Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Stretch

Originally published by STYLE Weekly in October of 1999

With the turning of the leaves, The Fan District of Richmond, Va., will again be transformed into a living impressionistic cityscape. As they always do, the season’s wistful breezes will facilitate reflection.

All of which leads to the fact that yet another baseball season has come and gone. After 6,783 games, the last game ever has been played at Detroit’s fabled Tiger Stadium. The Giants and the Astros will be playing in new parks next season, as well. The World Series, first played in 1903, will soon be upon us. Although baseball’s claim as the National Pastime may no longer hold up, the colorful lore generated by the magic of events at baseball parks probably outweighs that of all the other sports, put together.

I began going to the Richmond V's (for Virginians) games at Parker Field with my grandfather when I was about seven. I eagerly drank in all I could of the atmosphere, especially the stories told about legendary players and discussions on the strategy of the game.

As I got older I began to go with my friends, most of whom played baseball. We usually took our baseball gloves with us to the game. We’d go early so we could watch the V’s warm up. As often as possible we talked with the players. If one of them remembered your name it was a source of pride.

When we cheered the heroics we witnessed and rose for the seventh inning stretch and stayed until the last out, regardless of the score, it was tantamount to exercising religious rites.

A few seasons before they tore Parker Field down (it was dismantled in 1984 and in its place stands The Diamond), I experienced one last thrill at the old ballpark. This was when my daughter, Katey, was about seven or eight.

The home team by then — as it is now — was The Braves. Katey, her mother, and I were sitting in box seats as guests of neighbors who had gotten comps from a radio station. It was Katey’s first trip to Parker Field.

The spectacle itself was interesting to her for a while. As it was a night game, the bright lights were dazzling. The roar of the crowd was exhilarating. Being old enough to go along on such an outing, instead of staying at home with a baby sitter, was a boost to her morale. Nonetheless, by the middle of the game Katey (pictured above at about the age of this story) was getting tired of sitting still and bored with baseball.

During the sixth inning it fell to me to entertain, or at least restrain her, so the others could enjoy the game. I tried telling her more about the object of baseball, hoping that would help her pay some attention to the game.

That didn’t work for very long. She was soon climbing across seats again and this time she knocked a man’s beer into his lap. As the visiting team began their turn at bat, in the top of the seventh, I got an idea and asked Katey if she wanted to see some magic. Of course she did.

Then I got her to promise to be good if I showed her a big magic trick. She agreed to the terms without qualification. Making sure she alone could hear me, I pulled her in close and whispered my instructions.

The gist of it was that she and I, using our combined powers of concentration, were going to make everyone in the ballpark stand up at the same time. Katey was thrilled at the mere prospect of such a feat. I told her to face the ongoing game, close her eyes, and begin thinking about making the crowd stand up.

After the visiting team made their third out, I cupped my hand to her ear and reminded her to think, “stand up, stand up …”

As baseball fans know, when the home team comes to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning everyone stands up, ostensibly to stretch their legs. It’s a longtime tradition called “the seventh inning stretch.” There’s a mention of the practice in a report about a Cincinnati Red Stockings (baseball’s first professional team) game that took place in 1869.

Tradition aside — when Katey turned around, opened her big blue eyes and saw thousands of people standing up — it was pure magic in her book.

No one in the group gave me away when she told them what we had done. As I remember it, she stayed true to her word and was well-behaved the rest of the game.

It was a few years later that Katey confronted me, having learned how the trick worked. We still laugh about it.

Sports dilettantes today complain that baseball games are too slow and meandering. While I admit baseball has its lulls, nonetheless there are textures and layers of information present at baseball parks that are just too subtle and ephemeral for the lens of a TV camera to capture. To appreciate them you have to be there, and you have to bother to notice.

Sometimes there’s even a hint of magic in the air.

-- Words and photo by F.T. Rea

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