It’s 9am on a Monday morning, and I’m standing in line outside the Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida, waiting to see some baseball. Today’s game is between the New York Yankees and last year’s World Series champs, the Philadelphia Phillies. I’m not usually the sort of guy to care one way or the other about sports, but there’s something about spring training that brings out the kid in me. I’m so giddy that I don’t even care that I’ve spent the last 20 minutes listening to a guy from Long Island talk about his bobblehead collection.
“The Mets actually have the nerve to give out a bobblehead on the last day of spring training,” Eric Marinbach tells me. “So I have to stay for that. I extended my vacation just for that! Just for a Daniel Murphy bobblehead. It’s nuts. I had to rearrange my whole rental car schedule, my whole flight schedule. But it’s Daniel Murphy, so what can I do?”
Marinbach estimates that he has over 900 bobbleheads, which is kinda creepy, especially when he tells me that most of his collection is on display in his bedroom and he sometimes wakes up to “1800 eyes staring at me”. But in a weird way, it’s also endearing. A grown man doesn’t collect hundreds of bulbous-headed doll versions of his favorite players without being really enthusiastic about baseball.
Marinbach isn’t the only crazy-obsessive fan here in Clearwater. Although the game doesn’t officially start for another four hours, and the stadium doesn’t even open its doors till 10:30am, there are already a few hundred fans waiting outside. They’re dressed in the colors (and sometimes the full uniforms) of their favorite teams, and most are staring intensely at the front gate, like greyhounds waiting to burst out of their cage.
There have been conflicting reports on how Major League Baseball is faring in the recession. Depending on who you believe, attendance at spring training was either down as much as 20% or up by 2%. But if the crowd waiting to storm the gates at Bright House is any indication, team owners shouldn’t lose any sleep. Baseball, like McDonald’s and chocolate, seems to be recession-proof; comfort food for the brain.
The more intriguing question isn’t whether baseball will survive — it’s pretty obvious that it will — but whether the sport still matters.
I’ll be honest; I’m what you’d call a “casual fan” of baseball. I’ve watched a few games on TV, and I’ve been to Wrigley Field and a few other stadiums (although admittedly mostly for the beer). I’m vaguely familiar with the rules of the game, and I could identify some of the more popular players in a lineup. As a teenager, I once had a poster of George Brett on my wall, but that’s just because I thought his haircut was cool. If Pete Rose walked into a room, I would say, “Hey, isn’t that Pete Rose? What the hell is he doing here?” But that’s the extent of my knowledge and interest. I didn’t come to spring training because I love baseball. I could care less about baseball. As far as I’m concerned, baseball is just something men turn to when they’re afraid of having actual conversations with each other or being accused of being homosexuals. I came to spring training because I want some reassurance about the economy.
Our country, as you may’ve heard, is tits-deep in a pretty frightening recession. It’s so bad that some have made whispered comparisons with the Big D – you know, the Great Depression. Our current President, god bless ’em, has already demonstrated shades of FDR, promising to lead us through dark times with nothing more than an unwavering confidence and belief in our potential. But who’s going to buoy our national spirit when we get down in the recession dumps? Well, if the Great Depression is our best barometer, it’s probably going to be baseball.
Back in the 1930s, when the U.S. economy was fodder for John Steinbeck novels, baseball was experiencing a golden age. Players like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio became icons, even among people who wouldn’t go to a ballgame on a dare. The sport essentially became our national panacea. The world may’ve seemed hopeless and scary, but baseball offered the huddled masses a chance to escape and lose themselves in the exploits of larger-than-life sports heroes. So I have to wonder, will our national pastime once again become the diversion a rattled and recession-weary country needs? Will modern baseball shed its controversial reputation, ruined by years of steroids and bloated salaries, and resume its rightful place as a proud American tradition, right up there with mom and apple pie?
