Chapter 9 – America’s Favorite Pastime
After O’Shaughnessy and I had spent most of the afternoon visiting the Atomic Bomb Dome and the rest of the sights around Hiroshima, we came across a tourist information office and decided to wander inside. There, we found a Hiroshima Toyo Carp baseball schedule and for the hell of it, looked up that day’s date.
“Yo,” Tim said while perusing the laminated slip of paper, “tonight the Carp are playing the Tokyo Yakult Swallows at home.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “You wanna check it out?”
“Yeah, sounds sweet. What time they play?”
He checked the paper then the clock on the wall.
“They play in like an hour. We’d have to get on a tram right now and just eat dinner at the game. You cool with that?”
I, indeed, was cool with that. After asking the English-speaking clerk behind the desk to make sure that we’d be able to get tickets on arrival at the stadium which he said we were, we hopped on the tram and took it towards the ballpark. We had no problem finding the place because most of our train car had been filled with people wearing maroon caps and jerseys. We simply got off at the same stop as them and then followed the crowd right up to the front gates of Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium.
After doing some souvenir shopping, Tim and I stopped off at one of the food stands in the vestibule to get ourselves some dinner. On the menu, they offered all sorts of noodle soups and crazy-ass Japanese dishes which had been quite funny for me to see people slurping down with chopsticks in the stands as opposed to peanuts and cracker jacks. Since at times I tend to return to my roots as a closed-minded American ignoramus, I skipped all the local shit, stuck with the tried and true and got myself what’d been labeled there as a “hottu doggu” as well as a “beeru” with which I could chase it down.
By the time we’d found our seats in the three-year-old ballpark, the first pitch had already been tossed. Once settled into the centerfield bleachers, I took a look around and noticed that above the right field seats had been a hundred-and-fifty-foot long rectangular strip of windows behind which thirty or so people had been running on treadmills while watching the game.
Architecturally speaking, the sight hadn’t been any more out of the ordinary than the swimming pool in centerfield at the Diamondback’s stadium down in Arizona. But the thing is, when you’re sitting by a pool, you can still easily get super wasted and talk shit to physically superior men you wouldn’t dare cross under any other circumstances as is a habit typically cultivated by American fans who choose to occupy bleacher seats. So, in that respect, it was just kinda weird for me to look to right field and see a group of really fit Asians gettin’ their sweat on when the stereotypical image I have for right field fans is that of an overweight white guy wearing a jersey on which the name of another grown man that the guy deep-down wishes he was is written, swilling one sixteen-ounce cup of beer after another and yelling “You suck!” when the men on the field aren’t performing up to said fan’s potbelly-having standards.
That said, aside from the small percentage of fitness freaks, almost everybody else in the stands’d had some “beeru” or glasses of sake in their grasp. As opposed to the dudes in the states who shout “Beer here!” while walking around the stadium hoisting bulky apparatuses full of cans that’re uncomfortably strapped around the backs of their necks, in Hiroshima the beer had been served by cute little Japanese chicks in super short skirts who’d carried stacks of cups and wore pressurized backpacks full of suds with a hose and tap attached to facilitate distribution. And since nothing brings the tribe closer together than a little bit of firewater, a lot of the fans – particularly those in the bleachers that weren’t on the treadmills – had been getting rowdy as shit.
I read that, according to Japanese baseball tradition, the right and left field bleachers are home to the “oendan” or “cheering squads” of the home and away teams, respectively. In the right field bleachers were Hiroshima’s fans and, oh boy, did they get pumped up when their team was up to bat. During the bottom half of the innings, the Carp fans in the right field bleachers would stomp in unison, making the whole place shake as if Godzilla were making his return to the Land of the Rising Sun. While doing this, in addition to waving flags and hoisting banners, they’d all chant fight songs through megaphones as trumpets, horns and drums blared from behind them and some blue Philly Phanatic rip-off in a Carp uniform danced around with a pack of Japanese kids on the jumbotron.
The whole vibe seemed far more like something you’d expect from the crowd at a college football matchup between two rival schools than at a regular season baseball game. And by far the strangest thing about the oendan had been how each team’s fans would automatically turn respectfully quiet when their guys went to play the field.
