The last time my wife left me alone for a week things unraveled pretty quickly. The standard eat-when-you’re hungry, don’t shave, wear pajamas the whole time stuff wasn’t the half of it. Among the low-lights: I primed and started a temperamental chainsaw in the kitchen, fired a gun in the house as an experiment (I know) and practiced a rudimentary form of self-accompanied Karaokee with piano. In my pajamas (see above). And I work from home. Tip for future employers reading this – pick the other guy.
So when Audrey left for a week this time I saw trouble brewing and had a little talk with myself. Structure, buddy. Food pyramid. Hygiene. Leave the reptile brain in the shower. Jesus, TAKE a shower. Pretend you’re on Candid Camera. So far? So good.
Let’s jump to Tuesday – day two unsupervised. I finish work, hit the gym, bathe, and then pursue a safe and healthy end-of-day activity. Evening diversion? Harrisburg Senators game at charming FNB park on City Island.
Thunderstorms having passed through just ahead of game time, the temp is a perfect 76 degrees with a dry, soft breeze from right field. I arrive four minutes before the National Anthem (male duet, standard bass-line harmony, crowd appreciative). Announced attendance of 2,850 (about 40% of capacity) seems a generous estimate. First pitch is on the dot of 7:00 pm. Play Ball.
I reserved in advance and paid for with my credit card an aisle seat behind third base and four rows behind the visitors’ dugout. I could’ve paid next to nothing for bleacher seats and then sat pretty much anywhere I wanted but I’m not a starving grad student at Fenway (anymore) and I wanted to do this like an adult. So I studied the seating chart and then plunked down (figuratively) seventeen bucks for a spot in foul-ball territory where I knew I’d have to keep my head on a swivel and pay attention to every pitch. Think Structure here.
The Harrisburg Senators Baseball Club is the double-A minor league affiliate of the Washington Nationals. They play in the Western division of the Eastern league which fields twelve teams from Maine to Virginia to Ohio. It’s a ride-the-bus league and populated with very good, very young players who have sifted up through the high school and college ranks. And they really are kids, mostly: early to mid twenties making maybe $1,500 a month plus meal money in-season and hoping to jump the long line of wannabes into the majors. You can see the big-time from here. But this is also where dreams die. And hot dogs are $2.50.
On this perfect Summer Tuesday night in Central Pennsylvania I am celebrating my temporary bachelorhood in the most authentic and American way I know how. I’m people-watching. Down and to my right, in the first row, is a young dad with a baby not more than a month-old. He has two other elementary school-aged kids in tow also but they are mostly absent and running around on the mezzanine. The infant is impossibly tiny and fragile and I’m horrified that this dude has intentionally put her in harms way. It’s all I can think about. When the first pitch of the game is fouled off and bounces three feet to my left and my worst fears are nearly realized I’m overcome with anxiety. I want to grab the baby and make a run for it. But the dad is unfazed. He’s calmly feeding the infant a bottle and checking his cell phone at the same time. In flip-flops. No mom in sight – probably her night off with her girlfriends. I’m glad she’s not here to worry with me. I suddenly envy this guy his nonchalance.
To my right are a group of retired gentlemen in cargo shorts and button-down short-sleeved shirts. They are having a supper of beer and brats and one of them is carefully scoring the contest in his program with a fountain pen. My dad used to do that. I estimate these guys might have seen around five thousand baseball games between the four of them over the last sixty something years. They are relaxed and happy, enjoying the game and each other. Their spouses are here too and also sitting together but apart from the men. I think of mosque worship. The women are chirpy and laughing and completely disinterested in the game. Or at least I think so until one of them aggressively berates the home plate umpire for his stingy strike zone. Go figure.
In the outfield bleachers a whole section is taken up by a boisterous group of black children of middle-school age. They are all in matching blue shirts and they are having a time. I guess some kind of camp outing. They try to engage the left fielders on both teams without success until the visiting player finally tosses them a retrieved a foul ball. They go nuts and it’s the most beautiful moment of the night. I get a lump in my throat. Later, around mid game and probably under day-camp curfew, this joyful mob files out of the park and I am very sorry to see them go. I listen to them laughing and singing all the way to the parking lot and after that the stadium is very subdued.
I decide to stretch my legs and so I wander around the food court a bit and check out the field view from a couple of different vantage points. This is a beautiful ballpark. On a pretty little island in the middle of the Susquehanna river. I get a hot dog. And then another one. The sun is setting and the vibe changes to night-game.
By the time I return to my seat, the infant is asleep in her father’s arms, oblivious to her peril and the visiting pitcher is on the ropes. It’s not the lanky-22-year-old-righthander-from-Tennessee’s night. He’s given up two runs in each of the first two innings and now, with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth he runs the count full on the Harrisburg shortstop. His next pitch is a knee-high fastball which the Senators infielder turns on and instantly deposits into the right field pavilion for a grand slam. Ouch.
The pitcher’s shoulders slump. He pounds his mitt and tugs at the bill of his cap and scuffs the dirt on the mound with his left cleat during the home-run trot. He gets the next batter out but the damage is done. He gives up another run in the fifth before he’s yanked. I watch him try to keep his disappointment under control during the long, lonely walk back to the dugout but his agony is palpable. Nine runs – eight earned – on ten hits with a walk and three strikeouts in four-and-a third innings. Not the kind of day at the office you want if promotion is on your agenda. The lazy, happy summer baseball crowd vibe is a weird contrast to this kid’s painful night on the mound. He needs a hug but I doubt he’s going to get one.
Summoning my best imitation of an adult, I decide to head home after the sixth inning. It’s dark now, the Senators have a comfortable 9-5 lead, the camp kids have gone and left the park quiet and I have to work in the morning. It’s a ten minute walk back across the Walnut Street footbridge to collect my car, stowed in the St. Stephen’s Cathedral parking lot. I stop once and give ten bucks to a pilgrim holding a “homeless vet” sign. He thanks me and promises to buy himself a hot meal. I’m touched that he feels the need to validate my gift and that he probably lied to make me feel better about it. I hope things get better for him or at least that he has a dry place to sleep. I think about the young pitcher from Tennessee and hope he has a Plan B working. And I remember to acknowledge just how very lucky I am not to have to worry about my next meal or what the hell happened to my fastball.
I listen to the rest of the game in the car on the way home. The visiting Bowie (MD) Baysox stage a remarkable late-game comeback but fall to the Senators 13-10 in spite of it. I experience brief regret that I didn’t stick around to see the finish but I’m happier to be home safe and on schedule for a rational bedtime. Tuesday is in the books, I survive it unsupervised, without doing anything noticeably dangerous or stupid and I’m inordinately proud of myself. One day at a time.