In a league of their own

Even Dusty Baker told her to get a life, but one baseball fanatic and her daughter wouldn't think of missing spring training.


Joan Walsh
March 27, 1998 8:59PM (UTC)

My daughter, Nora, is a fifth-generation girl baseball fan. In my family
baseball fever is inherited matrilineally: My mother and her mother and
her mother before that were crazy Brooklyn Dodgers fans. I was born the
season the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, conceived the very month Walter
O'Malley announced his betrayal, as though my mother needed a surrogate to
replace her beloved team. I grew up rooting with her and my grandmother for
their hapless New York Mets and loathing my father's indomitable Yankees. Growing up to be a writer, I took their fanatacism to its logical conclusion, and I write about baseball every chance I get.

Nora went to her first game at 3, on Mother's Day. Since then we've
averaged more than a dozen games a season. When she was 6, my best friend
and I took her to Arizona for San Francisco Giants spring training. We
loved it: the intimacy of red-brick Scottsdale Stadium, the players'
proximity and friendliness, the instant camaraderie with everyone, this
great tribe of die-hard baseball fans. But it was expensive, and I couldn't
afford to make it a tradition.

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It turned out I didn't have any choice. As March approached the next year,
Nora watched longingly as pitchers and catchers reported to Scottsdale, and
wondered why we weren't going. On TV we saw the blue sky over Scottsdale
Stadium, the gray-green cacti standing alert in the clear Arizona spring.
Nora began to pester me. "Why aren't we going to spring training, Mom?"
The next thing I knew I was making reservations, paying too much for plane
tickets and hotels and taking time off work I couldn't afford.

The problem with a tradition is it becomes what you do, whether you want
to or not. And this year, when spring training came, I didn't entirely
want to go. The week before we left, work was hectic and money felt tight.
Plus, I was still hungover from the previous season, when I went on a
baseball bender, going to 45 games. No less a Giants booster than the
team's manager, Dusty Baker, had to tell me to get a life. When I told him
at the season's end that I was thinking of cutting short a trip to Italy
because the Giants might go to the World Series, he scolded me: "There'll
be other World Series! You can't plan your life around what the Giants
do!"

But tradition is tradition, and I had an 8-year-old I couldn't disappoint.
"We go to spring training every year," she told a schoolmate proudly the
day before we left. There was a hint of a boast in her voice, and I began
to worry about her sense of entitlement to this pricey spring ritual: the
nice hotels, the time away from school and the good seats that go with my
press credentials. I left for spring training
wondering if all that privilege was creating a spoiled child -- not teaching her the lessons about life that baseball had taught me.

Certainly Nora's childhood baseball experience has been very different from
my own. I didn't even go to a game until I was 9 or 10, when I saw the Mets
play the Pittsburgh Pirates. It happened to be Roberto Clemente night, in
honor of the great Puerto Rican right fielder. Sitting high up in the cheap
seats, where my mother and grandmother always sat, we were the only white
people for miles. The stands were full of Puerto Rican fans, most of them
men, and it was strange but thrilling. Within a few innings my mother was
practicing her frayed high-school Spanish, the men were feeding us peanuts
and we were all shouting, "Viva Roberto Clemente" when he came to bat. When
my mom took a courtesy nip from a flask of rum, our assimilation was
complete. I was crazy about my mother that night; even then I knew she
handled the culture clash in a way most white suburban women wouldn't have,
an openness she instilled in me.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Looking back, my baseball alliance with my mother surprises me: I was a
classic daddy's girl, adoring my father and sparring with my mother my
whole childhood, until just before she died when I was 17. I can't think
of a single matter of importance on which I sided with my mother against my
father, with the exception of favoring the Mets over the Yankees. But my mother taught me
that baseball is about Big Stuff, that you have to root for the underdog (I
didn't understand how, as a Catholic, my father could cheer for the
pin-striped Yankees, a team that always won) and to stand by your man, or
men; I mean, your team.

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Most of all, baseball taught me about race. In my mother's
telling, the Jackie Robinson Story symbolized all that was good about her
Dodgers. I learned early to root for black players: Outfielders
Tommy Agee and Cleon Jones were my favorite Mets, and the team's turnaround in
1969 seemed to herald the great future that integration would bring. Race
and baseball remained entwined for me into adulthood. When I moved to the
Bay Area in the '80s, I backed the Oakland A's, not the Giants. The Giants
bored me, even in victory. They were white and uptight -- from long, tall
Southern manager Roger Craig through the God Squad of Dave Drevecky and Brett
Butler. The air of the boot camp bothered me -- Craig frowned on
beards, long-hair and jewelry -- and it made the team seem more San Diego
than San Francisco.

Everything changed in 1993, when the Giants hired Baker, currently one of two black
managers in the major leagues, and brought on earringed superstar Barry
Bonds. I was born to root for this team. Between them, Baker and Bonds
harked back to the Giants glory days of the 1960s, when they were one of
the best-integrated teams in baseball, fielding the great rosters of Mays,
McCovey, Marichal and Barry's father, Bobby Bonds, plus Alou, Alou and
Alou. Better than that, the '93 Giants started to win -- 103 games, to be
precise. But the Atlanta Braves won 104; the Giants lost their
division, and went on to suffer three straight losing seasons. I had some
experience with loving a losing team, having grown up rooting for the Mets.
So I went to dozens of Giants games in '94, '95 and '96. If my team had to
play them, I had to watch. My patience was rewarded with last year's
division championship.