The most unique aspect of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows cheering squad had been how nearly every one of their fans had brought an umbrella to the game. Each time their team had scored a run, they’d all stand up and sing while dancing around with their open umbrellas as if they were all doin’ their best Gene Kelly impressions. To my understanding, the umbrellas are used to signify that the fans think it’s time for the opposing pitcher to hit the showers because he sucks and has no chance against their offense.
Furthermore, while twirling their umbrellas around, the Swallows’ oendan often chant the word “kutabare” – meaning “go to hell” – followed by the name of the opposing team. So, what I guess I’d been hearing each time the Swallows scored a run against the Carp had been “Go to hell, Hiroshima!” Depressingly, upon discovering this information, I couldn’t help but think the same thing had been said by American “hero” Colonel Paul Tibbets from the cockpit of the Enola Gay sixty years beforehand.
As soon as I was old enough to walk, my dad used to put a baseball in my hand and teach me how to throw. Then, after I started throwing pretty much every toy I ever owned around the house and breaking all my mom’s precious knickknacks in the process, my dad would take me outside and teach me how to catch out on the front lawn. He’d throw pop-ups as high as he could and I’d learn to chase ‘em down. I’d make him throw to me until his shoulder felt like jell-o and I’d fire ‘em back at him with increasing strength each time we played.
I always loved playing baseball when I was younger and it’s my understanding that my dad had been the same way. When he was too old for baseball, like many Chicagoans often do, my dad switched over to sixteen-inch softball right around graduation from high school. I remember going to a few of his games when I was a kid. He played the outfield and would make fuckin’ Willie Mays style catches on the reg, robbin’ big powerful beer-swilling fatasses of extra base hits. And no matter what might’ve been in the way, there was never a foul ball he was afraid to go after.
One time in the first inning of a game, he’d been running one down out of play and snagged the ball as his legs were taken out beneath him by a picnic bench. The skin on his shin had been torn wide open revealing the bone beneath and in spite of the gruesome injury, he was able to hold onto the ball. And not only did he make the catch, but he insisted on playing the rest of the game as blood continued to run down his leg and fill his shoe. The doctor in the emergency room who had to clean out all the dirt from the wound before stitching him up after the game was nothing short of appalled by my father’s decision to keep playing. But to him, not playing was not even an option because, like he always said, “Quitting is for fuckin’ pussies.”
Although I always loved baseball when I was a kid, I admittedly was a fuckin’ pussy that wanted to quit. For two summers, when I was ten and eleven, I was on this travelling baseball team that played seventy games each year between April and September and every day that we didn’t have a game, we were out there practicing. It was too much. It fuckin’ sucked. And this guy Pete, the head coach of the team, was a total fuckin’ asshole. None of us were ever good enough for him. I’ve never heard of so many kids verbally abused and made to cry for not performing up to one man’s standards as I’d seen and been victim to during those two summers. And his son had it worse than any of us.
His kid was a pitcher and if he had a tough time on the mound he’d start to lose his control of his emotions before his dad even cut into him because he knew what was coming if he couldn’t make the grade. Then his dad would start harassing him while he was still on the mound until he cried and was eventually pulled from the game. I remember one time after he benched his kid, he grabbed him by the face with one hand and pushed it into the chain link fence behind him while pointing at him with the other and shouting with his perpetually horrendous coffee breath. I’ll tell ya, nothing ruins something you love like being forced to do it every day while being told you suck at it by some heartless bastard.
I hated going to those games and practices. I’d actually run away from my house when game time approached and hide in the neighbors’ bushes and shit like that because I so badly didn’t wanna go. And my dad would get super pissed and run after me and drag me to these games because we made a commitment and I couldn’t be some “crybaby sissy quitter pussy.”
It fucked me up. I would get screamed at for striking out and then sit there on the bench where one of my buddy’s dads, this guy Mr. Cusack – rest in peace, good sir – who kept score for the team would always be there to say something reassuring to me like, “Don’t listen to him, he’s an idiot, you’re a good ballplayer,” and that was what always brought me to tears. It was never the verbal abuse itself, but the fact that someone actually gave a shit about who I was as a person that would cause me to break down and lose my shit on the bench.
