The Grandstand

On going someplace strange to watch a game that doesn't matter.
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It is at the far end of a leafy city park. You will see the light stanchions first, among the trees, which comes as a relief because your directions had just kind of left you back there, at the corner of a big park and with nothing to indicate where the baseball game might be being played.

Closer, you will see a covered grandstand, the kind of thing that would never be built today because no city council could or would justify the expense of that roof. But you will be grateful it’s there, as it has stood there for decades, welcoming people like you and shielding them from the hard sun and the drenching rain. Park behind it, if you can. That’s a good spot.

And then you move through the chainlink fence’s gate and around the side, where you pay the women at the folding table and they hand you a ticket, already torn. You come around to face the grandstand, then mount the stairs to the back rows. That’s where you will sit, and it’s as good a place as any.

There are a dozen or fifteen rows of bleacher seating, wooden benches painted grey, with an upright that hits you square in the lumbar region. At the very back, in the middle, there is a booth, and inside it sits a man with a microphone and a roster sheet. Below the booth people are scattered across the seats, maybe a few dozen souls: families, friends, parents and perhaps grandparents of the players on the field, most likely. Them and also you, with the perfect feeling of being among them: these glad-hearted citizens, children, old men hunched on old seat cushions, wearing flat caps and ortho shoes, their palsied hands and stout characters. This is semi-pro baseball on a Tuesday night in a town that you don’t know, and everyone is there for their own reasons.

***

You’re here for baseball — because baseball is love and you’d follow it anywhere — but also just to be in some new place, somewhere removed from life as you so precisely know it. The idea is to get a bit lost, turned around, to temporarily take leave of your bearings.

And it is working, as a shiver runs up the length of your body, starts in your toes and traces a line beneath your skin all the way to your scalp. The night’s getting cool. Put on a sweater and wrap a blanket around your legs; done up like that you are so happy that you don’t know what to do with your arms. You flail a bit, wrap them around yourself, throw them over the back of the bench, fold them on your knees. It is important to remember that it does not matter what you do with your arms.

Really, though, what you want to do is cast your arms wide and embrace the game in front of you. The field and the lights, rich green grass, players in their uniforms made up of elements borrowed without permission from major league teams, the pop songs that play on the tinny, overmatched conical loudspeaker dangling from the roof of the grandstand. All of that: hug it. You want to gather it all in your arms and claim it and never let anyone spoil it. You want to protect it, as it has protected you. This is a reasonable thing to want, but also it’s impossible.

***

So sit back, pull the blanket a bit tighter, smile. You watch a big looping curveball from a lefthander whose name you will never know, and then you look at the sky, which has gone from a pillowy soft gray and then to purple and then to blue-black, like a silent secondary show for your amusement beyond the game. Night has come down — a soft summer night, and you, and all of the scattered fans and family members, are under the spell of some languid contentment that feels both pleasingly timeless and tragically ephemeral. Here now, blessedly, but also not for long.

That chill in the air suggests something you’re not ready for, not yet, so you ward it off and you cry out something to the visitors’ batter who is arguing a called strike even though his team is up literally a dozen runs.

Love this tiny grandstand, these people, the teams of unpolished players, a game that means nothing. Maybe you’ve always had a minor league heart? Mull this over while down at the snack bar the popcorn is bagged and the cans of Coke are doled out, a dollar a pop. The 50/50 numbers are drawn, and members of a local dance team try to get you up and moving for the seventh-inning stretch. You’re not having any of that, though. You finally got the blanket just right, and there’s no sense in risking that.

News of the night’s big league games drifts in over your phone like rumours from a lost continent. Stuff it back into your pocket and forget about it; the highlights will be easy to find later. Better, clearly, to turn your attention back to these nameless men. You want to consider the love it takes to ride a bus on a Tuesday night, play a game, then climb back aboard for the ride home, without any real hope of doing anything but taking a similar bus trip sometime soon to some similar game.

Or, if the home team, the love it takes to do all this and then sling an equipment bag over your back, climb onto your bicycle, and head out into the dark streets, bound for a house or an apartment where a partner or roommate waits to say nothing more than, “How was the game?” You want to remind yourself that it exists — that love, that devotion to a vast and difficult thing that might return little, or nothing at all.

But also you want to simply be, here, floating; pleasantly adrift in a place you don’t know, away from jobs, from lists, from the honking constancy of the internet and the messiness of life. You want to be open and ready to take in one of the few things that has always made sense: clean lines and green grass and bright lights, the rules and rituals, the sounds and sights. An unshakeable truth resides in the score up there, the balls and strikes and outs. Everything accounted for, everything plain.

Lean in, then. Might as well. Elbows on knees, feet propped on the seat in front of you, in order to better hear it, smell it, see it. You want to be deep within it, in the midst of it, to lay down in that grass and feel the game moving around you. You want a shortstop to leap over you. You want a well struck ball to zip sizzling over your head.

Failing that, maybe just be happy to sit here, to take deep breaths, to fuss with your cap. To watch a sharp liner hit out to right, to hear the crack of it and to be reminded of what brought you here, down highways and back roads and streets you’ve never seen: the love, the small offer of devotion you know is represented by such a trip.

This is a devotion likely never recognized, but real and full all the same, and uniquely rewarding for the anonymous devotee. The idea is to feel the night and its offerings on your skin, on your face, to see the scar of light against the inky sky, to let the sight of players fielding and throwing, swinging and running, work on your muscles like a proxy, like something both instructive and imitative, a nearly unreal echo of exertion that mirrors your own desire to live in your body. Running, bending, sweating, performing, feeling. Being, doing.

Mostly you want to know this is real, that people gather to play ball all over the place, in towns like this and in parks like this, here and everywhere. That other people gather to watch. That they have done so for better than a hundred years, and will continue to do so long after you are dead and gone. You want to step into a softly moving current that extends well beyond your life, and in so doing to forget your life, or many of the particulars of it, if only for nine innings. You want to forget where you came from, where you woke up, where you’ll have to return once the game is over. There is a long drive ahead.

It can’t be avoided, of course. The road lies expectant. The lock awaits your key. Once the game has ended, the home team defeated and all the good people drifted home, once the visitors’ bus has rolled out and the stanchions have been extinguished, you’ll go. That is the thing to do.

But also: a last look at the grandstand, at the field now shrouded in darkness. Then it will be time to get your bearings on these alien streets and find the highway out of town. But take the pleasure to be found there, too, in the endless unfurling, the songs on the radio, some faraway voice recounting the day’s scores.

Take comfort in where you’ve been and what you’ve seen. Bear up in the knowledge that it will all happen again tomorrow, in other towns you'll never know, in innumerable other places to get lost.

Next week, next year, a decade from now, a century. Drive home safe and get yourself to bed. Be glad, as too long delayed sleep finally comes, that you’ve placed your faith and your love in something that will outlive you. Be glad you went.


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