A game meant for languid summer afternoons and balmy starlit evenings. Cold beer in plastic cups and crackling peanut shells and kids with dripping ice cream cones. A game that has changed very little in the last hundred years. A game of skill and finesse that can be excruciatingly slow (Ah, yes, only 27 more outs to go…) and whip-crack fast when the bat and ball find their sweet spot or a flawless double play ends an inning like a door slammed shut.
Independent league baseball is a kinder, gentler version of the major league game and in recent years has become popular in mid-sized communities like the one where I live, the stadiums often serving as a centerpiece for resurging downtowns.
These are not farm team stepping stones to the big leagues but usually the last stop for a career that either never happened or is on its downward trajectory. Players take to the field with a kind of earnest and subtle desperation, well aware that this may be as good as it gets for them.
Stadiums are small but comfortable and easily accessed. No mile-long treks from distant parking lots. Affordable prices allow families to have a good time without breaking the bank on twenty-dollar hamburgers. Representatives of local charities often man the concession stands, schlepping hot dogs and pouring beers to raise funds for their organization. Norman Rockwell could set up his easel and feel at home here until he sees the giant electronic screen and the bowed heads of fans staring at their phones.
Baseball at this level is a throwback to a simpler, more innocent time. Between innings, kids run the bases dressed in fruit-of the-loom costumes. People launch beach balls into giant inflatable toilets sponsored by a drain-cleaning company or guess how much a can of pineapple costs at the local supermarket. You end up talking to the person sitting next to you whether you know them or not. A hairy team mascot cavorts on top of the dug-outs along with fresh-faced teenaged cheerleaders dressed in polo shirts and shorts. There is still a manual scoreboard changed by disembodied heads occasionally peering through the squares. No angry words are hurled except between umpires and managers and from the occasional disgruntled fan.
Last weekend we attended what turned out to be the final game in the league championship, the world series at this level. The Star-Spangled Banner was sung by a local tenor while a platoon of Boy Scouts carried an enormous flag onto the field. Everyone stood and continued to stand until the Boy Scouts had retreated from the field. That felt good. I was afraid I was going to see something else happen but it didn’t.
It was a tight game, but the local team pulled it out in the end. League champs for the third time in eleven years. There was a ceremonial unfurling of the banner and presentation of the trophy and everyone except the opposing team went home happy. A great night. A safe place to play.
When I got up Monday morning and heard about Las Vegas, I couldn’t help thinking about the contrast between our baseball game and the experience for those concert-goers. The innocence and the horror. And I wonder, are we no longer allowed a safe place to play?
Our movie theaters and nightclubs, ball fields, and concert venues, even our church gathering areas—all places we go to socialize and dance and be entertained and cheer for the team and learn about the Bible and watch our favorite actors–places we go to experience the simple and exquisite joys of life are now turned into potential death-traps. And even if most of us never have to face the tragedy of a mass shooting, it is the fear, the constant underlying worry that paralyzes us and poisons the experience of what should be something wonderful.
Can we walk into any kind of public venue now without thinking, “What if?” and doing a cursory check for the nearest exits? Can we watch a major sporting event on television, see the thousands packed into a stadium bowl and not have a part of us hold our breath, waiting for that first firecracker sound? No matter how many purses and backpacks are inspected at the turnstile, no matter that we must walk through metal detectors or be wanded by a gloved attendant when entering a public arena, someone keeps finding a way to kill. An individual brought what amounted to an armory of weapons into a Las Vegas hotel over the course of several days, and no one batted an eye.
The footage from the concert showed people enjoying a country music festival on another balmy starlit evening thousands of miles from the baseball game. Did they feel like we did in our cozy little stadium– safe and secure in that valley created by the glittering mountains of Las Vegas hotels? That it was worth the airfare, the cost of the hotel and the tickets? Worth it to be able to say, “Hey, we’re in Vegas and all’s right with the world.”? Pour another drink, flick the lighter and sway to the music. Until the shots ring out and there is nowhere to run.
I don’t have any answers, and I’m not about to engage in the rhetoric surrounding possible solutions. We must live our lives; buy the tickets and take the trip and go to the game and the concert. We can’t cower in our homes. We can’t let the bastards steal our joy. But each of us deserves that baseball game I attended. We have a right to see our team win or hear our favorite singer in concert or simply go to a movie or a Bible study without worrying about being the next breaking story on CNN. We all deserve a safe place to play.