Winter is long and cold, and for the baseball fan, a particularly barren season. Spring then pokes through the snow cover and pitchers and catchers report and remind us that baseball, like life, goes on. Kevin McNeil explores how the passing of baseball’s offseason leads to the remembrance of a loved one.
The 50th Anniversary of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game was celebrated at Chicago’s Comiskey Park on Wednesday, July 6, 1983. The Oak Ridge Boys served up a down-home National Anthem and the smooth jazz stylings of Chuck Mangione delivered the Canadian counterpart. Lefty Gomez, the last surviving player from baseball’s inaugural All-Star contest in 1933, threw out the first pitch. Honorary team members Carl Yastrzemski and Johnny Bench were retiring at the end of the season, so NBC’s TV broadcast began with a video montage of their illustrious careers set to Paul Anka’s shamelessly weepy “Times of Your Life.”
Jim Rice started in left and would lead off the bottom of the third inning with a homer off of San Francisco Giant lefty Atlee Hammaker, who not long after would surrender the Midsummer Classic’s first grand slam in history to Fred Lynn. The American League broke an 11-game losing streak, defeating the National League in a 13-3 laugher.
I watched this lopsided battle from the living room of my grandmother’s house on Franklin Street in Framingham, Massachusetts. I was 12, an age when the All-Star break seemed like the midpoint of an impossibly long summer instead of the speedbump it would inevitably become. I was at my grandmother’s for the week, probably because my parents wanted me out of their hair, but I enjoyed these visits. She was a Red Sox fan – and more importantly, a baseball fan – so we gleefully watched this Hammaker fellow implode to the tune of six hits and seven runs for an ERA of 94.50. Yeesh.
Two and a half months later, Yaz did a lap around the warning track at Fenway under a leaden October sky, slapping strangers’ hands and saying goodbye to the city and his career, a rare display of humanity from the taciturn Captain.
I wondered what the Red Sox would be like without him. How could spring training even start next year, indifferent to his glaring absence? How could I possibly go on? How could baseball?
It went on, because that is what it does. Pitchers and catchers reported to camps in 1984, just like they always did.
* * *
Over 100 inches of snow fell on Eastern Massachusetts in the span of six weeks during the winter of 2015. Temperatures rarely crested 30 degrees during this stretch, and were often in the single digits or teens, thus little melted or evaporated. Each snowfall piled more and more upon the stir-crazy populace.
The subway and commuter rails ran sporadically, if at all. Streets were paralyzed with traffic as roads became single-lane bottlenecks choked by heaping walls of snow. Blood feuds erupted in densely-packed neighborhoods over precious street parking spaces and the lawn chairs used to reserve them. It rained inside houses because of towering ice dams.
The seats at Fenway morphed into vague white swells, the concourses becoming glacial sheets. Mountain ranges of dirty, crusty snow piled up along Old Colony Avenue in Dorchester. Wipers smeared a perpetual film across windshields.
It was soul-crushing.
* * *
Like most places, the maze of neighborhood streets surrounding Oak Knoll Rehabilitation Center in Framingham were not plowed very well. The roads were canyons and my knuckles were white, the narrow passages and blocked sightlines turning the act of driving into a first-person shooter game. My car crawled along as I approached the parking lot, the periphery dotted with slab ranches buried to their roofs.
My grandmother was in Room 238, a shell of herself, her mind somewhere far away even as her body improbably kept moving along. She’d had breakfast with her mother, she said. She asked me where I was living now, a question she would ask again five minutes later, one she asked repeatedly each time I visited. I didn’t mind it, it was talk. Talk was good. But trying to find anything meaningful to say was a struggle.
She had been a peer to me, you see, as much a peer as a grandmother. Before the dementia set in. She was never a June Cleaver or Mrs. Doubtfire; more of a facilitator or a confidante. Her love was no less strong for this, it was just delivered in a more unconventional package, one resembling Truman Capote at Studio 54 or the Spy vs. Spy guys from Mad magazine. The conspirator.
But not anymore.
I looked out the window at the barren white vista. “Hard to believe spring training will be starting soon.”
* * *
Like everything else, St. Stephen’s Cemetery in Framingham is covered in deep snow, although a churned-up path has been cleared to the gravesite, where AstroTurf skirts a fresh hole in the ground. The casket is suspended above it, surrounded by flowers. Hoodied laborers stand a respectful distance away, waiting until everyone is long gone, whereupon they will lower my grandmother into the ground.
My grandfather is already here, laid to rest over 30 years ago. He never saw the Sox win it all, not by a long shot. My grandmother hadn’t either until she was 81, then she saw three in nine years, although how cognizant she was of that last one is debatable. But it’s OK now, she’s at peace with her husband after a very long time.
The vast snowfield before me, interrupted by the tops of headstones. Spring training underway, the first one to occur without my grandmother drawing breath in 93 years. How could that possibly happen?
It will happen because that is what it does.
These headstones will slowly become exposed over the next month, same as the red plastic seats of Fenway, the earth’s axial shift drawing the Northern Hemisphere closer to the sun and bringing with it the virgin spring.