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Authors: Lucas Mann

Class A (9 page)

BOOK: Class A
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We tell ourselves stories in order to live
. Didion wrote that, and I smile to myself, thinking of her oversized sunglasses in the bleachers of a minor-league stadium. She probably isn’t a “Casey at the Bat” fan, and she didn’t write that sentiment about baseball or Iowa; she wrote it about the 1960s and about California, ideas that seem somehow entirely the opposite of here, shiny, important maybe, but fleeting. And baseball has stories, yes, more than any other game because there is just so much time to talk and remember that the stories can dominate the action. But sometimes
stories
seems like the wrong word to deify. Because it’s
things
, structures, materials, and institutions that have survived and can be seen, that make anyone give a shit, that the stories are fastened around. I can read and hear all the stories about what the town once had, stories about the exploits of players who were great here but who I never saw. And they are nice. And we in the stands can tell stories of inflated selves, can all feel warm, all smile when these stories are being told. But what can they give beyond warmth and smiles? Things are the proof.

A plaque with names engraved, un-erasable. The facade of the stadium
that looks just as it does in the pictures. Smokestacks spewing evidence that this town still produces. A red door that looks like somebody would open it if you knocked.

As for the teenagers burning things in the parking lot—that might not be legal soon. Clinton is the last city in Iowa to allow its green waste to be torched. Some people say it’s unhealthy, all that sanctioned smoke. In a county where the air quality is consistently a topic of conversation, a county just informed that its “physical environment” ranks ninety-eighth out of ninety-nine in the state, where a
USA Today
poll puts its public schools in the bottom 6 percent in terms of the quality of what the students get to breathe at recess, there are many arguments made about what exactly is wrong with the air. How can anyone know? What is wrong is invisible, floating, wind-driven. Are the personal fires to blame, the quick elimination of trash piles in yards? Or is it the umpteenth generation of factory smoke, the burned coal, the chemical residue coating pickups with unexplained silt until the rain erases the evidence?

Burn things that you don’t want to save, Tim tells me. It makes sense. What is wrong with that? Clear space for what you truly want to last.

A ball is hit deep to center, and Matt Cerione tracks it. It’s still early enough in the season for each movement to carry potential. He is auditioning in front of us who don’t matter. He moves well, in feral, bursting steps. There is that top-of-the-roller-coaster moment—something is about to happen. Wall is there, ball is there, Matt Cerione is almost there. What sound will his body make when it hits the wood?

He pulls up with a good five feet to spare, waits for the hollow thunk of ball, not body, against the wall, his nameless back to the crowd. The ball bounces past him faster than he expected. He trots after it, annoyed. With everything, I assume. The cold, the humid gray of the sky, this place, a wall with splinters and Depression-era nails that he is asked to dive into. It isn’t wrong to want to protect himself.

He looks like a cowboy, Matt Cerione, which makes his decision not to dive all the more disappointing. He looks, I’ve heard fans say, like he should be mounted on a steed out there, and those on steeds should probably be fearless, but this cowboy is petulant, un-stoic, and often stands outside the clubhouse talking on an iPhone to his father about how shitty this whole operation is and how the game is rigged anyways
and how, fuck it, he should quit and go back to school, and, Dad, are you even
listening
?

Deb yells, “What happened, Marlboro Man?” and it sounds less chiding than it does sincere.

“It’s a shame you’re here now and not in 1991.” I get that a lot. And then, “Where were you in 1991?” I was five, in kindergarten. Those are the stories I should know. Am I listening? Do I want to know? There are so many stories. How can I organize things in my head?

It looked almost exactly like this in 1991. That’s where to begin. Everything that happened then played out within these same confines—forty reflectors and 1,500-watt bulbs and twenty-five feet of metal fence and that prime lumber out in center. They were the Clinton Giants then, so the jerseys were different. And the players were different, of course. And the fans, the ones sitting next to me, saying my name and tousling my hair as if they know me, they were different, too. Younger. Not exactly happier, but there was a bouncy, hopeful feeling that has faded some.

