Monday, October 04, 2004

Baseball’s been very, very good to me.

My love affair with the sport began in the late 1970’s, when I left the Navy and relocated with my girlfriend to Los Angeles.

Relocation was very difficult, physically and emotionally. We left all our friends, who were steadily leaving the service anyway, and we left our home in Nevada, where a two-bedroom trailer cost $90/month. House-hunting in L.A. after my first day of work was terrifying, as the horrible reality finally came through to us: we could not afford to live anywhere near my job, near anywhere that was nice. We finally found a one-bedroom apartment in Wilmington, in the midst of some of the worst squalor and crime in Los Angeles. On top of that, it took about 45 minutes to drive to work. In our small town in Nevada, it had taken five minutes to get to work, leaving you time to get a cup of coffee.

Our next-door neighbor was a biker, a real leather man who had the hots for my girlfriend. Not surprisingly, I didn’t trust him at all. He was living off disability from the Teamster’s. Since neither he nor Debbie were working, they spent a lot of time together.

He invited us to a baseball game. Only $8, he said, a promotion at Elysian Fields. The Dodgers. He drove us there in his station wagon through a maze of four freeways and bumper-to-bumper traffic. I was totally amazed as I walked into this blue cathedral of baseball. I had never realized that you could actually *go to these games.

Within a few months, I got promoted and attended training in Georgia. I got the “Dear Jane” call at the barracks-like housing they gave us for training two weeks before my return.

Still, I had baseball. I went by myself to Dodger Stadium, and it became a real luxury item. I found that I could buy agency "scalped" tickets, sold back to the broker by season ticket holders, and could sit in the reserve level, one level above field, and watch Steve Garvey, Mike Scioscia, Don Sutton, Ron Cey, and, yes, Dusty Baker play their hearts out. I remember many nights just falling asleep against the concrete pillar in that section, tired from all the overtime my promotion had given me. But I was happy to be in blue and have a home to go to.

But then I transferred to the San Francisco Bay Area. I lived in Oakland but I naturally loved national league teams and style of play. I went to Candlestick Park whenever I could. I found that tickets to the ‘Stick were comparatively easy to come upon. You didn’t need to buy scalped tickets, but could buy them on your own ahead of time. No matter what bothered you, you could always hang out at the park, sometimes hours ahead of time. Watch some BP. Look at the brilliant play of future hall of famers, like a young Barry Bonds. I couldn’t wear blue any more, but I felt I looked better in black anyway.

I attended a few American League games as well. As long as I had lived in Los Angeles (11 years), I never once attended an Angels game. It was well known that the Angels weren’t a good team. Just ask founder Gene Autry, who died without seeing his team advance to the playoffs. So, I started going to Oakland A’s games with my new family, which was beginning to appreciate the sport. We had watched the A’s fight the Giants during the great earthquake games of 1989, when I transferred to the Bay Area. My partner had just gone through a wrenching foot surgery, her third. In the fog of the powerful pain medication, she would cheer home the A’s. Her two sons and I sat at the foot of her bed and cheered her on as well as our team. Her boys learned the Star Spangled Banner in the car on our way to a home game the next year, hoping to convince their Mom to buy them a treat at the game.

I developed a new respect for the American League, and specifically for the hardy players of the Athletics, players who helped the A’s win four World Series’ rings. Players like Dave Stewart, Reggie Jackson, Dave Henderson, Bob Welch (a Dodger transplant), Mike Gallego, Walt Weiss, Carney Lansford, and, yes, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. How exciting those years were! The only thing I didn’t like about American League baseball was -- okay, the designated hitter rule. Isn’t that cheating? Doesn’t that lessen the number of strategies left to employ? And I hated the Oakland colors. Garish yellow and bright green were indicative of Billy Martin days, but not the LaRussa decade. The A's slowly changed their colors to a darker, richer combination.

The Coliseum was much like Candlestick Park, made from that old mold of separating the fans from the players. There was enough foul territory at the Coliseum to stage a Broadway musical with all the costume changes. The stadium is basically the same. Only the name has changed. That and the food, which has gotten considerably better in Oakland. Oh, and add in the Davis Wall, a blindingly steep facade of green built for thousands more football fannies. With the advent of The Wall, the sight of the Oakland hillside was blocked from our view.

I broke up with my partner in 1991, and started a new life on my own. In an effort to fill in the holes of this life, I started a new baseball partnership. Rick, a coworker, had the same passion as I had. Our buddy George did, too, but due to family obligations, never felt free enough to go to more than one game a year. Rick, however, had a very understanding family. In fact, his family is so understanding that (1) he attends games on anniversaries, birthdays, and national holidays if he has a ticket; (2) they give him baseball gifts for every occasion, knowing how much he loves the sport; and not at all least, (3) his girlfriend (now wife) always found the money in their tight budget to advance him so that he could buy partial season tickets with me. It may sound that I’m envious. I’m not. As a single, spoiled woman, I bought all the tickets I wanted as well. We're a perfectly matched couple of baseball friends.

For the past 13 years or so, Rick and I have shared tickets to the A’s and Giants. During each season, we suffer the slings of outrageous fortune as our team does or dies, usually the latter. Over the past several years we weren’t working next to each other any more, so we’d take the time to catch up on what his kids are doing, how my surrogate kids are faring. We would punctuate this conversation by standing up and yelling at an umpire, or cheering on a magnificent double play on the field. And then argue about how we would have done things as pseudo-managers.

Two years ago, almost to the day, I received a phone call from my doctor. He started out slowly yet quickly, all of a sudden saying to me, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but you have cancer.” He said something else about hating to spoil my weekend, but all the words trailed off in my memory. Within two weeks I underwent surgery to remove part of my diseased colon. I had no fear when I walked in, and none when I awoke in the intensive care unit. It’s only when I saw two friends’ faces, a day apart, that I realized, slowly, what risk there was. And now, now that I have time to think it all over, I know what risk there remains. I’m a survivor. For now.

The baseball season that year was a spectacular one, for both the Athletics and the Giants. But I was pulled in so many directions that year that I don’t really remember living it. I had very little leave, and thus went back to work a little too soon, two weeks after my operation and one week after I returned home. The stress at work was mounting as the demands increased, but at least I didn’t have the constant before-surgery stomach pain to deal with.

That entire ordeal made it so easy to make the decision to retire at the end of 2003. I knew I would be healthier if I retired. My job as supervisor had changed so much within the last few years as government agencies merged. My skill levels were not increasing fast enough to keep up with the changes. And, somehow, priorities in my life had shifted abruptly.

And so, in 2004, baseball came around again, sprouting up through the cold, solid ground like a new crop. The A’s dropped most of their money players and even their winning manager. We were able to keep Chavez, signing him to a new contract, but he’s still young, and Jermaine Dye has been injured for two years now. But new players like Kotsay and some promising young pitchers were going to make it exciting. The Giants still had Bonds, better than ever, recovering from the death of his father, his mentor. We lost Jeff Kent and an ailing Robb Nen, but picked up such veteran players as Grissom and Tucker. Baseball has changed. Our teams have changed. But they’re still as exciting as ever.

When I attended the ballgames this year, it was a different experience. I wouldn’t eat three of the drumsticks (my favorite) in one ballgame, constantly on the "vendor watch." I will usually opt for the Chinese chicken salad. And take an hour lap around the parking lot before walking in through the tightened security. I have time to listen to the commentators, edge in some music as well, chill out and watch the whole game rather than dash off in the 7th with all the unfinished business I usually had. I’ve changed.

Baseball and I continue to change. We’re both still here, surviving.

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