My mom wanted me to quit too. In addition to not wanting to see her kid get abused anymore, she’d one time called the alcoholic assistant coach – this guy Bill – to ask him what time the game was the following day and he said, “Well Sue, I’m not sure but I’ll tell ya what, I’m on the pot takin’ a shit right now so unless you wanna come over here and wipe my ass, I think we’re done here.” So, she too cried because of the abusive coaching staff.
When my two years with The Chicago Travelers were finally up, I was done with baseball. I never wanted to play again. I didn’t trust any coaches and I just wanted no part of it, really. But then my dad’s like, “C’mon Tim, you can’t waste your talent, you gotta play.” And I was kinda like, “Nah, fuck you. I don’t wanna. You forced me to continue getting abused when I said ‘no’ so you’re an asshole by association” and all that shit. And this is when he suggested that I never play travelling baseball again, that I just play normal little league for fun and that he start coaching my team to guarantee I wouldn’t get shit on anymore by shitty people. After mulling it over for quite some time, under those conditions, I agreed to do so.
When drafting the teams, it was understood my dad would pick all my friends in the first couple rounds – well, the most talented of my friends, that is – but it wasn’t until years later that I found out how hilarious the rest of his drafting strategy had been.
Ya see, before a little league season can start and even before teams can be drafted, all players and all coaches must show up to the park for a skills evaluation. There, each of the players are hit a couple ground balls, take a few cuts of their own and are told to take a lap around the bases for the coaches to see what type of talent they might be working with. This helps to create more balanced teams as the more athletic kids are drafted in the earlier rounds and the scrubs are left for the birds.
Right from the start of his coaching career, my dad could see that the talent pool in your average little league organization is more than a little bit diluted and after about the sixth round, all the remaining kids sucked balls and it really didn’t matter which one of ‘em you picked because, chances are, you’re gonna wanna take all of ‘em, stick ‘em out in right field and hope no one hits the ball that way. So, instead of just taking randoms, my dad created new criteria on which to select his picks for the five or six final rounds of the draft.
On the field during the evaluation, when obvious no-talent ass-clowns would be letting grounders roll between their legs, the wisest coach at the place would turn his attention to the bleachers to see exactly who’d been cheering for these losers. And if said bum happened to have a very attractive mother, “hot mom” would be scribbled next to that kid’s name on the clipboard and would be kept in mind when scrounging during the latter, otherwise meaningless rounds of the little league draft.
In spite of whoever ended up on our team or how hot their moms had been, playing under my dad always turned out to be a pretty good time. And believe it or not, picture day was always one of my favorite days of the year. By the time I was fourteen, my mom and dad told me that they’d had enough of all the “faggy” photos of my younger brother and me standing there smiling like doofuses with our hands in our baseball mitts in front of some phony-ass printed-up backdrop of a baseball field. They wanted something different – anything different.
In my opinion, the best outfits we’d come up with over the years had been for our individual photos when my brother, on top of his Red Sox uniform, wore a pirate hat, put a stuffed parrot on his shoulder, a hook on his hand and a patch over one of his eyes. That same day, I pretended mine was a mug shot, drew a fake beard on my face and a heart on my bicep with the inscription “YOUR MOM” in the center of it and held up a sign that read, “NILES POLICE, 06/25/05, FOR STEALING SECOND BASE.” And when it’d been our turns to get our pictures taken, the photographers’d inevitably say, “Oh no, I can’t do this without your parents approval.” And my coach said in return, “I’m their dad and I don’t give a shit. We don’t need another one of these guys smiling. Let ‘em do whatever they want. Just take the photo.” And they did. And the memories have been immortalized on our family refrigerator.
Playing little league in Niles was always pretty fun even if that fun wasn’t always wholesome or even about baseball in itself. I remember the time my buddy Cahill was pitching for a different team one time when the ump behind home – this dude Mr. Bars – had blown a few calls and their drunk-ass coach Mr. Czech, in seeking revenge, told Cahill to throw a fastball at his face and told the catcher to let it go by. So Cahill, whose heater had once gotten clocked at ninety miles per hour, cocked back and fired one at the ump and it drilled him between the eyes. Sure, he had a mask on and all, but there’s only so much protection a mask can provide when something’s comin’ at you that fuckin’ fast. In an angry daze, the guy spiked his mask to the ground, shouted, “You gotta catch those!” and spent a few minutes walking it off before reassuming his duty.
