The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.”
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
The Cape Cod Baseball League's 2011 season ended with the Harwich Mariners taking a three-game series from the Falmouth Commodores to win the championship. Players from the Chatham A’s had packed their bags and left town long before that final victory. Once the winningest team on the Cape, our hometown Anglers (formerly known as the Athletics until the MLB moved in and dictated change) didn’t even make the playoffs this year, and now they are gone.
The season is done. The stats are in the books. Field managers are already looking toward next summer’s rosters, considering elite pitchers and top prospects who might bring to the Cape their strong arms, big bats, and a winning season.
There’s still plenty of baseball to be played on other fields, in other small towns, and in big cities everywhere. All the college boys whose wood bat seasons just ended will soon take the first swings of fall ball. In many ways baseball never really ends; more and more it seems to me that this is true. But our town has undergone a sea-change. The field near my house doesn’t look the same. Main Street doesn’t feel the same. All our evenings play out so differently now, the rhythms of life substantially altered.
Perhaps the end of a baseball season - especially a premature ending such as this - prepares us for other endings and losses; there’s a sadness in it.
The refrain of a country song has been echoing lately on the radio inside my head. I don’t particularly like the song, but it keeps playing anyway, like a top-40 favorite on a local FM station: "Gone like a freight train, gone like yesterday . . . ."
You'll likely hear this song if you visit minor league ballparks and college stadiums. It's not an uncommon outburst after a home run ball travels over the wall. The Montgomery Gentry ditty is an odd choice, though, because the song's sentiment is wistful, melancholy, and full of regret - hardly celebratory in tone. The song isn't about a ball, of course; it's about a woman.
Gone like a '58 Cadillac . . . gone like all the good things that ain't ever coming back, she's gone. Gone. Gone. Gone.
There are no more kids at baseball camp every weekday morning, boys and girls in t-shirts truly believing they'll make it to the big leagues someday. No more college flags flying proudly in the gardens of families who opened their homes and refrigerators to young players, surrogate moms and dads who showed up faithfully at every single game. No more pickup trucks and cars with decals and license plates from far away: Baylor, NC State, Clemson, Tarheels, Gamecocks, Hogs, and the lone star of Texas in red, white, and blue. No more relievers sitting on the crooked bench they call a bullpen; no more uniforms of royal blue and white. They're gone.
In a few years, we’ll be watching television, my son and daughter and I, aunts and uncles and cousins, and we’ll see them again. And so will you. We’ll say we know them. Danny Espinosa at spring training. Evan Longoria at the All-Star game. Andrew Miller on NESN. Chris Getz playing second base, Matt LaPorta at first, David Huff in an Indians cap, taking a line drive in the face. “Hey, I know him!” At least we felt as if we knew him. He played ping-pong with my son the batboy, once upon a summer evening, inside the VFW hall out near the town dump.
"We saw him play . . . I watched that kid pitch . . . We remember that win . . . I was there . . . .” Almost every fan remembers baseball this way. The achievements of others lend dignity and meaning to our own anonymous lives. The human connection, however brief, resonates for years. Hey, we knew him.
They’re here; then suddenly come August, they’re gone. Gone like a freight train. Playoffs or no playoffs, the abrupt ending always startles us. It's enough to knock the wind out of you for a few seconds at unexpected and random moments. Gone like yesterday.
The country song is playing again, this time in counterpoint with a Neil Diamond elegy dating back to my high school years.
Jesus Christ, Fanny Brice, Wolfie Mozart and Humphrey Bogart and Genghis Khan and on to H. G. Wells. Ho Chi Minh, Gunga Din, Henry Luce and John Wilkes Booth, and Alexanders King and Graham Bell. Ramar Krishna, Mama Whistler, Patrice Lumumba and Russ Colombo, Karl and Chico Marx, Albert Camus. E. A. Poe, Henri Rousseau, Sholom Aleichem and Caryl Chessman, Alan Freed and Buster Keaton too.
And each one there has one thing shared: they have sweated beneath the same sun. Looked up in wonder at the same moon, and wept when it was all done. For bein’ done too soon. For bein’ done too soon. For bein’ done.”
Now obsolete, the Chatham A’s 2011 calendar is still visible in a sidebar on the team website. As my computer hums its dull sound, I’m looking at the early days of August, now gone, wondering at the ways in which we measure the passage of time. Wareham @ Chatham. Chatham @ Harwich. Orleans @ Chatham. Chatham @ Orleans. Followed by a bunch of empty days that say: Off. Off. Off. Off. Off.
Something tightens in my chest.
And then a few lines of poetry emerge from who knows where, bumping Neil Diamond out of the lineup: “What will we do? What will we ever do?”
"What shall I do now? What shall I do? / I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street / With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow? / What shall we ever do?"
The hot water at ten. / And if it rains, a closed car at four. / And we shall play a game of chess, / Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door." *
All the summer people still crowd our resort town with Land Rovers and Volvos and gleaming black Escalades with plates from New York and Maryland and Vermont, but the field is empty of fans. Ballplayers who were loaned to us have returned to their home fields, their lives at school and fall practices, their mothers’ kitchens, their apartments and girlfriends, homework and tailgate parties while we remain, trimming hedges, gathering bundles of clippings, sanding and painting the trim, then looking out at a changing sea.
The Cape League season winds down in rain and fog. The boys of summer depart abruptly, their vehicles bound for Chapel Hill, Richmond, Plano, Memphis. Their dugout is quiet, and we are left to gaze at an empty field. Never will this same group of young men live in town together, play as the team they were for one brief season, when warm weather and long days felt permanent.
Two parking lots stand empty behind the Community Center and The Red Nun Bar and Grill. Trees in full leaf near the snack bar quiver, but nothing is moving on the base paths nearby.
I park on Depot Street across from the fire station and survey a quiet field. The landscape is already altered, chalk lines stretching diagonally from infield to outfield, obtruding on the geometry and integrity of the diamond, defining boundaries for a soccer game, a sport that is played mostly without hands. My eyes are growing weaker with age, but as I look toward home plate without my glasses, I see a man standing in the batter’s box, swinging an invisible bat. He has a strong grip and a decent swing. His back foot pivots slightly in the dirt. The announcer has just called his name for all to hear. The hitter is a key player in the line-up, an athlete at the peak of his career in the prime of life, excited about a winning season and a promising future.
In truth, the person I see is a man alone. He is well past his prime, and there is no team. The field is empty but for him, the press box shut tight. He holds an imaginary bat in a game that is not real.
The team is gone, the season done, and so many players will never warm up on this field again. There’s an ache in that thought. Something akin to sorrow and loss and emptiness, though I’m not sure that emptiness can actually ache.
A couple days later, and I'm on the road again. While running errands around town, I make a point of driving by the field as I often do during the off-season - just to see the place, pausing to remember and preparing to feel sad again. But this time the ballpark isn't empty as I expected it would be. Nor is there a lone fellow protecting the plate. I pull over, stop the car, and park beside the hill that rises above a lovely green expanse of grass.
Just below me down in center field, an important game is taking place. A young father is pitching, and his small boy is swinging for the fences. (The fences are about twenty feet from home plate.) A folding beach chair serves as backstop and catcher.
Nothing has ended, after all. It’s simply beginning again.
* selections from T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, 1922. facsimile edition.