! Manny!" as if trying to hail a long-lost friend on a crowded street.
"Manny! Manny!" I yell, waving like a total fool, until I see him smile and he lifts his arm in a little wave toward me and the other idiot hollering at him.
"Manny waved at me." I report to my father as I take my seat again.
"Sure he did," my father chuckles.
Later they substitute Pokey for Nomar at shortstop. When they announce the change, Pokey's name is drowned out in the cheers. Pokey lifts his glove hand in acknowledgement.
"POKEY!" I holler. "YOU RULE!!"
"YYYEAH!!!" roars a guy behind me in agreement.
It's as if we haven't yet thought to look at the scoreboard.
The crowd lets out another yell of appreciation as the man behind the curtain posts a 9 next to DET on the out-of-town scoreboard, a 1 next to NYY, and a F where there had been an 8 before.
Sox win. Yankees lose. What more can I ask for on my twenty-fourth birthday?
As soon as we get there, it seems like, it's over, and I'm craning my neck on the concourse to find my dad in the throng trying to unstuff itself from the lyrical little bandbox. People shoving along toward the doors around me are sighing contentedly as if they've just eaten a huge meal.
Just as I spot my father in the crowd again, a guy behind me says, "Yanks lost today."
His companion grunts in acknowledgement.
"Got swept by the Mets, too. Ova the weekend."
"Yep," this invisible voice behind me concludes happily. "We got 'em on the run."