By Jim Miller
The Major League Baseball All-Star Game is in San Diego and despite the glaring lack of Padres on the team, many local and visiting fans will be taking in the pricey spectacle in all its corporate glory (confession: I will be there). With a huge Fan Fest, the Home Run Derby and the main event itself, San Diego will be baseball central for the week, at least on paper.
But if you really want to get to the heart of the game, I suggest you go bush league.
Forget the fancy packaging and head down to the minor leagues, the lower the better—and get as far away from the large cities as you can. It’s there on the California League circuit or in a forgotten small town in the Midwest or somewhere else in Lost America that you just might learn to love the game again.
One of my favorite places to see a baseball game is in Arcata, California up in the Redwood Empire where the Humboldt Crabs have played in the same collegiate summer league since 1945. For a few bucks you can buy a ticket but you need to get there early if you want to grab a spot on the metal bleachers behind home plate. Once you’re settled in with a local brew and a veggie burrito, you can enjoy the Crab Grass Band as they warm up the crowd or play while Crusty the Crab does a silly dance to tuba accompaniment.
If you feel like splurging, you can buy yourself a tie-died Crabs shirt or a 50/50 raffle ticket to help pay for the team’s travel costs. Other than that, it’s small town baseball with the special feature that a long home run to left field will land on Highway 101.
The next day, you might just end up eating breakfast with the entire visiting team, whether it be the Redding Colt 45s or the Southern Oregon River Dawgs, at the Samoa Cookhouse, an old dining hall for loggers in a former company town down the road between Arcata and Eureka.
If not there, maybe your ticket is the Modesto Nuts on a hot summer evening in a half empty stadium perfumed by the smell of nearby crops and cattle. Al the Almond is always a big hit with the kids, and the “Let’s Go Nuts” cheer is fun for all ages. From there you could head up to see a game by the river in Stockton and buy a Ports baseball cap featuring a sailor swinging a piece of asparagus.
The thing you find whether it’s in the high desert or Toledo, Ohio is the kind of gentle, good natured Americana that the hip capitalism of our day is too cynical to offer anymore. But the truth is that there is nothing cooler than Muddy the Mud Hen on UAW Free Beer Night. The same can be said for listening to the Hawaiian national anthem in the shadow of the Iao Needle wreathed with clouds before the Na Koa Ikaika Maui take the field to a reggae song. Just get yourself a plate of loco moco or a red Hawaiian hot dog and settle in for the game.
More than anything else, the lack of hype in the bush leagues offers space in the game for silence. Yes, there are pranks and gimmicks (and even a farting mascot at Lake Elsinore Storm outings) but between the pitches you can still hear the bats tap the plate and the guys in the dugouts cheering on their teammates or making smart ass cracks. You are close enough to smell the dirt and grass on the field and see if the players are nervous as they warm up to bat or throw the first pitch.
And most of these guys will never make it, but for now, they are here, taking their shot, giving their shout—learning the signs and mastering fine points, staying true to the sacred rites of the game.
Nobody important is watching; it’s all about the thing itself.
There, in those moments of silence and anticipation before the action, we find something simple and good, something magical that is slowly leaving our lives.
Summer is here and it’s time to take a break from my usual column and stretch the form a little with some chronicles. As I explained last year, the chronicle is a literary genre born in Brazil:
In the summer of 1967, the great Brazilian writer, Clarice Lispector, began a seven-year stint as a writer for Jornal de Brasil [The Brazilian News] not as a reporter but as a writer of “chronicles,” a genre peculiar to Brazil. As Giovanni Pontiero puts it in the preface to Selected Chrônicas, a chronicle, “allows poets and writers to address a wider readership on a vast range of topics and themes. The general tone is one of greater freedom and intimacy than one finds in comparable articles or columns in the European or U.S. Press.”
What Lispector left us with is an eccentric collection of “aphorisms, diary entries, reminiscences, travel notes, interviews, serialized stories, essays, loosely defined as chronicles.” As a novelist, Pontiero tells us, Lispector was anxious about her relationship with the genre, apprehensive of writing too much and too often, of, as she put it, “contaminating the word.” It was a genre alien to her introspective nature and one that challenged her to adapt.
More than forty years later, in Southern California—in San Diego no less–I look to Lispector with sufficient humility and irony from my place on the far margins of literary history with two novels and a few other books largely set in our minor league corner of the universe. Along with this weekly column, it’s not much compared to the gravitas of someone like Lispector. So, as Allen Ginsberg once said of Whitman, “I touch your book and feel absurd.”
Nonetheless the urge to narrate persists . . .
John Lawrence says
Beautiful writing, Jim. It makes me want to be there.
bob dorn says
Right on the fat part of the bat, Jim. The simplicity of playing a game oldtimers know and plenty of immigrants have quickly learned “is the kind of gentle, good natured Americana that the hip capitalism of our day is too cynical to offer anymore.” Art isn’t made by the cynical.
Sounds like “Bull Durham” might be your favorite baseball film.
I remember mid-1980s, afternoon-evening games at Recreation Park, watching the Cal-League (Minnesota Twins) Visalia Oaks (as they then were; think it’s something else now).
Rec Park was a very pleasant, approachable, fan-friendly place; great grilled-for-you burgers at the Oak Patch, just off the third-base line; and, if you sat high enough in the bleachers and the weather was decent, you could look off over the city’s rooftops, out there to the east…and get a view of the Sierra Nevada…
And that one year (1987, I think?) when the Twins made the World Series, several former Oaks – including the great Kirby Puckett (God rest him) – were on their roster!
What real baseball should be, not what it’s mutated into…
What about the Elsinore Storm. Much closer distance than Arcata (tho not as nice).