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.

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.