The players from 1991
wanted it
. They
deserved
this space. Those things can still be said with total confidence twenty seasons later, and there is no residue to inspect to prove their truth. I am told about players who saw a town that needed heroes, and, yeah, that sounds corny to say, but, man, it was true. After a third of Clinton’s population had cleared out, they saw
this
, this stadium, brick and wood and steel and dirt. They saw that it wasn’t going anywhere, and damn if they didn’t play as if this place were a church and it were always Sunday.

What happened to the world?
Enormous questions are asked as Matt Cerione skulks into the dugout at the end of the seventh, dramatic eye-black smudged on his face, wristbands on both wrists, Air Jordan cleats, Oakley sunglasses perched atop the brim of his cap, not a trace of a stain on the jersey that proclaims him a LumberKing.

It should be pointed out that Matt Cerione’s unwillingness to crash into a wooden wall has no bearing on the game. The game ends when Steve Baron swings too late on a fastball, grounds out to the Beloit Snappers’ second baseman, and kicks at the bag as he runs by, screaming
fuck
with a cracking voice and ripping his helmet off his head. Baron’s teammates look less angry, more bored, and they walk back to the clubhouse. There is little consequence to be found.

But that cannot be said. Remember, this place is community owned.
Julie, proud member of the Baseball Family, who sits next to Betty every game, won a single share of team stock in a raffle once, which she will never sell, not ever. There is pride in that decision. It seems like every year, one of the many companies that buy and sell minor league teams comes sniffing around Clinton. They are always ignored. Tim tells me that nobody will sell, no way. Ten years ago, a national segment on ESPN used Clinton as an example of the kind of town that would soon become obsolete in baseball. The reporter compared it to Lansing, where an investor had moved the team that had been in Waterloo, Iowa, a mirror of Clinton but twice the size. ESPN had a reporter wander around the brand-new Lansing stadium asking people the score of the game they were watching. None of them knew it. The LumberKings are still here, and it’s nice to think that everyone knows the score. Just last year, Tim tells me, a rich couple attempted to quietly buy the majority of the LumberKings shares, and they too were turned away, mentioned in a
Herald
op-ed that encouraged shareholders to value history over money, a sentiment rarely extended to residents fighting Archer Daniels Midland as it pulses and grows along the shoreline.

“Baseball ain’t ever going anywhere,” Tim reiterates. Tim is wearing his 1991 championship T-shirt, still pristine. Tim is an optimist.

“Oh yeah, sure, just you watch,” Tammy says. Tammy is Tim’s sister. They aren’t much alike.

“This is here,” Tim tells her, eyes tracing the full expanse that mine have been roving all game.
This
. Brick, wood, steel, dirt.

Danny Carroll heads toward the clubhouse with his teammates. He stops by the Baseball Family to say good night.

“Picture!” Betty says.

He obliges, bat over his shoulder, chest pushed forward, a classic and indistinguishable image. She tells him, “Perfect.”

“I bet you would have caught that ball, Daniel,” she says, more hopeful than certain. “That one against the wall.”

Danny smiles and says, “I dunno.”

But he does know. He would never get near that wall. Players are temporary. Perfect bodies don’t last, and why sacrifice one here, even though
sacrifice
is as much a presence in the game’s lexicon as
foul ball
or
win
. But Danny is a smart guy and one who wants to be loved. He knows who he is supposed to be.

John Updike finished his essay about Ted Williams like this: “The crowd and Ted had always shared what was important, a belief that this boys’ game terrifically mattered.” Maybe it’s a reach to point out that Ted Williams is cryogenically frozen at the moment and that such otherworldly science has been maligned as robbing a legend of his dignity, as though the myth can’t quite be fully realized until the thing ceases to be. But I like that he’s frozen. That’s respect. To be allowed to remain. The idea that it’s important to once again see you, touch your face. That you might be able to return and so you can’t be over until that is ruled officially impossible. Because what is greater than being deemed worthy of lasting? Really lasting?

