Opening Night

A fan waits years for one moment, and now that it's here, it's too hard to look.
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It is Opening Night of the 2010 baseball season and I am walking toward the nursing home where my grandmother is now living. I’m living in a cracked jar, back pressed tight against the unbroken glass so the shards on the other side can’t cut me. I don’t know the score of the game.

There’s a black Cadillac parked outside the nursing home with the windows down. I can’t see the driver aside from a mustachioed silhouette. I wouldn’t usually slow my stroll but it’s unusual to hear salsa blaring from a Cadillac outside the nursing home.

I used to wait on her stoop while she shoved open that white-barred front door, the one that always jammed after my uncle slammed it in anger one long-ago summer, whatever summer was the last summer he visited to talk baseball with my father over the smoking barbecue. After he left it was like the door had forgotten its function. She had to push and push. Then it would remember and open. We don’t consider the strength of our memories in frequencies; what I believe to know unequivocally could one day be static. That miniature television she had in the kitchen had a curved antenna on top. Those strong players on the sun-soaked diamond could disappear in the middle of their familiar dances, flickers fading due to a weak reception.

***

There was a game in 1996 when Bernie Williams crushed a grand slam and a three run homer in Detroit. It was September and our reception was strong in the kitchen. My grandmother used to yell “holy cow” right after Phil Rizzuto, like they were putting on a show, his call and her response. The magic of “holy cow” was in its pliability. Almost every announcer these days has a signature home run catchphrase, but “holy cow” could apply to anything that impressed Phil Rizzuto. An overhead shot of the Stadium could inspire benediction, or especially the moon… and a full moon? Holy cow. But an interesting trait could prove meritorious too, like Joe Girardi’s slightly above-average foot-speed for a catcher. That summer my best friend and I constantly imitated Phil Rizzuto’s amazement over an early-season Girardi theft of second base. Look at Girardi, stealing a bag! Holy cow!

Even still, the holiest of cows were reserved for Yankee home runs, especially when punctuating an impressive individual performance. The ’96 edition of the Detroit Tigers allowed an almost unspeakable 1,103 runs. Bernie Williams was one of the best hitters in baseball. Such was the afternoon’s context, more holies dropped between Rizutto and my grandmother than Allen Ginsberg doing a reading of Footnote to Howl. My grandmother’s interpretation was wide-eyed bombast, HOLY COW, as if the calf were being baptized by a priest right in her kitchen sink, and it would have me laughing hard enough to sneeze out some of the coffee ice-cream float. If Phil Rizzuto had turned up at the after-party for my Communion it would’ve only taken a brief explanation from an adult. I’d have believed she knew Phil by the way I knew Phil: as someone who could easily be playing Bocce on the backcourt behind the playground at Bowne Park. Maybe one random rainy afternoon he’d ring the doorbell and drop off some cannoli in a damp white box. What a shot, Phil would excitedly note, as if every impressive home run could have been the first one he ever saw. And that’s how they always felt in my grandmother’s kitchen, at least when the Yankees were winning. I remember that afternoon being ideal, the perfect after-school trip to my grandmother’s house, for everything I don’t remember and the simplicity of what I do. My teeth caked with bagel chip residue while Bernie rounds the bases. The coffee ice cream and Coca-Cola spiriting me outside, a frenzied child imagining himself leaping from an exploding action movie warehouse or hitting a home run. I was running and jumping and pretending and never feeling alone for a second as long as I was moving.

***

Before the nursing home there was that first midwinter night in the hospital. Everything collapsed so quickly we couldn’t even do denial. Nobody knew she hadn’t been eating. Her sudden inability to cook was as unfathomable as her actual death. She was emaciated in the hospital bed and talking about people standing upside down on the ceiling and staring at her. I remember standing in the corner of the room feeling a strange violence in my chest. This woman close to death was a stranger but also my grandmother too. There was nothing anyone could say because words were useless. What could be clarified? And it created another paradox – that there actually were people on the ceiling, for the intensity of which she spoke and the uselessness of any refutation. I felt relief when my eyes found the fast-falling snow outside the window. I hadn’t even registered staring at the far corner of the ceiling until my eyes hurt.

***

On Opening Night I am making an evening visit to the nursing home. She’s better in the nursing home. Healthier. But still can’t remember. I am driving through streets familiar in their dark quiet with nothing emanating from my radio. Usually it’s Bob Dylan or a ballgame. But tonight I prefer silence. Time can always be blamed. Nature is unstoppable and we always have to play along. This is my protest. No game on the radio where there always would be.

The Yankees are playing the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. The new centerfielder Curtis Granderson may be the best centerfielder in the Bronx since Bernie Williams. But as I watch the fireworks exploding over the Green Monster before leaving the house it all hits me like a sad acid trip.

I don’t want this new season. I don’t even want to graduate from college. Sure I’ll turn in those final papers. But I simply don’t want the ceremony to happen. I want the future to be cancelled, nothing happening to no one. Let the Great World Stop Spinning. Let the bottom of the fifth be delayed by rain. No official games, and no unofficial games either. 2010. The first season of a new decade. And goddamn! Hideki Matsui should not be on the Angels. How do you let the World Series MVP walk away for a one-year contract? I can barely even look at Josh Beckett on the screen, in all his intensity and effort, his angry fastball and curve that pauses and plummets like a rollercoaster cart. The guy is trying. It is new again. Every single thing, and the championship may as well be a dream now, for all the good it can do in the present.

