Thursday, April 18, 2013

Nothing Quite Like It: A Day in the Baseball Life

On a hot summer day at the ballpark, it’s the bottom of the ninth. The home team is down by a run. They have a runner on third with two outs. The next batter steps in to the box; takes first pitch strike and the entire park lets out a collective sound of distress. The next two pitches are called balls, sparking hope once again into the hearts of the spectators. The batter gets set, staring down the opposing pitcher, silently challenging him. As the next pitch comes in, the batter goes back and forth in his mind; swing or take? He decides to swing, and with the crack of the bat, there’s a brief moment of silence as all eyes are on the ball heading toward center field. That moment of silence is followed quickly by an uproar of cheers as the crowd watches the ball sail out of the park and into the hands of a lucky fan; the game-winning home run ball.

Moments like that are what makes baseball more than just a game. For roughly four hours, you’re part of the baseball game, but the baseball experience starts the moment you wake up and put on your favorite player’s jersey. Baseball is a game of superstitions, be it players, coaches, or fans; if you’re truly part of the baseball experience, chances are you've got some kind of routine.

My loyalties lie with the White Sox. For as long as I've been visiting Comiskey Park (or U.S. Cellular Field if you prefer), I have practiced the same routine before and during a game. As I said before, it all starts with what I wear to a game. Whether it’s thirty degrees or eighty degrees, I’m going to be decked out in White Sox gear, right down to the details like my green White Sox clover necklace and my baseball-shaped Silly Bandz. Dressing the part of fanatic, for me, is step one in the baseball experience.

The gates at Comiskey open an hour and a half prior to the game’s start time. You better believe I’m there at least a half hour before that. The walk up to the park through the tailgaters, vendors, and street musicians is an experience in itself. It gives you that first taste of what the day has in store for you. Friendly fans, like yourself, all gathered to share in this experience with you; vendors enticing you to buy more paraphernalia of your favorite team or player; and people from all over the city playing your favorite hometown songs all the way up to the gates where you finally get to enter the cathedral that is your home team’s stadium.

Walking through the gates of a ballpark is like walking through the door to Narnia; you’re setting foot into an entirely different world. You take those first steps onto the concourse and glimpse the perfectly mowed lines of the outfield grass, the meticulously raked dirt of the infield, and the empty dugout that will soon be occupied by your favorite players. My heart skips a beat every time I experience this moment because I know that what is about to happen is so much bigger than me. For a few short hours, this game will bring tens of thousands of people together no matter their sex, race, or religious beliefs; the only disagreement being a friendly favorite team rivalry.

Once all the magic sets in, you start to notice some of the specifics. The sweet smell of grilled onions waiting to be piled onto a ballpark hot dog; the voices of beer vendors, raffle ticket sellers, and program providers; and the picturesque stadium and field in its entirety laid out in front of you, overwhelming all of your senses. I start my pre-game ritual with a lap around the main concourse. I take note of the changes that are made from year to year, and the things that will always remain the same. More often than not I stop into the various shops and pick up a new item of team gear to add to my collection. Once I've finished my lap, it’s normally about an hour before game time and it’s time for food and drink. I've found that you can never go wrong with a ballpark frank topped with grilled onions and mustard, and a nice, cold (yet overpriced) beer. Then it’s time to scope out my seats, watch the players warm up, and count down the minutes to first pitch.

For nine innings, I sit completely mesmerized by what is going on in front of me. I’m captivated by every pitch, excited by every hit, thwarted by every out, and delighted by every run scored. I’m on this emotional roller coaster and I never want to get off. For nine innings, I cheer on my team in hopes that by doing so, I’m playing a part in whether the game is won or lost.

When the game ends, win or lose, I support the men who are always able to make this simple game an unforgettable experience for me. It’s intoxicating. Once I've been to my first game of the season, I count down the days until I can once again enjoy the natural high I get from being a small part of this huge experience. There’s nothing quite like the game of baseball.

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