Mr. Bars had played a pretty big part in the organization of that league back in the day and so did his wife who happened to be rather overweight. And my buddy Downes who had always been a notorious liar, when asked by his mother who wanted to speak with Mrs. Bars in person at one of our games, told her that the woman’s first name was “Candy,” which it obviously wasn’t. So she goes up to this woman and says, “Hi Candy, nice to meet you blah, blah blah.” And the woman’s like, “Candy? That’s not my name.” And Mrs. Downes says back, “Oh, your name’s not Candy Bars?” which must’ve come across as a total jab at her portly stature.
Another one of my favorite memories from Niles baseball had been during our “All-Star Break” when everybody from the league gets together at a place called Pioneer Park for some festivities and hot dogs and a home run derby. During the derby, my brother’d been killin’ it. He was jackin’ ‘em left and right. He took one out to left that ended up landing on the roof of the park house some three-hundred and twenty feet away. And afterwards, he came to sit down at a picnic bench with me, my asshole buddy Cahill and a couple other guys who’d been eating hot dogs at the time when this dad from the league, a different coach and all-around nice guy, came up to our table to congratulate my brother on his performance.
“Hey,” he joked in reference to the hit off the park house, “they’re gonna send you a bill for that roof!”
And before my bro could even reply, Cahill looked right at the guy, jumped in and said, “How ‘bout I send you a bill for my foot in your ass?” Naturally, since we were a bunch of punk motherfuckers, everyone started laughing and the guy walked away in shame.
Even though just-for-kicks baseball like that had been all I was interested in after that awful experience during my childhood, I ended up trying out for and had made the high school team sophomore year as an outfielder – the position I preferred was catcher. Whereas most of my teammates had been pretty enthusiastic and motivated, I never got in any games but didn’t really give a shit because I truthfully didn’t wanna be there in the first place. I tried out because I felt like I should, not because I wanted to.
So, about two months into the season we’d been playing a double-header against this school Highland Park. We spanked ‘em the first game by about fifteen runs and during the second game we were already up by ten in about the fourth inning when the coach decided to put all the scrubs in. During my first at-bat of the season, I was walked in four pitches. During my second at-bat, the first pitch was a ball and the second had been a shoulder-high fastball at which I took a massive upper-cut, connected with and sent sailing far, far over the wall in left-center. To this day, that moonshot has still not landed.
“I had no idea you had that type of power!” the coach shouted to the six-foot-one, hundred-and-fifty-pound version of myself when trotting past him at third base.
I just shrugged then nodded at both my dad and my grandpa who’d been standing along the fence behind the dugout.
Before our next game started, we showed up about an hour early and had been taking some fielding practice. The coach decided to try me out at third base where I might’ve gotten some more playing time. With the other guy that normally played there, I would rotate after every couple ground balls hit to us. When I wasn’t fielding ‘em cleanly and firing ‘em over to first, I stood about ten feet behind the bag and decided to carve the word “FAG” out in huge dirt letters using my spikes.
After fielding practice the coach called us in to meet him over by third to tell us the game plan or whatever when he noticed my clearly visible art project that I decided to leave for everyone to see.
“What is this!?” he spat, his face beat red. “Who wrote this word?”
“Oh yeah,” I casually replied, “that was me.”
“Why would you write that!?”
“Uh, I guess I wasn’t thinking.”
“Well, you were obviously thinking about something!”
I shrugged the same way I had after I hit the homerun. I just couldn’t bring myself to care.
“That’s it! Start runnin’! Not just you – everybody! Get goin’ and don’t stop until I say to stop!”
He ended up making us run until the game started. I don’t remember who won, but I remember being drained by the time the first pitch was thrown. It was a good thing I didn’t have to play in that game and could just relax with the rest of the benchwarmers. A couple days after that, I went to Florida with my family, missed two weeks’ worth of games and never got in another one. A homer and the word “FAG” defined my career as a high school baseball player.
