Friday, April 4, 2014

a perfect day for opening day: it’s snowing! (kind of a special report)

Snow, snow, and more snow. “Snow, blowing snow, and heavy snow,” says the weather woman on the radio. It is snowing in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the NPR morning announcer says. Snow, yes, and more snow. Snow coming down like bleached flour through a giant sifter shaken with vengeance by a malevolent ogre who has—HELLO—won the battle already. I swear, this is like living far down deep in a white white bowl that just keeps getting whiter. The only sign of spring—the only sign of spring today, anyway—is baseball.

Opening Day 2014.

Yes, my friends, baseball. Baseball is back for yet another season and I am back to baseball like a blood-thirsty tick on a raggedy dog. For so long it was so easy on this wooded peninsula to find the bliss of not knowing about runs, hits, errors, mishaps, every gripe and every glory that seeps into a person by osmosis, let alone attentiveness, because you live close to it, next to it, are steeped in it daily, steeped in that teamug of baseball they call Chicago. Living there it’s hard not to know the score of every game and the misdemeanors of every player, every manager, not to mention every fan. The constant chatter of it! As if the sport were not only a metaphor for life but life itself.

In getting away from all that, I found bliss, but unfortunately, also, ignorance. Ignorance picked up like a burr during a walk in a field of wildflowers.

My gosh, to think I knew nothing about last year’s bushy-bearded Boston Red Sox until I wound up in California in October! It’s not just the beards, of course. It’s where the beards take you.

In this case, straight
to the House of David.

I began leaving baseball for a number of reasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but removing to the U.P. in 2004 helped to get me away from it once and for all. Or so I thought. When I lived in Columbia, Missouri for a year, I was removed in a similar way but resisted. I was, after all, just removed from my team, the Chicago Cubs, and what happened then, 27 years ago, was that I simply delved deeper into baseball itself, sought it out, read books like Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy and took trips to Busch Stadium in St. Louis (arg!) and the Royals stadium in Kansas City (I remember there being a fountain … ). I worked on the sports desk of the Columbia Missourian and took a harrowing trip to Springfield, Illinois, to interview Bob Faron, an up-and-coming pitcher, but ended up talking to Dave Otto, which was great. The trip was harrowing because on the way home my Volkswagen Rabbit stalled out on the highway on the edge of St. Louis and in the middle of the night I had to deal with tow truck drivers and a seedy motel and the next day a burly mechanic in a junkyard … but I got home safely and then had an argument with my editor: Wasn’t my story of a young journalist’s midnight trials on the road as interesting as the rained-out trials (did I mention the rain?) of yet another dreamy young man playing A-ball in small-town USA? (Answer: Heck no.)

With a ruler and pen I made blank scorecards to fill in while watching any game I could find on old-timey TV, and while watching I would try to recreate my favorite spot for watching a game—the front row bench of the centerfield bleachers at Wrigley Field. This basically entailed getting a beer and having peanuts on hand, because there was little I could do to recreate Wrigley Field sunshine, wind, rain, and noise; organ riffs and fan chants; the hoots and name-calling of Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers; the rumble and squeal of the nearby “el” train. I had no peanut shells and Cracker Jack, no mustard, no squashed beer cups and hot dog wrappers underfoot, and there was no faint smell of stale beer and sweat and catsup and grass. (I am a tidy housekeeper.) There was no aroma of coconut oil slathered on leathery skin. And, perhaps most important of all, there was no chatter, no incessant chatter and laughter of people talking baseball as if it were some kind of metaphor for life; the simple camaraderie of friends, fans, my sister, my dad.

Still snowing.

Now I have come back to baseball, and today is Opening Day at Wrigley Field, and Wrigley Field is now 100 years old. I found that out while in Las Vegas a few weeks ago. Louis and I were talking, and I wondered aloud when Opening Day at Wrigley would be and he immediately asked Siri, this woman who seems to live in his iPhone. Louis said, “Opening Day, Wrigley Field.” Siri responded with something like, “OK, I got that. April 23, 1914.” It took a second for 1914 to register, then we realized Siri must have given us exactly what we asked for—Opening Day at Wrigley Field. April 23, 1914. One hundred years ago.

I wonder: What was the weather like?

This year, the weather is perfect. I look at the Chicago forecast. A drizzling of rain in the morning, temperature rising to the mid-40s, be prepared for strong southwest winds. On days like that balls can pop out of Wrigley like corks from champagne bottles and when that happens, for a minute, you forget the rain and the cold.

And the snow.

Shortly before game time, my plow guy shows up.

I will watch the game on WGN-TV via my basic subscription to MLB.TV, which I guess is the modern way to do it. Since Monday, I have been watching games on my laptop, which has its drawbacks but also its portability, and the option to watch a game after it is over is a fine feature, especially in this neck of the woods where one is not likely to have heard any scores anyway. I cannot watch Detroit games, which is mysterious. I am 500 miles from Detroit—why deny me access? I’m not sure what these blackouts achieve, but the fact that I can get all games via radio broadcasts, home or away, somewhat makes up for that slight. Actually, right now, the Cubs radio broadcast is what I am loving most. Pat Hughes, the play-by-play guy, simply cracks me up. He knows his stuff and he’s funny as heck. I listened to him and Ron Coomer during the final innings of the 16-inning game Wednesday night, and the image he evoked of the 19 men the Cubs left on base being, why, a small town, Ron, is one that sticks with me. Makes me smile.

So how did I get back? How did I get back to baseball? It certainly wasn’t the promise of a winning season—I do not fall for that. But I do fall for other things. Wednesday night, before that grand finale of extra innings with Pat Hughes, I was watching the Cubs game and the White Sox game with Louis at his cabin about an hour south of here. One game was on tape and one was live and we (or he) kept flipping back and forth and both games went extra innings and somebody won and somebody lost and there were wild pitches and a hit batsman and shivering fans and long delays for this new thing called “replay review”—now that is going to be a fun thing to gripe about!—and balls and strikes and hits and catches and I suppose a home run or two? It got confusing flipping back and forth, but it sure was fun.

Snow piles up outside the bathroom window.

Now today the snow piles up. I shoveled a path through 10 inches or so to get to the garage—a path that yesterday was clear all the way to green grass—to haul in wood to keep the fire going. I’m making candles and staying warm and soon I’ll be watching Opening Day at Wrigley Field. Ryne Sandberg will be there managing the Philadelphia Phillies. There will be much hoopla, I am sure, it being Wrigley’s one-hundredth birthday and all, and I imagine in Chicago it is all over the place, sifting down through every media outlet like a snowstorm or a shower of sparks, burying people. But me, I’m just up here having fun, win or lose.

And it’s snowing.

And I’m looking for signs of spring.