. . . AT THE OLD BALL GAME
My friend Len and I decided to catch the Pittsfield Suns at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. But, when we arrived for the 7PM starting time it was announced there’d be a delay until the sun sank below the outfield trees so as not to blind the batters at the plate. (In 1919 when the stadium was constructed no one imagined there’d be night games, so it mattered little how the field was laid out. The first baseball game under the lights did not take place until 1935.)
Everything here smacked of old fashioned, down home, basic baseball. Parking in the surrounding grass field wherever there was a spot – there’d be no charge. (Problem was, it had rained recently and the field resembled a World War I trench warfare battle scape – and without lights – totally dark.) Admission – two prices. Five dollars got you general entry; nine dollars for box seats. We asked for box seats. “Sorry”, we were told. “Big crowd tonight. Last game of the season, and the Suns have a shot at the playoffs. We don’t have two seats together.” So we each plunked down a five spot and were soon sitting amidst the “people”.
The sun did cooperate, the game beginning around 7:30. This was the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, so these fellows were all college players, young men eager to hone their skills, hoping there’d be a future for them in the sport. Indeed, the play was solid, the level of skills on display noteworthy. Still, this was far from being “the Big Show”. At the very outset we stood for a straightforward, no frills rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Only two umpires patrolled the field (though with considerable finesse and authority). Moreover, from time to time the home plate umpire was obliged to pivot around and head off to retrieve a foul ball that had come to rest near the backstop,. And regrettably, midway through the game, the scoreboard went out of kilter, forcing the public address announcer to keep track of balls and strikes for the fans.
The most delightful and memorable aspect of the night was the crowd – over 4,000 spectators were reported to be on hand. Town folk had come for the game, I’m sure – the Suns, after all, were battling for a playoff berth – but it seemed clear that the primary motivation of most was to enjoy an inexpensive night out (beer $3.50, hot dogs $2) and be with family and friends together with other local folks, There were mothers carrying infants in slings, holding babies, fathers with their kids in tow, grandparents with grandchildren, middle-aged couples sitting with friends, teenagers out on dates and clusters of adolescent girls flitting here and there, most just hanging out, just beyond the main gate near the concession stands.
People did watch the game and were kept involved, thanks to the continuous blare of pre-recorded “motivational sounds”. (Unfortunately the Suns fell behind early and were never able to recover, losing 6-1.) However, they were there mostly, it seemed, to socialize and just relax. The two women in front of me never once, as far as I could tell, looked toward the field of play. A teenage boy sitting next to me spent most of the time peering at his phone, although he explained he’d come to Wahconah instead of just hanging with his buddies who were out drinking.
There was no lack of fan entertainment. For example, between innings a youngster was escorted to home plate, dusting it off with an immense toothbrush. The interval between each inning was filled with one daffy contest after another involving kids spinning tires across the infield, tossing “toilet seats” shaped like horseshoes, running with leaky water pitchers and racing to a finish line aboard inflated figures, etc.
But what really got the crowd to its feet was the joyous singing of “Take me Out to the Ballgame”, followed a bit later by an ear splitting, rollicking rendition of “Sweet Caroline”. In both instances nearly everyone was on their feet, singing, clapping, gyrating – having a grand old time.
The Suns lost (though they still backed into the playoffs), but no one appeared upset. Everything else had gone just fine. Pleasant summer evening, a flow of dogs, drinks and snacks, families together, friends nearby and conversations aplenty. (In baseball there’s lots of time for that.) Sitting there that night I could understand why baseball had been our national pastime all those many years.