Dispatch #8: Relics
Baseball season is here, and sinkhole has drafted contributor Andrew Forbes to accompany our readers through it. All season long, Forbes will be following the exploits of Seattle Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki, and using Ichiro as a lens through which to view the game, both in the US and Japan, its history, and the culture surrounding it.
We’re in summer’s deep groove now, long, pollen-rich days, warm nights, white bulbs on a string hung from the porch to a nearby sycamore. We’ve temporarily relocated to a farmhouse in the Catskills, forty-two acres, half a dozen outbuildings in the process of being swallowed by the greenery, fragrant fields from which the first cut of hay has been taken, a century old hydrangea which vibrates with the energy of hundreds of pollinators. The rolling hills surround us on all sides, gently sloped fields which impress as perfectly appropriate for baseball’s Cooperstown creation myth. The setting jives with the story, though I know the story’s based in something other than fact.
One evening I scan the radio dial; I cannot get the Yankees’ signal, though I do briefly find a Nationals game. I locate, and then lose, the Mets. The crickets trill as static washes out the announcers’ call.
We drive into Scranton and take in a rain-delayed and -shortened minor league game. Flash flooding, a state of emergency declared, Shane Victorino – the Flyin’ Hawaiian – rendered in a life-sized bobblehead on the concourse. We return with ballcaps, pocket schedules, a program, the plastic batting helmet in which our nachos were served. When this vacation is over we’ll head home and add these things to the trove, the cache of items garnered from lives lived alongside baseball, and in time these artifacts will take on for us the aura and gravity of relics.
It happens from time to time that someone somewhere unearths a previously unknown or known but lost piece of baseball’s history – a document, a scrap, a testament of witness. Such was the case recently when a Massachusetts doctor rescued from the back of a drawer good quality, color footage of Ted Williams’ last game, an afternoon match from September of 1960. There were few fans there that day, but among them was John Updike, whose missive from the event, published in The New Yorker, has garnered praise in an unbroken line from the day it was printed until this very one.
Such discoveries – the physical proof of the earthly lives of the saints – both enter and illuminate the collective history of the game. But there’s another category to consider: the tokens of personal history, the items which chronicle our individual experiences. Ticket stubs and snapshots, the first cap you owned and subsequently wore out, partially filled-out scorecards.
Of Ichiro, I have ticket stubs, photos, cards, a jersey. Most treasured of all, though, is the Mariners’ cap I bought at Safeco Field during his rookie season. I remember thinking I’d paid too much for it – the exchange rate was killing us that summer – but I’ve gotten a lot of wear out of it these last seventeen years. To anyone else it’s a faded, shapeless Mariners cap, but for me it’s a piece of the player – a remnant of the first time I saw him and all of the things I have watched him do since.
Beyond Ichiro, I have a room full of such things at home commemorating other players, other teams. Dozens of ballcaps (my greatest weakness), thousands of cards, souvenir programs, shirts, bobbleheads, rally towels, and on and on. This, I suppose, is my collection, though the word collect suggests to me purposefully buying. It feels more accurate to say accrue in this circumstance – found, discovered at thrift stores, rescued from deep closets, received via stadium giveaways on nights which we have been fortunate to attend.
I want to say that baseball is unique in the richness of artifacts it offers, though I can’t quantify that. I might be seeing that only through the lens of my old life; from the time that baseball first became a hot, holy belief system for me, I have hoarded cards, shirts, bits of paper, old pieces of equipment, anything bearing a team’s logo, a depiction of a batter or fielder, or the places where the game is played. But I think it’s true that, by virtue of its age, its place in the culture, and the timing of its zenith alongside the postwar rise of consumerism, baseball offers a wealth of material unmatched by other sporting pursuits. And even the most generic example of it, the most cheaply produced, sponsor-adorned example of it catches my interest. I’m a sucker for all of it.
A recent trip to a thrift store back home in Peterborough yielded a Gary Carter Expos jersey that fits my wife like it was made for her, and a Randy Hundley catcher’s mitt. Hundley was the Cubs’ regular backstop for a number of years, including the ill-fated ’69 season, when they held a comfortable lead before a black cat appeared out of nowhere at Shea Stadium, and crossed Ron Santo’s path as he stood in the on deck circle. Thereafter they stumbled, were chased down, and eventually overtaken by the Miracle Mets, who went on to win the Series.
I’ve always wanted a catcher’s mitt, and this one cost me thirteen bucks. It needed a small bit of re-lacing, nothing that was beyond my meager abilities. The day after I bought it, it featured prominently in a day of catch, shagging flies, a chip truck, cold Cokes, a bag of cherries. There was a stinging grounder and a bloody nose, and later there was swimming.
We’re playing ball again today, here in the Catskills, with that glove, and my childhood Andre Dawson outfielder’s mitt (also recently repaired), and the kids’ gloves, a mix of hand-me-downs and newer models. We have a pair of Louisville Sluggers and an assortment of balls. And we have all kinds of space.
One of my boys is trying to learn to spit, which I must officially discourage, though it is also true that I did the same thing as a boy of his age. My daughter has a wicked arm. They’re dressed as follows: shorts, running shoes, dirty ballcaps, and t-shirts with baseball logos on them. I am dressed identically. These summers with my kids allow me to revert to a kind of boyhood – my wardrobe is basically identical to my pre-adolescent summers, as is my rabid interest in the ongoing pennant races. It’s also likely that I’d be this way regardless of having children.
But as it is, I have playmates. I drop half a dozen balls on the ground, and I pace off thirty steps, turn, crouch, and hold up my left hand with the Hundley glove on it. “Gimme your best pitches,” I tell them. My middle boy attempts a funky grip and the ball sails from his fingers, high, and ten feet to my left. “That was my curve,” he says.
I can count on my hand the number of these days we’ll have, though I know it looks different to them. I remember that feeling, of summer laid out before me like an endlessly unrolling carpet. And if I had to guess at the source of the appeal of all those pieces of baseball memorabilia I’ve accumulated as well as those I’ve yet to acquire, I’d say that it lies in that illusion of abundant time, of a limitless supply of hot afternoons and inky dusks, hours spent with caps on our heads and gloves on our hands. They’re pieces of that, something to keep in our hands, in lieu of being able to hold time.
header image: "The lone red seat that shows the farthest hit home run which was hit by Ted Williams," the phatphilmz / wikimedia commons