There are plenty of fans in Clearwater willing to explain why the answer is a resounding “no”. Their reasons aren’t surprising: The players, even the good ones, are overpaid, egomaniacal babies who’re probably all lying about steroids. Alex Rodriguez, baseball’s latest black sheep, is a favorite target of derision among fans looking for proof that baseball is a corrupt institution, somewhere on the ethical scale between AIG and the Mafia.
“Why is this cancer even on our team?” Marinbach insists, his voice booming. “The second A-Rod ‘supposedly’ got injured and ‘supposedly’ opted for the surgery in Colorado just so he could be away from Yankee camp, it was the best thing in the world for me. Because now we don’t have to talk about that asshole for a month and a half, thank god.”
Jeff Crupper, a 43-year-old Phillies fan from Houston, Texas, thinks the problem is with glorifying athletes at all. “They’re just human beings who happen to be good at throwing and running and hitting,” Jeff tells me. “They’re put up on a pedestal, but they’re just regular guys. If any of this stuff happened to you or me, it wouldn’t be news. But because it happened to A-Rod, suddenly it’s on the front page.”
It’s a sweet sentiment, even if it’s not in any way accurate. If you or I shtupped Madonna or got paid $275 million to cheat our way to semi-glory, it’d probably qualify as news. At least a mention on Page Six.
My favorite of the diehard fans waiting outside Bright House is Tony Bacon, a 72-year-old New Jersey native who now lives in Florida and rarely misses a Phillies spring training game. He tells me about his staggering collection of baseball memorabilia, which takes up most of the third floor in his home and includes a vintage schedule for the Philadelphia Quakers from 1887.
Like pretty much everyone with an opinion about baseball, he thinks the sport has lost its way. He tells me about Leon “Goose” Goslin, one of baseball’s legends who played “only for love of the game” and died penniless, his friends forced to take donations just to bury him. “It’s just sad,” he says. “It’s all about the money these days, and it’s taking the fun out of baseball.”
There’s apparently enough fun left to keep the throngs who came to the ballpark today entertained. As valid as many of their arguments are, it’s difficult to take them seriously. An angry Yankees fanatic screaming about how his team is on thin ice with him and better get their priorities straight or they’ll lose another fan doesn’t hold much water, especially when said fan makes these ultimatums while wearing every single piece of Yankees apparel sold at the stadium gift shop. It’s like listening to a guy in full Klingon regalia talk about why the new Star Trek movie better live up to his expectations or else.
The gates swing open and the crowd files inside, coming just shy of a shoving match. When we cross the threshold into baseball territory, the smiles get noticeably larger, and all talk of steroids and scandals are forgotten, at least for now. It’s time to get down to business, making a mad dash to the dugouts for autographs or the nearest concession stand for a morning beer.
If there’s a better antidote for the recession blues, I don’t know what it is. The air seems cleaner in here, the field almost unreasonably green. I can feel my shoulders start to relax and my worries drift away. Walking into a baseball stadium reminds me of what some people have told me about heroin. It’s a burst of euphoria that you wish would never stop. I’m feeling so emotional right now that I want to start singing that Paul Simon song about baseball and cougars. “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Whoo-whoo-whoo!”
It’s easy to feel romantic about baseball when you’ve got a belly full of beer and it’s a 70-degree day in March.
* * *
I’ve only been in the Phillies locker-room for ten minutes and I’ve already made a rookie mistake. Baseball players are accustomed to answering questions about batting averages and game predictions and statistical minutiae. They’re not quite so comfortable, however, answering philosophical questions about baseball’s role as a calming distraction during economic slumps, within the context of history. Asking an athlete whether their sport “still has the potential to inspire” is the equivalent of asking a hedge-fund trader to write a poem about sunsets.
Most of them look at me with wide eyes, somewhere between panic and bafflement. Their answers run the gamut from “Oh man, I got nothing” to “Can I get a day or two to think about it?” Occasionally one of them takes a stab at saying something meaningful. Carlos Carrasco, a starting pitcher for the Phillies, explains how baseball was obviously more important during the Great Depression because “people used to dress up in suits and ties when they went to the ballgame.” Eric Bruntlett, who hit the winning home run at last year’s World Series, says a lot of things that are probably relevant. He mentions how times are tough and baseball can be an escape from everyday life and blah blah blah. In other words, nothing that isn’t obvious.
