Take me out to the ballpark

I know a lot of people love baseball, but I’m not a big fan of the game. It may sound funny coming from someone who’s photographed hundreds of games over the course of a 30-year career, but I don’t.

Years ago I photographed a cropduster pilot who once described his job as “hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.” That’s kind of how I feel about the game of baseball. There can be inning upon inning without any action. It’s then, as my mind wanders from the sheer boredom, that a flurry of activity suddenly happens. If I’m lucky I’ll be quick on the draw and manage to get the shot, but almost as often as not, I’ll miss the opportunity.

Former Seattle Times photographer and sports shooter extraordinaire Rod Mar once wrote about baseball in his blog The Best Seat In The House: “Sometimes there are innings — whole game — entire homestands where nothing happens.” After all the so-called “perfect game” in baseball is one where a pitcher doesn’t allow any hits at all.

But there’s more to baseball than just the game. To borrow a new age term, it’s more of a “holistic” sport. Sitting in the stands with the sun in your face and a cool breeze wafting across your brow; having a brew and a ‘dog while “take me out to the ballgame” is played during the seventh inning stretch, is all a part of a complete experience of going to the ballpark. It’s more than just the sum of watching a bunch of guys throw, hit and catch a small white leather-covered ball.

As a sport, football is more intense. Basketball is faster paced. Even soccer has more constant action. But baseball isn’t called America’s game, it’s called America’s “pastime.” Over the years it has woven its way into the fabric of history and culture of the country. It’s something that’s best expressed by James Earl Jones’ soliloquy in the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams.”

“Ray. People will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around”, you’ll say, “It’s only $20 per person”. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack…“

These days in Major League Baseball ballparks much of that feeling is lost. The stadiums are huge. Sure you can pay extra for closer seats but up in the nosebleed stands the players look like tiny ants. Fans are much more removed from the whole experience. It’s much more difficult to make a connection to the players than in the old days. And the cost of tickets and food can be a big stretch for the average person.

But at the minor league level, like the Stockton Ports, that feeling of being connected of the culture and history of baseball is still alive. You can easily hear the crack of the ball against the bat and see the intensity of a pitcher’s eyes as he sizes up a batter. At the Stockton Ballpark nearly everyone has a great view of the game. Fans are close enough to the field to hear the players talk.

“…And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray…”

Although Stockton’s population is more than 300,000, in many ways it still has a small town feel. And to me the experience of baseball works best as a small town event. Things that might seem hokey at a MLB ballpark can be endearing at the minor league one. From a local children’s choir singing the Star Spangled Banner to fireworks that are just a step above simple bottle rockets can be adorably charming. It’s the kind of small town Americana that binds us all together and harkens us back to a simpler time.

“…The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

On April 10, I covered the Stockton Ports’ opening day game against the Visalia Rawhide. I photographed T.C. Wingrove getting autographs from the players before the game. When I asked Wingrove where he was from he said: “Plymouth, Michigan.” I assumed he was in town visiting relatives but I was wrong. He said that was on a business trip to San Francisco and took in the Ports game during some off time. Wingrove said that he loves the game so much that he plans his work trips around the game of baseball wherever he goes and finds a local game that he can watch. “People will come” indeed.

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