Places for People Watching: Baseball Stadiums

WaveOne fear that I’ve always had as a writer is that all of my characters will sound and think exactly like me.  Let’s face it: I can be a little weird, and there are people who can barely stand to be in a room with me for ten minutes, let alone spend an entire novel with a whole horde of Jacks.

Consequently, I try to experience people who are very un-Jack, to interact with people who are completely different from me.  People whose interests are a mystery in my world.  For example, one thing that continues to elude me is any flavor of sportsball.  A lot of it feels like scary, regional tribalism.  The players seem overpaid for what they do.  I am confused by all of the yelling.

It’s not that I haven’t been initiated.  Being from Boston, I can’t help but to want to the Red Sox to win, and I even played baseball as a kid.  As a testament to my skill, the other kids even gave me a nickname: Statue.  My talent was just standing there and getting hit by the ball.  My Charlie Brown-like luck altered gravity to cause every pitch to hit my head, stomach or crotch.  This actually made me an okay batter, although it was regrettably less useful in the outfield.

Anyway, even while I was playing, whenever I opened my mouth, everyone had this tendency to look at me like I’d just landed from outer space.  This is, I have to acknowledge, because I am basically Niles from Frasier and Sportsball-ese is a language that is entirely alien to me.

Still, every now and then, my girlfriend (who is infinitely more knowledgeable than me) manages to get a few tickets to Fenway and takes me along.  I spend most of my time watching the actual game (it would be ingratitude not to!) but Fenway is a great place for observing human interaction, and you can’t help but to hear, see and smell it in between the pitches.

The last game we were at was a pleasant little slaughterfest in which the Sox basically had batting practice against the Rangers.  We were so far ahead, I could spare some attention to take in my surroundings.

As with every game, I could see a crew of people in suits and sunglasses up in the box seats, staring at their smartphones the entire time and occasionally pausing to clap or yawn.  Some older gentlemen behind us were chatting, in apparent slow motion, about how the team today compared to the team in bygone years, although one of them had to get up periodically for bathroom breaks.  Some young women across from us, clearly college students, sang along with each song, dancing and laughing and concluding each round with a “Woo!”.  In the row in front of us, two middle-aged brothers, their mother sitting between them, alternated between yelling at the players in thick Boston accents and having a political debate about President Obama and healthcare.

There were enraptured people, obsessively watching the game and sweating as if their lives depended on every pitch.  There were disinterested people reading books, people who spent more time getting up for beer than watching and people gossiping about their friends.

I love the moments in which I realize that in a group as big as an entire stadium, there are at least a handful of people whose lives will change forever, that very day.  At the beginning of our game, they let some elementary school kids announce each player, and some poor six year old got stuck with “Saltalamacchia.”  He enjoyed his moment even if he stumbled with the name, and his face lit up with pure glee when the entire stadium applauded.  This kid, who was from Middle-of-Nowhere, New Hampshire will now associate one of the players with something completely different from anyone else watching the games.  I like to picture him at home, staying up late to watch baseball and yelling “That’s the guy I said!” whenever Salty is at the plate.

There’s always that moment when a guy gets on the jumbo-tron, bends to one knee and pops open the little ring box as the words “WILL YOU MARRY ME?” flash across the screen.  Like clockwork, every time, there’s the guy, usually double-fisting beers, who yells out “What are you doing?  Run!  Keep your freedom!”  in response to the proposal.  Anyone who’s been to a ballpark is used to this little pageant, but for the couple who’ve just become engaged, this is a moment they’ll always remember.  Their hearts racing, tears streaming down their face, they’re caught in a torrent of emotion while everyone else goes back to stuffing themselves with cotton candy and cheering for the next home run.

I think watching the stadium makes me understand it a little better, because I can turn off my brain and stop thinking about politics, class, or even how much I want one of those overpriced beers.  The simplicity in being a sports audience is the draw, it’s what makes the experience universal.

My favorite thing is the wave.  Everything about it.  I love watching it start somewhere in the bleachers, fizzling a few times before people realize what’s going on.  And then it builds, growing and growing until huge chunks of people are standing up, flinging up their arms and yelling “Whoooooooooaaaaaa!”  I’ve experienced crowd mentality in other places: rallies at the state house, laughter in movie theaters, groaning when a train shuts down.  The wave is different.  The  arm-waving doesn’t say “We will oppose you and your political agenda!”  It doesn’t say “We are united in our cause!”  It doesn’t even really say “Let’s go, Red Sox!”

The start of the wave, it’s just an acknowledgment that there are a lot of us together in one place.  That we have no real agenda and that our differences are, for now, not important.  Those first hands that go up are a request: let’s all of us collaborate on this, something simple, without any weighted meaning, something fleeting that only we, right now, here in this place can experience together.  However we may fail to understand one another once the baseball caps come off, there’s enough common ground that we can take a single moment and share one thought.

People in novels, characters if you want to call them that, don’t actually need to be completely like their readers (or their writers) to attract sympathy.  They can be alcoholics, thieves or even murderers, as long as they’re willing to stop along the way to stand up and yell “Whooooooaaaa!”