A Stranger in the Land Of Baseball

I was sitting high above home plate when Atlanta Braves batter Chipper Jones smacked a superspeed baseball into the left-field stands. To most of the 48,000-odd people at Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, this was an on-your-feet, roar-with-delight home run. A score that put the home team a nudge closer to becoming world champions for the second time in three years. (This time, it was not to be.)

But to me, Jones's act of athletic prowess was less a step to something more grand than it was a moment of music, a breath of poetry. It was the blur of a bat, the cracking sound of a hit, the swell of elation from the crowd, the bobbing motion of Jones's trot around the bases.

Yes, I had the enviable opportunity to sit in on one of the year's biggest baseball games. But I felt like a tourist in a land where I barely spoke the language and had only a cursory understanding of the culture.

You see, I don't know the difference between an RBI and an ERA. I don't get the nuances of pinch hitting or "closing" pitchers. And I'm fascinated by the strangest aspects of the game: the small, white circles by each team's dugout where batters warm up, and the tradition of a break during the seventh inning for a stretch and a round of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

What I began to realize during my foray to the ball field, though, was that my predicament wasn't all that different from ones we all face every day. Every time we start a new school or job, we form first impressions that eventually go by the wayside as we understand more. In moving to a new city - as I've done recently - that phenomenon can be particularly profound: A street corner that seems frightening at first can come to feel comfortable as our knowledge of the surroundings deepens.

When we don't fully grasp a situation, we look to the details. It's only after time that we can place them in the bigger scene.

So when I watch baseball, I see the pitch, the hit, the run, the out - but in a vacuum. I'm a traveler who witnesses a crowd gathering in the street but never finds out what brought them there.

On this balmy baseball night in Atlanta, I was reminded of my father and the time he chaperoned my teenage friends and me at a rock concert. My friends and I knew the band members by nickname, girlfriend, and favorite color. We knew the words to all their songs. Play us a measure, we could hum the rest.

My father knew only that we were in a huge, dark, noisy arena, and that we were going to be there for upwards of two hours. So what did he do to pass the time? He focused on the drummer. He watched him break his sticks and reach for new ones. He noticed which drums he beat during which songs. Out of his league, my dad honed in on one part and ignored the whole.

Which, I'm deciding, is not a bad strategy. Nonexperts have a fresh view of whatever world they are spying on. I bet that few others in the ballpark that night noticed the foggy film that wrapped around the top tier of seats once the sun dipped down and the stadium lights burned into the night sky.

If your eyes are perpetually darting between pitcher, batter, and scoreboard, how is there time to notice the rich emerald color of the grass? The strict symmetry, the cross-hatched diagonal lines, the terra-cotta-colored arc across the middle? Through my novice eyes, these elements make the field look like an oddly shaped patchwork quilt.

MY favorite moments were when the ball boys, leaping off their duffel bags, sprinted to retrieve wayward baseballs, and then tossed them to a pigtailed girl or a ball-capped boy waiting eagerly on the stadium's lowest stairs. With one flick of the wrist they make a child's night. What a job!

Perhaps someday I'll do something about my ignorance. I'll watch enough games to pick up the lingo, the moves, the meaning. Maybe I'll even stuff the names of star players and their stats into my head.

Or maybe, since I don't have to learn baseball the way I have to learn my way around the city, I won't. And if I watch the World Series starting tomorrow, I will revel in that slightly disoriented but pleasantly heady sense of being away from the familiar, of seeing only the details.

Perhaps, in this one corner of my life, I can revel in forgetting the forest and enjoying an up-close view of the trees.

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