Nine Innings in Durham
Photo by Frank Hunter.
It is easy to feel small on a baseball field. The expansive outfield and steep walls, the distance between each position player lend themselves to entrapment and isolation. To step into the batter’s box is to invite a public, personal humiliation, to throw a pitch is to invite the same. Squaring up a hot grounder is setting yourself up for a vicious hop that will take out your front teeth, or even worse, a short hop that will skip between the dirt and your glove and expose cowardice.
In the right field bleachers, Levi jostled and lolled on his father’s lap. A chubby baby in an orange and white striped onesie, he looked like a particularly thick creamsicle. They shared the same wide-eyed, face, round and perpetually surprised, with a tuft of unruly dark hair sprouting from each of their heads. His father excitedly explained the proceedings of their first Durham Bulls game in a slight Virginia drawl.
“Now, Levi, the count is 2-1, which means two balls and one strike. If the batter gets three strikes, then…”
Levi, was, for the most part, uninterested in the game, but seemed amused nonetheless, swiveling his head around on an indistinguishable neck to alternately gape at his father and the rest of the ballpark.
Eventually, Levi began to squirm, and his father handed him off to his mother in exchange for a Chik-Fil-A sandwich. His mother cooed nonsense into his ear, but Levi never took his big, shell-shocked eyes off his father.
Shortstop Tim Beckham was on the home plate umpire’s heels, barking at him as they left the field. The umpire walked swiftly down into the dugout and disappeared into his locker room. Beckham stayed in the dugout and slammed his helmet into its cubby and flung his bat to the ground and then didn’t seem to know what to do. His teammates filed past, flowed around him, down into the locker room, some pausing to sign autographs for eager, shining children. If they spoke to him, their comments were quiet, brief, murmured, with their eyes on the ground. Then he was standing alone in the dugout, his batting gloves undone, his eyes staring at the bench, shoulders sagging heavily in his jersey.
The Pittsburgh Pirates lit up the San Francisco Giants for eighteen hits on June 12 in Pittsburgh, beating the reigning world champions 12-8. For me, I thought, watching from the stands with my cousins and aunt and uncle, drinking beer, legally at last, on my twenty-first birthday. A few hours later, I boarded an overnight bus to New York City to visit a girl and see a baseball game in a city I had never truly experienced.
It is hard to feel small with your father. It is hard to feel small with my father, I should say. I have seen plenty of boys reduced by baseball and then further reduced by the rages of their fathers, some of them so much so that they would quit teams or develop stutters or just quit talking altogether.
I hadn’t missed baseball for a long time. The sport had embarrassed me and I didn’t so much swear it off as I just allowed it to slip from me. I became a casual spectator, far removed from the fiendish, habitual player of my early youth. It really wasn’t that hard. My Pirates have been inept since my birth, and once I was cut from my high school team, there was a period of time where, to even think about baseball or look at a diamond was enough to make me sick with resentment and shame.
On June 14, I sat in a ten-dollar seat, drinking a twelve-dollar beer, eating an eight-dollar hot dog. It was easier to make out the monolithic legends of the New York skyline from the left field high-rise bleachers of Citi Field than it was to see the right-fielder. In the nosebleeds, with a blonde on my arm, I argued with a friend of mine, an intern at a publishing house, about which Frank Ocean album was better and I knew that I could never live in this city.
The Pirates are in the midst of a renewal this summer, perhaps finally reaping the benefits of the rebuilding and stocking of their farm teams that have taken place for as long as I have been able to read the box scores. They are powered by the cultivated talent of 2005 draftee Andrew McCutchen, who hit .291 in one-hundred fourteen games with the Hickory Crawdads. As I write this, they have been stalled at eighty-one wins for five days. Sid Bream ended the Pirates’ last winning season with his devastating, lumbering trip around third base, four months and two days after I was born.
A few weeks ago, a dozen yards from the entrance to McCormick Field in Asheville, NC, home of the Tourists, where Cobb and Robinson and Ruth once played, and Stargell’s number is retired above the concession stands, a foul ball smashed into the pavement in front of my roommate and his girlfriend and myself as we made our way towards the stadium. It took a huge carom, exaggerated by the slope of the hill that McCormick sits on. With only the slightest hesitation to make sure no children had already set their sights on the souvenir, I bounded towards the ball and corralled it. With a huge grin and a shout that I really could not contain, I held the baseball, blackened and scuffed where it had impacted, above my head and yelled “I got it!”
Beckett Bathanti is a senior mass communication major at UNC Asheville. He is the managing editor of UNC Asheville’s The Blue Banner and writes about music at krappslastmixtape.tumblr.com.