Duly Recognized

Giggy on the Mound

An appreciation…

On a perfect day, with puffy clouds drifting in a picture-postcard Carolina-blue sky, across a field of impossibly-green grass, 400 feet away, a bouncing, running, laughing, grab-ass playing group of identically-clad teenaged boys burst from an opening in a center field fence. At this distance, they look more like one solid mass in form and movement, than a group of individual ballplayers.

And yet, it takes me no more than a blink-quick second to pick him out, my son, Giggy. It’s the loping stride, that comes from growing so much in the past year that he can scarcely keep track of his arms and legs, much less direct them to meet his precise will. It’s the constant talking and joking, which he does lots, even off the field. It’s even the turn of the head in that way he does when he’s listening intently to a teammate or coach or friend (certainly not parent) deliver instructions he’ll be expected to follow, or joke he’ll want to repeat.

Then he starts to throw and all doubt is removed. His rubber-band whip resembles no one else in his tribe. Once I see him throw, I scarcely need to see the number on his jersey for confirmation.

That’s Giggy, alright.

Catch

It was an uncharacteristically warm and sunny early evening, so my son and I grabbed our mitts and ran to the nearby park for a catch. For those readers unfamiliar, having a catch is a generations-old ritual of American life; at its simplest level, it is the activity of throwing a baseball back and forth between two people.

If you’ve seen the film ‘Field of Dreams,’ you may have a sense of the importance of this particular ritual to parent-child, (still primarily father-son) relations and bonding in our culture. Having a catch provides both physical proximity and mental space, which allows for conversation about issues that might never get addressed in the closer and more intimate setting of, say, the dining table.

On early summer evenings, like this one, my own dad would get home from work and we’d still have at least an hour of light left for a catch at the playground across the street. He’d like moving around after being at his desk all day but he’d also always take the chance for a cigar, which he wasn’t allowed at home.

Me? I don’t smoke, I just throw. Having a catch is enjoyable and restorative enough for me without any chemical enhancements.

You can’t simultaneously have a catch and think about the action of throwing. Think about throwing and, it never fails, the ball goes awry. Let the ball go freely from your hand, and all is well. Just one of the many paradoxes of baseball.

We, my son and I, have gotten to the point where his throws are harder than mine. Despite his lean frame, he’s got a cannon for an arm and his throws pop the leather of my glove with a snap that echoes around the park. Sounds great. His growing arm strength and control feels great to me too, on so many levels.

Baseball Stories: A Bittersweet Goodbye

Just this past weekend, we went to San Francisco’s AT&T Park to see the hometown baseball team, the Giants, play the Chicago Cubs. And we happened to sit in front of a fairly large group of people who all wore matching t-shirts. Not orange-and-black Giants’ shirts, or even Cubs’ shirts, but custom t-shirts bearing the name and photograph of the same man.

As any true baseball fan knows, there can be real camaraderie in the stands. People tend to talk to each other, find out where others are from, joke, discuss and even (mostly civilly) argue about the team and the game. But because I was with my family, and because I was keeping score, and because it was a gorgeous day and an action-packed close game, I didn’t give our neighbors, or their matching shirts, more than a second’s thought. On a cold night, or during a slow game I might well have.

After the game was over, many in our section took a few moments to savor the Giants’ victory and talk a bit. I took a closer look at those t-shirts and saw what appeared to be dates of birth and death. A young man wearing the shirt noticed me looking, perhaps a bit too intently; I was a little embarrassed.

“Someone close to you?”

“My dad. He passed a couple of weeks ago.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to be nosy.”

“He loved the Giants, so we decided to celebrate his life at a game. He and I sat together right up there (pointing to the upper deck) for the World Series in 2010, so I put some of his ashes there. We’re going to put the rest in McCovey Cove (the little lagoon just outside the ballpark) right now.”

“That’s beautiful, man.”

“Yeah, it really is.”

Just the thought of it made me choke up. This young man, bearing a portrait on his chest like a heraldic crest and carrying an urn, together with his family, went off to spread his father’s ashes in a place that meant something special to him in life. And as a lifelong Giants’ fan myself, I can’t think of a more fitting resting place or a more beautiful tribute.

A Son’s Giant Pride

The other day, my 13 year-old son and I happened into the San Francisco Giants’ store at a nearby mall. Okay, honestly, we’re both suckers for hometown team apparel and were looking at this season’s crop of warm jackets.

[As an aside, what you’ve heard is completely true. Unlike almost the entire rest of the country, it really is cold in San Francisco during baseball season.]

