The historian Bruce Catton once referred to baseball as the greatest conversation piece America ever invented. While it was a critique of the game’s leisurely pace, he unwittingly pointed out one of its best qualities. Because the game is meant to be talked over, in stops and starts for its better and worse.
I recently took in an Atlantic League baseball game with my pal Gus. It was the hometown Lancaster Barnstormers against the Sugar Land Skeeters. The league is independent, which means none of its teams is affiliated with a big league squad. As far as household names go, the ‘Stormers have Lastings Milledge, an outfielder who played parts of seven seasons with the Mets, Nationals, Pirates and White Sox before opting for free agency after the 2011 season. He hasn’t seen a big league clubhouse since that day, which makes him the baseball equivalent of Tom Hanks in Castaway; holding onto a slim and distant hope. And aside from owning one of my favorite baseball names, he owns a dream that won’t let him quit the diamond just yet.
The dreams these men carry aren’t big ones. Most of them would be ecstatic to score a thirty day contract with some minor league club. Because a thirty day contract somewhere else, is somewhere closer than the last exit outposts they’re toiling away in.
I told Gus that I had a good feeling about things, because our starting pitcher was a lefty. In my humble baseball opinion, left-handed pitchers are a magical thing. Never mind that I didn’t know his name and had no blessed clue whether he could pitch worth a damn. By the time the top of the first inning had concluded, I had received my answer to the tune of a 5-o lead by the visitors.
We made our way to the concession stands and dug into some barbecue while the home team began chipping away at the lead. The game settled for a bit and we watched as our lefty pitcher battled despite the fact his curve ball wasn’t curving and his fast ball was playing around with other men. And then the Skeeters were jumping him again and so me and Gus, we changed the subject for a while.
When it comes to the company you want to keep at a baseball game, you’re not going to get much better than Gus. His conversation chases the ebb whilst paying all due respect to the flow. Sitting in the stands on a summer evening is like listening to a thousand radio songs- filled with white knuckle debate and the laughter of reminisce.
Gus is from Lafayette, Louisiana- born and raised. His vowels are clipped and his drawl goes long when he’s slow dancing with a story. I asked him about Vietnam and he talked about his brother Roger who served in the Army, Special Forces. He made it back, but a part of him never returned; like a jigsaw puzzle with a few really important pieces missing. There was Anthony, his other big brother who served in the Marines before being sent home after stepping on a land mine. While the rehab on his mangled leg was tedious and painful, Anthony was one of the lucky ones.
My pal tells stories in thickly painted vignettes whose mystic is dressed in the scenes of a long ago time. In this instance, he had delivered up suede and bell-bottoms, long hair and peace signs with a fresh vinyl feeling to that Buffalo Springfield war song.
And so a baseball evening’s worth of conversation began in Vietnam as the home team tried digging out of a 5-0 deficit. The talk moved into family as they tied it at 7 and it nestled into thoughts on religion as the teams made the scoreboard operator earn his paycheck on this night.
It was at the end of the sixth inning when Gus took his leave. He had a lovely bride of forty eight years to get home to and so I walked with him to the outfield exit before I asked him for one more baseball night before the leaves turned.
I walked down to the benches behind the outfield wall and took a seat for one more inning. Baseball might lend itself to conversation, but there is plenty of come on to be had in the silence as well. The Skeeters were clinging to a 11-9 lead in the bottom of the seventh when Beau Amaral delivered up the kind of magic our starting pitcher wasn’t able to find. He smacked a 2-2 pitch into a gaping stretch of real estate in left field that Steve Bartman would’ve appreciated. He rounded second before the left fielder could turn to pivot and he was racing home as the throw hit the third baseman’s glove on the relay, and he was sliding across home plate with an inside the park home run as the ball went sailing over the catcher’s head.
Beau Amaral has a great baseball name, and he has something many of his teammates have run out of. Time. Twenty six and fresh off a stint with the Reds Triple A club, he’s tearing up the ball to the tune of a .359 batting average with the ‘Stormers. He’s killing it for another shot at the big time, in the hopes he can catch a scout’s eye and start that most time honored of baseball things.