Over in the Yankees locker room, Mark Teixeira tells me about his mother, diagnosed with breast cancer when he was just a teenager. “She told me that one of the things that got her through her cancer was coming to watch me play games,” he says. “I’ve always thought that if a woman with cancer who’s fighting for her life can get help from baseball, then somebody fighting for a paycheck should be able to do the same.”
“You might say that baseball is just as good as chemotherapy,” I say with a wry smile.
“No doubt, no doubt,” he says, nodding enthusiastically. “It is, it totally is!”
I assume he’s speaking figuratively, but who knows? Maybe there’s a small part of him that still believes in the magic of baseball. I almost feel guilty about wanting to make fun of him. But then I remember that Teixeira just signed with the Yankees for a whopping $180 million. For that kind of money, the least he can do is zap out a few tumors.
Their bland and sometimes confusing answers aren’t entirely their fault. To be honest, I don’t really care if they think baseball can inspire America. What I want to know is, how do they plan to inspire America? What Depression-era baseball icon will they be emulating this season? Will they be like Babe Ruth, a lovable drunk who promises home runs to sick children and then bangs their mothers later? Or like Lou Gehrig, coming down with an incurable disease and then giving a heart-wrenching farewell speed that leaves the entire nation choked up?
Not that I want any of them to get terminally ill but… well, I don’t know if they’ve noticed, but our economy’s in the crapper and everybody’s in a pretty hostile mood. Nothing turns a recession frown upside down like a famous athlete getting struck down in his prime and still having the courage to call himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” without being sarcastic or flipping anybody the bird. It’s the perfect combination of sound-byte bravery and a comforting reminder that at least somebody else is having a shittier year than you are.
I had no better luck the previous day, when I’d gone to a “Legends of Baseball” game at Bright House, looking for a few old-timers who seemed wise and talkative. The lineup included Jim Kaat, Bert Blyleven, Doug Creek and a bunch of other guys I’d never heard of. (Apparently in baseball, “legend” is loosely defined as “not dead yet.”) I ended up talking to Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, a former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who looks eerily like Wilford Brimley.
“We think if people come out to the ballpark, they’ll have a great time and we hope that does it for them,” Perry tells me. “We got a long ways to go to an (economic) recovery, don’t we? It’s gonna take a few extra innings to get this thing right.”
I have no idea what any of that means, or if it’s more sensible than “real baseball fans dress in formalwear” or “baseball is akin to alternative medicine.” Personally, if my house went into foreclosure and my life savings disappeared and some old dude in a baseball cap told me “It’s gonna take a few extra innings to get this thing right,” I would punch him in the throat.
My interview with Perry ended rather quickly. Because of his reputation for spitballs (his 1974 autobiography was called Me and the Spitter), I made some lame joke about how he’s technically the first ball player guilty of “juicing”. He stared at me with an icy glare, like I’d just suggested taking a bubble bath with his granddaughter, until I bowed my head and slinked away.
The “Legends” game itself turned out to be far more illuminating than anything the aging players could tell me. Just before the first pitch, a helicopter landed on the field and a group of six soldiers dressed in camouflage jumped out to hand-deliver a ball. The crowd erupted in cheers, seemingly unbothered by this pointless demonstration of military force. I wondered, why so much security for a baseball? Was it an al-Qaeda target? Why send a platoon to do a job that could’ve just as easily been accomplished by a prepubescent boy?
The game itself was hardly a display of stellar athletics. Bats were swung like housewives trying to protect themselves from intruders, and foul balls rained from the sky like hail. They fell into the stands, the walkways, sometimes even ricocheting off the bathroom doors. “Heads up!” people yelled, which I guess was code for “Run towards that projectile as fast as you can!” Adults and children alike lunged towards the balls, willingly throwing themselves in harm’s way for the chance of a free souvenir. Somebody actually body-checked me to get in the path of a foul ball, which bounced off his chest with a reverberating thud and, given his stunned expression, momentarily stopped his heart.