After taking complete stock of the store’s inventory of warm things, we stopped by the gift counter and noticed the rings that were created for fans to commemorate the Giants’ 2010 World Series Championship. And my son and I agreed that they’re pretty handsome.

As we talked about which model of ring we preferred (the one without the diamonds, as I recall), another man and his son came over to the case. My son Giggy noticed it first but I did soon after – the man was wearing what looked like a real World Series ring, the kind the players and team officials got. Giggy looked at me with questioning eyes, then whispered to me: “Is it?” It sure looked like it, I said. But I figured I’d remove any doubt, so I asked.

“Excuse me, is that a real World Series ring you’re wearing?”

“Yes, it is. I work in the clubhouse; I do laundry. The team gave me a ring. Isn’t that something?”

“It’s amazing. How great for you.”

“Think other teams would do that? No way.”

“It’s beautiful. Thanks for showing it to us.”

“My pleasure. Thanks for asking.”

Giggy couldn’t take his eyes off the man’s enormous ring but my eyes drifted over to the man’s son. He was looking up at his dad with a huge smile and, what seemed to me, boundless pride in his eyes.

What a lucky man, I thought. Not all of us get that kind of moment to shine in our kids’ eyes.

What It’s Made For

I got up early this morning to look online at radar and satellite images, in an attempt, a frustrated and fruitless attempt as it turns out, to see if my son’s baseball team could squeeze in its game before the storm now pelting our house blew across the city.

He was already dressed in his #44 uniform, sitting at the breakfast table, playing with his food. He wanted badly to play. He looked at my eyes as they scanned my computer screen – both of us searching for any possibility of a positive sign. I looked up and smiled at him but we both knew better.

It was raining heavily without a break in sight as we left the house but we drove to the field anyway. We sat in the car, looking skyward for any break in the heavy drumming on the roof of our car – a patch of blue, a let-up in the rain, to no avail. Before long, a man came out to the parking lot to tell us, with cold finality, that the field was closed; there would be no games today. My son’s lips tightened and his eyes moved down to his shoes.

Baseball breaks another heart, which, face it, is something it’s good at, something it’s designed for.

The best baseball players, the very best, only make it on base about half the time. Just a few teams make the playoffs, much less play in the World Series. Errors are made in plain sight, exposing the offender in an embarrassing way other sports might spare players. Baseball’s most famous plays are as likely to be moments of tragedy as triumph. Some of the sport’s most famous and beloved teams are also its biggest losers.

Baseball is a sport designed for tears and heartache, and it relishes that role.

Today it happened to be the rain. Tomorrow, it’ll be something else again.

Looking for Real

What may seem like a short detour…

There’s one historic bar in the Union Square district of San Francisco (actually, there are hundreds, but I’m talking about one historic bar in particular), called The Gold Dust Lounge, that’s served drinks to a quintessential only-in-San Francisco crowd of sailors, businesspeople, visitors and neighbors for generations.  Its landlords have recently announced a plan to kick it out in favor of a national chain clothing store.

Now, The Gold Dust Lounge hasn’t been the city’s most popular bar for ages, but the plan pissed a lot of people off, resulting in petitions, protests, online and social media tempests, etc. The question is, why did all these people suddenly get interested in a bar few had ever been to, fewer still had been to in years?

I believe it’s because we’re in a state of national authenticity deficit. Everything we buy, eat, watch, or otherwise consume comes from some centralized corporate authority. Our cities are all filled with the same national chain stores and restaurants. We watch non-locally produced entertainment on movie and TV screens. Even amateur-generated online clips are seen by so many people and follow so few memes, they seem mass-produced.

We’re in a search for the authentic, for the real, wherever we can find it – and it seems downright offensive to shutter a real, honest-to-goodness bar so yet another national chain store that sells the same old jeans can move in.

Think about baseball – America’s self-declared pastime – for a second.

Attendance for Major League Baseball has declined for three straight years, while attendance at Spring Training has grown over the same period.

Those big, corporate-namesake stadiums, filled with untouchable millionaires, are drawing fewer of our fellow Americans.

At the same time, more people are going to Spring Training games, where a bit of baseball’s old vibe still exists. At Spring Training, it’s still possible to get close to players, talk with them before and after games, shake their hands, see them up close – the way fans used to in the majors but aren’t able to anymore.

It used to be that ballplayers would live in the town they played in. They’d be seen and known around the neighborhood. They’d stay with a team a long time. They’d be part of team (and town) identity. Whether playing at the Polo Grounds (or later, at Candlestick Park), or stickball with neighborhood kids in the street, Willie Mays was a real Giant.

If I were to advise baseball, or landlords for that matter, about growing a market in these times, I’d say, keep it real. Not that they’ve asked.