Still, I worry that it's shallow, loving baseball. I don't want anyone to
think my passion has to do with sunshine, blue skies, green grass, beer,
hero worship or the fact that every game involves spending three hours
watching the best-built men in sports today. Really. I
want my daughter to know that baseball is about perseverance, teamwork,
races coming together, the triumph of talent over privilege -- lessons that
are harder to learn sitting behind the dugout in choice seats, I
think, than from the grandstands.

But my doubts about the trip lifted when we entered Scottsdale Stadium. The
first time I see a baseball diamond each year is a spiritual experience.
Joy washes over me -- my scalp tingles, my eyes water. Maybe it's tribal: I
come from a long line of working class city people whose main summer
exposure to green grass and open fields came at a baseball stadium. Maybe
it goes further back, to the green fields of Ireland. Maybe I'm getting
silly. All I know is I'm completely content looking at that diamond, a
feeling I rarely have in the rest of my life, and I love it.

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I also love being part of the extended family of baseball fans at spring
training: retirees, groups of middle-aged men, fathers and sons, whole
families. We are always the only mother-daughter pair and we make lots of
friends. Our annual spring ritual has also become a time to take Nora's measure. Our first spring baseball
experience was four years ago, when I interviewed Baker right before
he left for Scottsdale. I brought Nora along to meet him, and she chased
him around with a kiddie camera asking him to pose. He called her "a
little whippersnapper," which she loved. She was a precocious 4-year-old then, missing teeth, with long blond ringlets and scrumptious baby fat.
By our first year in Scottsdale, she was a shy kindergartner, and my
friend Debbie had to coach her on how to elbow her way through a crowd of
little boys to get autographs. Last year she got to go down on the field
with me and she was awestruck, clinging to my hand and wanting to go back
to our seats -- after a chat with Dusty -- because it was so
overwhelming.

This year, though, I was traveling with a swaggering second-grader, in a
Spice Girls backpack and a backwards Giants cap. She knows exactly what
she wants. Our first day there she got a few autographs, then gave up. It was too
much work. "I don't want autographs; I want to see Dusty," she tells me.
When Dusty waves from the stands, that's not enough: She wants to talk to
Dusty. And eventually she does. He kisses her cheek and asks about school
and she's thrilled. But soon, that's not enough: She wants to go down on
the field with me and then she has to talk to Dusty again. I'm in a paroxysm of child-resentment and
self-loathing: I'm afraid I'm creating a baseball monster, a spoiled little
fan who's never satisfied.

Fed up with her whining, I marched her off the field and back up into the
stands to do her homework. We each seethed silently for a few minutes,
before we made more friends. That's when I'm glad spring training is such
a communal experience. It takes a baseball village to raise a child when
you're on your own with her for the weekend, and she's on your last nerve.

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It wasn't until our last day there that I fully made peace with Nora. We
got to the stadium early, for batting practice, and the time and space and
sun let me relax and probe my frustration with her sense of entitlement. Of
course I worried that Nora was missing something fundamental about
baseball, sitting in the best seats and hobnobbing with the players. But then Nora doesn't need to
learn what I did: She goes to an integrated public school, she has friends
and teachers of every race. Maybe baseball can just be a game to her.

I also knew I was bugged by her drive to be ever-closer to her beloved
Giants because I share it. Ever since those early days up in the
grandstands, I've dreamed -- just like Nora, just like my mother and
grandmother, just like all fans -- of getting closer to my heroes, of being
right down on that field. But in me that desire fights with a grown-up's
self-doubt.

I found myself thinking about my mother. Mostly, I love
baseball because she taught me to, a gift I can never repay. I often sense
her at baseball games: I know she was in the stands with me when the Giants
clinched the division last summer. I wished she were in Scottsdale with us
-- I'd get over my awkwardness and take her down on the field and introduce
her to Dusty Baker and bask in her joy, and her pride in me. That, I
realize, is a component of Nora's joy too. "My mom's a writer and she
gets to go on the field," she tells everyone who'll listen.

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So that last day, I decided to bask in Nora's joy. I took her onto the field
to talk to Dusty, who reminded her to do her homework. (The baseball
village, again.) And once I decide we belonged down here, it feels like
we do. Players and coaches smile and say hello as they pass. Nora's
favorite player, catcher Brian Johnson, stops by just to chat. She asks
pitcher Orel Hershiser his favorite subject in school, for her "independent
study" report (it was math), and then finally she's ready to go back up to
the stands.

While the grounds crew readies the field, Nora does her homework, just like Dusty told her. We sit behind the dugout and watch the
Giants win the game, then slip out quickly to make our plane. I let Nora run to a
corner of the dugout and say goodbye to Dusty. She tells our favorite
usher she'll be back next year, and I intend to keep that promise.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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