After six or so innings — old players tire easily — I went back to my hotel and watched Team USA get their asses handed to them by Team Japan in the World Baseball Classic semifinals. In the span of just a few hours, I witnessed a pretty accurate portrait of our national identity in the 21st century. The Japanese are outdistancing us in skill and strategy, but we’ve got bigger guns. We might not be able to throw or hit a ball with any accuracy, but we’ll have it transported to the stadium, at great expense, in the biggest goddamn chopper you’ve ever seen.
You hear that thorax-rattling roar? That tells you America’s in town, and it’s time to play some fucking baseball!
* * *
I’m standing on the Bright House field with Yankee manager Joe Girardi, rapping about spring training and baseball tradition, and all I can think about is how much I want to call my dad and tell him I love him.
This isn’t an original observation. Neal Pollack said it before and he said it better: “All professional baseball is built on a multi-billion-dollar foundation of half-remembered childhood memories.” My father is not a Yankees fan, nor does he resemble Girardi in any meaningful way. But there’s something about talking to a tanned baseball manager on a warm spring day, with the smell of grass and fried food thick in the air, which makes me heart-wrenchingly sentimental.
Just a few minutes earlier, when I hadn’t yet been reduced to a blubbering idiot, I was still (mostly) in control of the situation, or at least as much as could be expected from a sports-writing novice. I’d asked Girardi several unanswerable questions — like a sniggering troll guarding a bridge — and he did his best to accommodate me.
“I love this game too much to lose the idea that it’s just a game,” he says, contemplating the field below us. “The great thing about the game is that there’s always something that happens in the game to put the game in perspective, and you think, ‘Wow, it’s still a game.'”
I have no recollection of what I asked him, but it must’ve been a doozey.
I mostly just nod at whatever Girardi says and try to pretend that it isn’t in any way surreal for me to be standing on a baseball field during batting practice while 9000-plus people stare in my general direction. I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience, and Girardi’s words cease to be intelligible. He sounds like one of those parents in a Peanuts cartoon.
“Technology changes,” Girardi continues. “And I think that’s the biggest reason our world changes. But the game, in and of itself, is still played with a ball, and you still gotta get 27 outs, so it’s pretty much the same.”
“So true,” I say, as if I have any idea what he’s talking about. Girardi spits, his third time during our interview, and I watch the thick stream of muddy tobacco come dangerously close to hitting my shoes. I want him to actually spit on me, because I suspect that would signify something. I seem to remember reading somewhere that baseball players spit on each other as a sign of respect. Or am I thinking of Dune?
The beat writers, some of whom are watching me from the dugout, were kind enough to give me a few insider tips before my interview. “Never call a manager ‘Coach'”, they tell me. “They hate that. Just use their first name.” They also inform me that a locker room is called a “clubhouse”, which I continue to think is hysterical. It sounds so fancy and exclusive, like a place where jackets are required and martinis are served, not a dank back room filled with half-naked guys and the fetid aroma of sweat and testicles.
The baseball locker room — sorry, clubhouse — is not a safe haven for sports writers. It’s basically high school with a paycheck. I try to blend in with the other beat writers, who (like me) are pale and bearded and shaped like Weebles. We clutch our notebooks and watch the athletes get dressed and hope they’ll look our way so we can scurry over and ask our carefully-prepared questions.
We’re two very different social cliques; the players talk about yesterday’s NCAA tournament, and the writers discuss whether “The Macarena” was as badass as “The Curly Shuffle”. They’re the cool kids, comfortable in their own skin and acutely aware of their popularity, and we’re the fat kids from band class, trying not to make eye contact and clutching notes from our mothers giving us permission not to shower with the other boys.
They may not be prime physical specimens, but sports writers are considerably more adept at answering vague questions about the recession and baseball.
