A game that transcends difference

Michael S. Weaver

May 03, 1991|By Michael S. Weaver

MY FATHER uses baseball to relax.

When he was as young as I am now, he came into the house in the evenings after a day at Bethlehem Steel and turned on his radio.

As I passed by his room, I could hear the crackling noise of applause from people miles away, sitting in the stands with their children and their hot dogs if they were the family type, or with their beer if they were the family type raised to macho power.

My father listened to his radio in his bedroom, which faces a cemetery and affords a view of the top of Memorial Stadium when the lights are on at night or when the fireworks go off on the Fourth of July. My father is used to enjoying baseball from a distance. He's from the old times, when there were black baseball teams and fans were segregated.

When I had a son of my own and started to feel I should do something for Pop, or "Big O," as he is known to some, I asked if he would like to go to Memorial Stadium.

"You can see the game in person. Come on, let's go."

"It won't be the first time I have seen baseball. I know what a baseball game looks like. I have a TV."

It was true. He did have a television, and nothing was worse when I was a kid than having some wonderful prime-time nonsense upstaged by baseball. There is a certain charm to listening to it over the radio. I am old enough to value the old-world charm of the radio, the charm that was displaced by television. However, baseball on television has remained a great challenge to my patience. My father can watch it for hours.

"The Orioles don't have a prayer now. This boy can knock down buildings with his bat."

"Aw, come on, Pop. He ain't that good."

"Yes, he is. Watch what I tell you."

My father is an equal opportunity fan. He cheers without regard to the race of these men, these men who play sometimes until they are in their 40s, these men who make the act of chewing tobacco look better than polishing off a morsel of cherry pie with ice cream, these men who play a game that is often the negotiating territory between the races, a territory where the thrill of playing and watching someone play transcends the usual border of difference.

And my father is a forgiving sort. He's not bitter about the old days of segregated baseball. Instead, he concentrates on the lazy pleasure the game brings him now, the comfortable way he can stretch out across his bed and ease into slumber while listening to the Orioles' struggling attempts to earn another pennant.

Because my father loved baseball so much, I made a valiant attempt to play it. Wilson, our neighbor at the corner house, a busy man with all kinds of interests, gave me some instructions on how to catch the ball. He fired it at my glove, not wanting to soften the reality that a baseball can hurtle at a speed faster than some hot rods. He had told me in plain terms where to position the glove and how not to close it prematurely.

But I closed the glove and my eyes at the same time, and when the ball hit my skull, I thought I heard Wagner's Ring cycle. A host of voices and symphonic sounds went off inside me, and Wilson just laughed. I knew then that I preferred books to baseball, even though I was sure my father enjoyed watching me play, as most fathers do.

He watched me play when we went out to Druid Hill Park on Sundays in the early '60s. Black people swelled into the parks then, and it was a grand time. We took picnic baskets, crabs and coolers with sodas, and we played baseball. We had our own Negro League. My father would pick up a glove now and then and play catch, but when we played a game, he watched. He watched as he did when he was home with his television, but now his heart was more deeply enthralled as he cried out his cheers, and his eyes lit with the magic of baseball, baseball embellished by kin.

In 1976, I convinced my father to go with me to Memorial Stadium to see the Orioles. My own son was 3 by this time, and I had a younger brother who was 7. The four of us went out to see the Orioles and to eat junk food and drink sodas. At first he complained about the seats, but as the game went on he settled into a kind of fascination I will never forget. As much as he could be, he was involved with baseball and knew not for whom the bell tolled. But my son and brother kept asking for more popcorn. And each time the hot dog man came around, they lost control completely.

I tried to attend to them so Pop could watch the game, and as I shelled out the money for the food, I looked around at the overwhelming numbers. There was hardly another black person in sight, except for the ones working the crowd as vendors. I wondered whether baseball itself, that great soul that manifests itself in these Roman fests, knows how much of it is kept alive by the belief of people like my father, people who have lived through an apartheid world with an undying love for the smack of the bat on the ball or the sure suck of the ball into the glove or the antics of the coach and umpire.

My father hasn't been to a live ballgame since that time 15 years ago. He still stretches out across the bed and listens to the radio, or he goes into the den next to his bedroom and turns on the television. Nothing is diminished for him. He is daunted only by the recurring struggles of the Orioles, but he is still a loyal fan. My father doesn't dump people when they fail to bring home the banners and the accolades. He understands and appreciates every human struggle to walk up to the mound, set oneself in position and wait for the speeding obstacle. He has always been like this, even when laws separated people with fences.

A poet and playwright, Michael S. Weaver is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University.

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