But.

But I do want to see Granderson’s first Yankees AB.

But.

Girardi bats him seventh instead of second. When hearing the lineup that afternoon I rallied emotionally. “Johnson hitting second? Ah, fuck that!” I still had enough to second-guess a World Series manager before the first game of the season had even started. Unfortunately I had to leave before Granderson hit.

Granderson was the kind of acquisition who could get me daydreaming about baseball instead of true love on Valentine’s Day. Sure, the Tigers got the Yankees’ top position player prospect in Austin Jackson and a pitching prospect named Max Scherzer who the Diamondbacks couldn’t figure was a starter or reliever, but here was a centerfielder with a rare skillset: power and speed and a left-handed swing perfect for the short-porch in the Bronx. Considering these attributes and his surprising availability, Granderson had to be one of the most talented outfielders ever acquired by the Yankees in a trade, to be considered alongside Roger Maris in 1960, Bobby Bonds in 1975, Paul O’Neill in 1993, and Rickey Henderson in 1985. (Babe Ruth does not really apply, being more of a living myth than mortal player.)

In 2006, I’d been sitting in the bleachers on a warm October evening for game one of the ALDS. Granderson seemed to uncoil from his closed, praying mantis stance to hit a towering home run. It was off the whirling, limb-flailing, invisi-ball-throwing lefty specialist Mike Myers. His hips and hands stayed back on the slider until the exact moment when bang: a present for us in the bleachers, especially the drunk who’d been yelling “fuuuuuuuuckkkkk yoooooooouuuuu, Granderson,” at Curtis for the entire game. That was a home run to remember. Unexpected against the lefty specialist, a strategy foiled. I’m sure at least thirty thousand people in the Stadium made a similar observation: He’d look good in pinstripes.

When I get out of the car at the nursing home, I feel blank in the unseasonably warm breeze. I curiously approach the black Cadillac with those open windows, the salsa seeming to rattle its dashboard. My imagination has not been going many places recently, resistant to getting lost in games and possibilities. Often I feel like I’m performing an imitation of myself, especially on campus. The more accustomed to the performance I become, the less like a real person I feel. And that seems like a fair enough trade. But I don’t resist this thought, a playful notion that actually makes me stop and smile: the Copa.

I think about the Copacabana. Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Bauer once got into a brawl at the Copacabana. It was Billy Martin’s birthday. I wonder whether Grandma ever made it to the Copacabana. It had to be a possibility. If Phil Rizzuto had been at the Copa, my grandmother definitely could have been at the Copa. This thought, of my grandmother at the Copa, brings me the first measure of happiness in thinking about her for a long time. I have fixed her in my mind to a loss before a loss. Now I imagine her dancing the night away with my grandfather, maybe even drawn by the commotion of the Yankees throwing haymakers before returning to their drinks and laughter. I piece the scene together in my mind, remembering that time she showed me the photo album of her and my grandfather spending a summer weekend in a beach town where she wore that bathing suit that rankled the locals. I can almost see her clearly as a younger woman, but it’s difficult to leap from my familiar perception of her. Even still in her swaying and shaking of the congas it’s like she flits between the grandmother I knew and the woman she actually was in the world. I almost can see the expressiveness of her face—those gleaming eyes and her distinctive Italian nose, as they may have belonged her when she was in wonder over the world instead of the little boy who knocked on her door after every school day afternoon. The music is intoxicatingly absorbing, so synched and so loud, and the grandfather I never met is actually the way I always see him, a circumspect figure who nonetheless smiles widely whenever he’s looking at my grandmother. Like he got the biggest possible kick that could be from her. And I see them laughing and spinning together in my mind’s eye, maybe while in the chaotic background Mickey’s trying to pull Billy out of a wild scrum of flying fists, suit jackets and disheveled though still shiny nightclub hair. Then the salsa Cadillac eases down the block into some other nighttime. And I am back where I am.

I walk away from the entrance and back up toward the dead-end. I’m still going to visit. But I want to find a different mind, find a different way into this, despite knowing how it ends.

I stop walking and stand in the middle of the desolate street. I look up at the night sky. I wish I could see a star but this is a starless city. While scanning back down I see a couple on an apartment complex balcony. The complexes are nice on this block. The guy’s scooping a drink from the railing and his girlfriend’s opening the screen door to return inside. Her shoulders slip through the frame and he’s following close behind. Then there’s a roar from inside the apartment, loud clapping and hollering filtering from the open screen door down to me in the street. It’s sudden and could only be a ballgame. I immediately know the Yankees just did something so I edge onto my toes, jutting my face upward, as if I could be right in that room too. A warmth travels from my head down through the rest of my body. It passes as easily as it happened but for a second it doesn’t matter that I’m jammed. I felt something move out there and in me too. From their commotion, clapping and excited expletives, I gather that Curtis Granderson just homered in his first Yankees at-bat.

Holy cow.


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