Betty and Tim and Tammy and Joyce all keep the program from today’s game. I do too. There are all the names of the men we watched: Nick Franklin is there, number 3. And Danny Carroll, number 2. There is a new name, and Betty traces her hand over it before we leave: Erasmo Ramírez, number 50, just got called up from Arizona a few days ago. “What a name,” she says. “We’ll remember that one,” Tim says and his mother laughs, the way she has laughed at his jokes here every year of his life. There is Hank Contreras, number 31, the third-string catcher. They haven’t seen him play yet, but there he is, printed, folded, and saved, his name.

These fans were supposed to be an annotation for me. Quick quotes, bits of atmosphere. Maybe that’s exactly what they are. They are here. They are always in this place. They believe in its existence. We all scribble the final score. Ten people’s hands move at the same time, reaching for scorecards or notepads, all of us grinning at the identical, somehow sensible compulsion. People were recording long before I showed up. People were saving proof.

1 2 3
4
5 6 7 8 9
The Fantasy

I
T

S
M
AY AND
I
FANTASIZE ABOUT THESE BOYS NOW
.

I’m not sure when exactly they began to intrude on my thoughts, but now they are with me as I fall asleep, more docile than in all my waking hours with them. Mine is a complacent interest, not a desire to know everything about them, but a strange satisfaction in seeing them regularly, in watching them dress for and then perform the actions that they’re paid to perform. I just think of them. The way they sit, lounged and primed at the same time. The things they find funny I now laugh at, too. Last night, late, when I was finally home in bed, my girlfriend asked me what I was giggling about so loud as she tried to fall asleep. I spoke in torrents about something one guy said at the card table, about how everyone laughed at this other guy whom he said it to, about how anything can be a competition, about the games guys can play with their dicks and wet towels. She looked at me like I was an alien. And I tried again, with a jock’s certainty of perspective, sure that there was no way for macho minor cruelty not to be hilarious.

In the stands, we talk about the players as if they’re our friends, especially us men who played before we watched, who still clutch instinctively at things that are round and pantomime pitching motions in the bathroom mirror. One of the most surprising aspects of the Baseball Family is its feminine makeup, and maybe that’s because there is something so uncomplicated about female fandom. Betty is a grandmotherly fan. So are Cindy and Julie, fluttering the day’s program in front of their faces to cool down, wanting, above all, to make sure that these boys are okay. Tammy and Joyce and Deb are women who once winked at ballplayers, made them ache. Now they carry those memories but root with a grizzled, experienced kindness. It is pointless for women to feel
in competition with those out on the field, to imagine themselves performing better in those same uniforms, because the premise of baseball will not allow it. Women watch, never play. Women support; sometimes they love. Women, not even visiting mothers or wives covered in newly bought gold, are allowed to be a part of what is worshipped.

But for the male sports fan, our love or hate, any interest at all, registers on a subconscious spectrum of being lesser than. These boys, many not yet fully grown, none of their own ambitions fully realized, still are what we wanted to be when we grew up. Their bodies are what ours could have been. What we lie and say they once were. We eat boneless buffalo chicken tenders and double cheeseburgers and peanuts, and we describe games we once played. We talk knowingly about the boys who still do until each is ever present. Some of us collect their cards. Some tell stories that are exaggerated even when the event in question hasn’t had a moment to mature, for the reality to be forgotten in any way. We all wave, call to them, and then swell when they answer. Yesterday I watched one grown man sketch Nick Franklin on an old graph-paper notebook, using the squares to help get the perfect proportions of a body swinging. Then he ripped the sheet out and shyly presented Nick with his penciled, scowling, formidable image.

There are white pelicans in the air today, circling in loose formation over the field, dipping out of sight, down into the Mississippi, and rising again. They migrate along the river, glide through here in a synchronized beauty for a couple of weeks each spring. The migration had slowed, nearly stopped for a while due to river pollution, but environmental efforts brought them back. The birds showed again in full force a few years ago, and their pale shine seems even brighter now, re-earned. They cast elegant, wobbling shadows over the outfield.

The players move through the door in left field, trotting under the wing shadows, their home whites a stark contrast to every other color except for the bodies of the birds. They match each other against the cement-colored sky, the dark, wet grass, the faded wood of the center-field fence. All of us in the seats, watching in our denim, our red or blue or dulled black shirts.

BOOK: Class A
11.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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