It’s always sunny at the ballpark

Whenever I think about watching baseball, I’m picturing something like this:

Sunday in glorious Canberra.

Sunday in glorious Canberra.

Somehow it’s never cold or uncomfortable, it’s always the Friday before a long weekend, I’m not worrying about something at work or preoccupied with remembering to stop for groceries on the way home. And whilst I’d like the Aces to win, surely it’s not that big of a deal, right? I wouldn’t sit there getting wound up during a close game, right?

Right?

Hmmm.

Well, I like to think I keep it in perspective – my post-game rants are pretty much limited to saying “oh, crud” or similar at the final out, staring blankly at the field for a minute or so, raising a quizzical eyebrow whilst thinking about a few key plays in the car on the way home, having a two-minute whinge about it to @type_eleven once I get home and (of course), writing this blog. (Returning to this sentence after half an hour: it’s revealing that I didn’t even think to write how I react to a win. For the record, it’s a small inner glow that lasts about three hours.)

During the game, though – and especially when I’m sitting alone – I get progressively more invested in the outcome. Watching me from the cheap seats on either shoulder are two self-commentaries: one completed four years study in the liberal arts, and scoffs embarrassedly at the fact that I care at all; the other is slapping a fist into his tiny baseball glove, narrowing his eyes and needling me to wonder how it might feel to care just a little more.

Sunday was one of those games, a game at the end of what must have been a frustrating trip to Canberra for the Melbourne Aces.

Firstly: Canberra – what a great place to be if you like museums, galleries, and eating. I didn’t need any small inner glows to make the visit a good one on that level. The wonderful thing about a gallery like the Drill Hall (on campus at the Australian National University), is the awesome surprise of being able to see Riverbend, by Sidney Nolan, a painting which tells an eerie tale over nine huge panels.

nolan

The other pleasing thing about the Drill Hall was that I felt confident that I wasn’t about to see a sequence of paintings showing how Thursday night’s 3-2 Aces lead in the ninth vanished into thin air on two consecutive bases-loaded walks.

The final pitch - not to be immortalised by Sidney Nolan, or anyone.

The final pitch – not to be immortalised by Sidney Nolan, or anyone, I hope.

I caught the non-painted version of that on the web, and after the final pitch went so clearly and woefully wide of the plate – a four-pitch walk to end it! – I slammed down the laptop lid and stormed into the swanky hotel bathroom for an angry few minutes of tooth-brushing (with @type_eleven’s brush, it later turned out).

“Are you… okay?” she asked with a comic rising inflection, and it made me laugh out loud at being such a dill.

“Just the Aces again,” I called back, an explanation which in our relationship needs no translating, and came back to sit on the bed for the obligatory two-minute whinge.

I forgot all about it throughout a Friday of blissful touristing. But Friday night, it happened again. 4-2 up in the seventh, and a three-run bomb from Marcus Lemon took it all away. I didn’t quite slam down the laptop this time; it was more of a vacant-staring experience this time.

Saturday I tuned in late and I found out we were up FIVE RUNS TO NOTHING. Surely this would be a win? But I didn’t think I could bear seeing another car wreck, so we had some childhood nostalgia with “Robin Hood” – the 1970s Walt Disney one – and I followed the game log instead, all the way to a shutout win. Phew! Maybe things were turning around, just in time for me to see the team on Sunday?

That nurturing of a tiny grain of hope… never a good idea.

Sunday: I arrived perfectly on schedule, twenty minutes before first pitch at Narrabundah Ballpark in Canberra, “The Fort”. It’s a small ballpark, with a shaded reserved seating area for around 300 or so – the other 400 of us relegated to the uncovered bleachers for a noon start, with the sun getting stronger with every passing minute. I sat on the first base side behind the Aces dugout and got a nod or two from the dozen Hangar reps who had made the trip (and seen every game), but no other acknowledgement for the rest of the game. I might have felt a bit lonely, but for four things:

  • The players changing rooms are connected to the field by a grassy area for fans, (which is cool for the fans, but maybe not so much for the players). Before the game I met Makoto Aiuchi, who pitched the Saturday night shutout. Suited up, but obviously not pitching in this game, he saw my Aces shirt and offered me some fries with sauce that he’d just bought at the concession stand. I declined with thanks but got a photo instead:
Makoto Aiuchi, still with his game face on! Or I'm creepier than I thought.