As fun as it was to play and goof off all those years, nothing was ever as much fun as going to baseball games with my dad when I was a kid. One of the most vivid memories I have is when my dad got tickets for us along the third base side, just a bit outside the infield at Wrigley. It was a meaningless game in the midst of another disappointing Cubs season on the north side of the city. I can’t even recall who they’d been playing, but it doesn’t matter, really. What I do remember is some left-handed batter hitting a towering foul ball that was headed in our general direction. As it hung up in the air, my dad, my brother and I could tell that it’d had a little too much oomph on it to be ours and would land about ten rows behind us. Accordingly, we turned around to see whether or not the pop fly would be caught by a fan.
Upon glancing back, we saw Mr. Cool Suburban Dad, next to his wife and two kids, all decked out in his long sleeve collared shirt and Ray-Ban sunglasses looking towards the sky and using both arms to exaggeratedly wave off everyone around him the way a center fielder does to ward off his teammates on a typical, run-of-the-mill, can of corn pop-up. Well, as it turns out, this particular ball was coming down way faster than this hot shot asshole had anticipated and, in between waves, had returned to earth and smacked him right on the bridge of his fucking nose. His glasses exploded into a million pieces and shot every which way. Blood immediately started gushing from his nostrils as a huge bump popped from his forehead the way one would when Wil E. Coyote gets an anvil dropped on his dome. Security flocked to the scene and carried this dork away to receive medical assistance while his wife and kids filed out behind him, covering their faces, apparently more ashamed than concerned.
Although I have a laundry list of fond times at ball games with my old man, I’m gonna cut to the chase here and get right down to my favorite. It’s no secret that my dad liked to get fuckin’ wasted at pretty much every sporting event he’d ever gone to and the Cubs versus Sox Crosstown Classic at Wrigley Field in the late nineties had been no exception. On that day, it’d been me, my dad, my brother and my buddy Dan Barrett – I believe my buddy and I were ten at the time and my brother eight. Us kids were having a pretty good time watching all our favorite steroid-infused athletes do their thing on the field while my dad pounded beer after beer that’d been served to him by a vendor that had an uncanny resemblance to Bulls great, Scottie Pippen. It was an all-around great time. Everything seemed perfect.
Then around the third or fourth inning, black clouds rolled in and the ensuing onslaught of storms forced the umpires to call a rain delay. During this time we retreated beneath the shelter of the third-base side upper deck. As my dad posted up near one of the beer stands to continue drinking, we were free to run around the stadium doing whatever we wanted. We decided to spend this time finding the drunkest Sox fans we could and throwing peanuts at ‘em.
One guy who I remember being a chunky Hispanic dude had been dancing around with his shirt off and waving a White Sox flag around when we started firing nuts at him from a safe distance. After we’d hit him a few times, he turned around and shouted to the Cubs fans behind him to knock it off. They had no idea what he was talking about and we gave it a minute or two before we went ahead and hit him again. Upon being struck, this cholo picked up his beer and tossed it at the fans behind him. They got into a fight and we ran away to go tell my dad what’d happened.
After an hour or so of the rain delay and no sign of it letting up, we found my dad who’d probably pounded an additional three or four beers during that time. He told us that he thought we should get going. We agreed and followed him across Waveland Avenue to the firehouse where firemen are allowed to park their cars for free during Cubs games. We climbed in his truck and we pulled away.
As I said, it’d been raining like a motherfucker. As it continued to come down, every street we drove on’d had enormous puddles formed around all the over-loaded sewers. And also as I’d alluded to, my dad had been quite hammered at the time.
“Hey guys,” he said as we approached a bus stop full of people that happened to have a massive puddle in front of it, “whattaya say I splash all these people at this bus stop here?”
Of course, we were young ignorant assholes who wanted to see it done.
“Yeah, yeah! Do it! Yeah!” we all cheered.
So, my dad cuts over to the side of the road goin’ like thirty miles per hour, hits the puddle and sends a massive tidal wave of dirty disgusting water into the bus stop, soaking everyone who’d been standing there.
“Yay!” we all screamed.
Then a couple blocks later, we saw another bus stop with a similar setup.
“Do it again! Do it again!”
My dad did it again and we all erupted. The trend continued the whole ride home. Splashing people at bus stops while driving under the influence isn’t the best way to set an example for us impressionable youngsters – especially with someone else’s child in the car – but I swear to god, I’ve never laughed so hard in my entire life. My old man drunkenly soaking innocent people for our entertainment on the way home from a Cubs game was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.
Few snaps from the ballgame in Japan…