“Especially in this climate, people tend to be more interested in baseball than anything else,” explains Peter Abraham, a Yankee beat writer for The Journal News (in suburban New York). “I hate to say it, but it’s true. We can track the most-read stories on the Journal’s web site, and on one day, the lead story was about how (Yankee player) Nick Swisher bruised his leg and had to miss a day. The next most popular story was about Obama promising a stimulus package. Obama came second to Swisher and his bruised leg. And this is Westchester County, where the people have a pretty good stake in the economy.”
“The one great thing about baseball is that anything can happen,” says Mark Feinsand, a beat writer for the New York Daily News. “You can go to the park any night expecting nothing to be happening, and then somebody throws a no-hitter or hits four home runs. A team can be out of the race in August, but there’s always the possibility that somebody is gonna do something amazing and change everything in one night. Every game is another chance for a fresh start.”
There’s something intrinsically comforting in a baseball metaphor. The Casey at the Bat underdog stories are cringe-worthy when your life is on track, but if things get shitty enough in Mudville, it’s nice to dwell on baseball fantasies, where you could be a laughing stock one day and tomorrow do one little thing perfectly and suddenly everybody loves you again and you’re being called a hero and sacks of money are brought to you in wheelbarrows. Ah, if only life imitated baseball clichés.
It’s easy enough for writers to talk about baseball in the abstract, dissecting what it means to the larger culture and the faceless, embittered masses. But when the question gets turned on them — “What does baseball mean to you?” — it inevitably comes back to just one thing: Daddy.
“Baseball was always something I liked to do with my dad,” Feinsand tells me. “When I was 13 or 14, we took a trip down the coast of California to visit every baseball stadium in the state. And I’m looking forward to taking my son to the park and teaching him how to keep score. Baseball, to me, is just ingrained as a father-son activity.”
That is how every conversation I have in the Yankees dugout eventually ends. We begin with earnest discussions of baseball’s relevance in an era of steroid and mass media, but inevitably it evolves into misty-eyed tales of how we never felt closer to our dads than during those three hours at the ballpark, where conversations about RBIs and MVPs passed for intimacy. Even Girardi, who seems flummoxed by most of my questions, is lucid and charming on the topic of fathers and baseball.
“I was really close to my father,” Girardi tells me. “I used to ride in the car with him and we’d listen to the Cubs games on the radio. I played a ton of baseball as a kid, and he came to every game he could. And he used to take us to about five games a year at Wrigley Field. Baseball has always been a passion of mine, and I think it’s because it’s always been a passion of my father’s.”
“Hold me,” I murmur.
“I mean, hold on, I think we’re almost out of time. Thanks again and have a great game today, Coa… er, Joe.”
* * *
The rain starts coming down just an hour before first pitch, and that’s when the Bright House Field disc jockey starts blaring “It’s Raining Men” over the stadium’s loud-speakers. It’s an ingenious strategy, if you think about it. They’re basically shouting back at the weather, “Hey rain, what are you, some kind of faggot?”
Because nature is easily intimidated by frat boy hazing, the clouds soon part and the rain stops and the Phillies and Yankees take the field.
You get a lot of time to think when you’re watching a baseball game. Even in the best ones, not a lot happens. The majority of any given game involves players discussing what to do next, and then slowly getting ready to do whatever it is they’ve agreed on. Watching baseball is like looking for a friend who played an extra in a big Hollywood movie. Glance down at your popcorn just once and you risk missing everything.
So I do what I guess you’re supposed to do at the ballpark. I let my mind wander. I think about how ironic it is that I’m investigating baseball and the recession in Clearwater, Florida, the very same city where Keith Richards wrote “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, which could be a recession anthem. I think about how President Roosevelt once compared the New Deal to baseball, and how President Obama bumped the World Series for an election infomercial, and whether that means anything. I think about how A.J. Burnett, the Yankees’ new starting pitcher, supposedly wears nipples rings, and if you can see them through his uniform. I think about how a front-row seat at the new Yankee Stadium costs a little over $2,500, and how for that price you could probably get Keith Richards to come to your home and hum the riff to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” while giving you a foot massage.
