Baseball changes relations to friends, history, city

NEW YORK — On the evening of Nov. 4, 2001, news cameras were set up in a New York sports bar and trained upon a guy who was a guy the way they used to make them.

A classic lug, he boasted massive forearms, rounded shoulders, stubble, and a convivial air of available menace. He wore a Yankees cap, a Yankees jacket, and, very likely, Yankees jockey shorts. (This is not a mockery; I have one Yankees jacket, four Yankees caps, a Yankees keychain and a Yankees mousepad.) There was beer at his elbow and purpose in his gaze.

He was watching the seventh game of a tumultuous World Series and the Yankees were in Arizona (Arizona!) carrying a slender lead into the bottom of the ninth inning against the Diamondbacks. But there was little reason for the lug to worry. As thrillingly bizarre as the series had been, the ending was spinning out in immemorial Yankees fashion. The infallible Mariano Rivera was on the mound, only three outs were needed. The cameras were there to record the lug’s victory bellow at the game’s inexorable end.

Then something happened.

* * *

Memory has blurred the moment for me and I can’t bear to do the research. I know it had something to do with Luis Gonzales looking damnably happy and all the baseball fans of Arizona (the baseball fans of Arizona!) simultaneously erupting. And in the sports bar, the lug burst into tears.

I don’t mean subtle English tears of wistful remembrance — this was a gusher, full-bodied Niobean sobbing. Something tragic had happened and he was in instant catharsis.

I didn’t cry on Nov. 4. Instead, I called my friend Linda Pierce, and we shared a moment of numbed silence. We agreed that there was compensation in knowing that now, at least, Arizona’s young Korean closer Byung-Hyun Kim, who had given up fate-altering home runs two nights in a row at Yankee Stadium, would not have to kill himself. We hung up, and I went, still dry-eyed, to bed.

And on Nov. 5 I cried all day.

* * *

On the morning of July 4, 1996, realizing I had no plans for the day and possibly regretting it, I called Linda to see if perhaps she’d want to get together. There was something in her voice, a distinctive excitement. Linda’s Southern; you might describe it as a modulated rebel yell.

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“I am so sorry but I cannot get together with you because I am going to Yankee Stadium!” she said.

“Yich,” I replied.

* * *

Something profound happened to me between 1996 and 2001. I became a baseball fan and, in the process, altered my relations to friends, summer, history and the city. The change started only three months after that first call to Linda, when, channel surfing, I happened upon the first World Series the Yankees had participated in in umpteen years and found that, now that the school board wasn’t forcing me to fail at baseball, the game had nothing in it I need resent and much that was of interest: competition, keeping score, guys in uniforms.

When the Yankees took the series, I experienced a mysterious civic excitement, a group pride. This was repeated in 1998, and when in July of 1999 I happened once again upon a Yankee game, this time in the regular season, I decided to go the distance, and applied myself to becoming a spectator. Within a short time (a week? an hour?) I was a fan, then an ardent fan, then monotypical. In fact, it would be mid-December before I would be able to carry on a decent conversation about anything else.

* * *

Life changed utterly with my conversion. Summer was no longer a torpid season to be got through somehow; it had a concentration and a poetry I’d never suspected. Friends for the first time shared with me the depth of their feelings about the game and we drew closer because of it. Most surprisingly of all, I learned that my own history was entangled with baseball to a degree I’d never imagined possible. Well, of course it was: I was a child of the American suburbs. The imagery of baseball had infiltrated when I wasn’t looking and now all I had to do was summon it to be brought to an emotional state that had a freshness you’re supposed to lose with childhood.

New York became different for me, too.

It’s amazing how many people walk around the city wearing Yankees caps and whenever I see one, I believe him to be an ally and am certain he’s incapable of causing me harm. This is patently absurd; many people who wear Yankees caps are obvious psychotics. It doesn’t matter. I know that as soon as the psycho finds out I’m his co-religionist, he’ll move on politely and assault someone in a Mets cap.

The lug and I, for instance, are very different kinds of New Yorkers. I’m a sissy artist, he’s the salt of the earth. My guess is that we vote differently and eat differently and have differing opinions on the merits of same-sex attraction, yet on the night of Nov. 4, we were brothers.

* * *

Before baseball, I believed that for me the main source of emotional amplification was theater. Now I know they work the same way and perform a similar service. Baseball, with its emphases on aspiration and memory, on the passage of time and the waning of powers — in its ability to surprise and the way it’s constantly thrusting the spectator into narrative — has tragic scale. And like the theater, it’s a safe place for lots of people to let out emotion. A performance of “Medea” is not a tragedy — it’s the representation of a tragedy. So is losing the World Series. The characters die, the actors live. The team loses; the players go home. We can give our feelings to theater and to baseball because we know they’ll be returned intact.

Which was why the lug could cry his eyes out on Nov. 4 and I could do the same, repeatedly on Nov. 5. Because Nov. 6 was coming and on that day we would wake to realize that in the end — in this case — nothing had been lost.

Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out” continues at the Public Theater until Nov. 10

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