Makoto Aiuchi, with his game face still on! Or I’m creepier than I thought…

  • You don’t need to be part of the Hangar to enjoy being around them at a game. They run a decently amusing commentary on the game, the crowd, the stadium and their trip, replete with a stream of funny (but not mean-spirited) insults of the opponents, welcoming chants for the Aces hitters, and a wide range of in-jokes that regularly send them into fits. All this, plus some live guitar! And they didn’t seem to mind that I joined in the familiar cheers and jeers (quietly).
  • I thought I might be famous because I was on live internet TV and I was! Yes, that really is me in the red circle.

fame2

  • It was a gripping game, the kind of game that’s exciting in a way it’s really hard to explain to non-baseball people…

Both pitchers were doing well and keeping the game scoreless. There weren’t many baserunners, and even fewer safe hits. This is, to me, when baseball has more of the rhythm of tennis than of cricket – imagine two players who keep grinding away and managing to hold serve. Each time the Aces went out into the field I got tense, each time they went to bat I was hopeful; the tension and the hope wrapped around each other in my stomach, with the tension grabbing hold tighter with each passing inning.

In the end, it came down to just two key moments, which I hope you’ll indulge me by watching.

The seventh inning: the Aces have runners at second and third, an opportunity to take the lead at last. Adam Engel hits a tough grounder to shortstop, Lemon double-clutches and Engel beats the throw to let the run score. At least, that’s what I thought happened. If there’s a replay that shows he’s out, I will happily get my eyes tested (again), because I was certain that Engel beat the throw by a full step. The Hangar and I were on our feet for a half second of celebration, followed, once we saw the call, by half a minute of one-way conversation with the first base umpire.

The little gloving-slapping guy on my shoulder was proud – I raised my voice and said something like “You have GOT to be kidding, Blue!” at least twice. The tut-tutting bloke on the other shoulder rolled his eyes and turned back to his reading.

safe

The bottom of the eighth was a debacle. Josh Davies at second made a meal of a simple play to first which would’ve ended another perfect inning. The error was followed by a single, and then this:

errorI think I had my head in my hands for about thirty seconds (more pats from tiny glove guy), muttering “why didn’t he just stand still and tag the runner!?” In the freeze frame above, Ryan Dale has the ball in hand and it looks like a simple tag – certainly easier than making the 35-metre throw to first. (But what would I know? I’ve never even played. Fielders seem rarely to choose the tag option, and I’ve grown to believe it’s because messing up the slightly-easier tag would look so much worse than messing up the slightly-harder throw. But, to repeat: what would I know?)

Down 3-0, the Aces got a couple of runners on with two out in the ninth, and Dale went out to bat, no doubt thinking that if he homered to tie the game, he could erase it all. But he struck out, and the game was over.

He walked towards the dugout, hearing the Cavs high-five each other and looking like he might just bite his bat into splinters. Then he took his helmet off, and his flushed face told a different story – just 28 years old (an age at which I was still a kid), disappointed with a horrid day, a little hurt, and with far more right to feel bad about it than me.

So, I didn’t let the field-staring last too long. I waved a suitably low-key goodbye the Hangar guys, then walked over to the mingling area where I managed to get a pic of Kentaro Fukukara, icing down his arm after a brilliant pitching display (he seemed pretty happy with it, giving me a grinning fist-bump).

With the game only lasting 139 minutes, I had a little while to wait until @type_eleven arrived to collect me. When she did, tiny glove guy had long since gone away to sulk. I smiled as I said that the Aces had done it again… but that it was still a great day of watching baseball in the sun, on holidays and with not a care in the world.

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