The game is low-scoring, which isn’t a shocker. Nothing here or at any game during spring training actually counts. They might as well be playing frisbee golf, for all it signifies. There are a few hits and the crowd is appreciative, howling like they think the players care either way. Spring training is perfect for people who want their baseball without any drama or importance or stress. If your team does well, hooray! If they make fools of themselves, meh, whatever. Where’s the hot dog guy?
At some point, Ryan Howard, the Philly’s first baseman, does something that looks kinda impressive. He tries to catch a ball while keeping a foot on the base, and his body contorts into a position that’s reminiscent of a Downward-Facing Dog yoga pose. The crowd cheers, even though he didn’t technically get the runner out. I suppose that means they’re applauding him for a good effort. Or for stretching. Either way, it doesn’t matter. This crowd is looking for an excuse to whoop it up, and Howard’s bendy spine is as good a reason as any.
The people who say there are no more heroes in baseball are wrong. Today’s “stars” may not have the scrappy determination of a Pepper Martin, or the prophetic powers of a Dizzy Dean, or the non-steroid-induced body mass of a Hank Greenberg. They may never have a candy bar or neuromuscular disease named after them, or have their baseball skills described, as Babe Ruth once was by a biographer, as “surging erectile power.” But that doesn’t mean they aren’t heroes in their own unconventional way.
A gaggle of fans are gathered near the Phillies dugout, shouting at the players on the field to try and get their attention. When their requests for autographs go unanswered — mostly because the players are trying to play baseball — a teenage kid grows impatient and throws a ball towards Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth. And then, to make his intentions obvious, he throws a sharpie pen, which nearly clocks Werth in the head. Werth looks down at the ball and pen and sighs deeply. And then he picks them up and carries them back over to the stands, where he dutifully signs the ball for the hysterical teenager.
Werth is a hero, not because of his athletic ability but because he had the courage not to stab this kid in the jugular repeatedly with his own sharpie. When baseball fans act like monkeys throwing shit, it takes a big man to smile and pretend to be grateful.
Every generation gets the heroes it deserves. The 1930s needed Lou Gehrig, with his nobility in the face of great misfortune. In the ‘aughts, we apparently just need somebody who’s going to tolerate our obnoxious sense of entitlement, and not wince when we start hollering “Gimme, gimme, gimme!”
In the bottom of the sixth, a booming voice announces that today’s game is a sellout, with 9,394 fans in attendance. And then, as if god is making some not-so-subtle commentary, it starts to rain again. Hard. Monsoon hard. The playing, which has already been sloppy at best, becomes downright farcical. Players are slipping on the slick grass, and Phillie Raul Ibanez loses his grip on a wet bat, sending it flying towards right field and nearly shishkebabbing Mark Teixeira.
Some of the crowd runs towards shelter, but most don’t. There’s a guy standing next to me, dressed from head to toe in Yankees apparel, and although he’s getting soaked — he looks like a wet superhero — he doesn’t move. “What a fucking lousy day for a ballgame,” he says with a snarl, and then he takes a long swig from his beer. He stares out at the field, his eyes unblinking and an expression of fierce determination on his face.
Forget the underdog stories. This is baseball’s true recession metaphor, and it has nothing to do with the players. This guy standing in the rain — refusing to leave because he paid for a game and goddammit, he’s gonna get his game — he represents the true American spirit. I just can’t decide if it’s a good thing.
It either says something about out stubborn optimism and willingness to stand our ground and weather the storm. Or it means that we’re a bunch of spoiled jackasses who don’t know when the party’s over and are too stupid or arrogant to get out of the rain. Maybe it’s a little bit of both and we just can’t tell the difference anymore.
I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow American, watching our beers rapidly fill with rainwater, muttering to the darkening clouds, “One more inning, one more inning, one more inning…”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)